By Mark Gruenberg
WASHINGTON -- Little-noticed in the tumult of the presidential campaign an the teetering economy, the Teamsters have racked up a series of organizing and contract wins, and may be on the verge of another, at United Air Lines.
The wins range from signing up approximately two-thirds of the workers at UPS Freight -- the former Overnite Express -- to breaking into the Deep South bastion of Mobile, Ala., by first winning a recognition vote last July and then getting a contract last month, with the help of the NAACP, at the New Era cap company there.
The Teamsters’ organizing wins, especially the Overnite and New Era drives, were cited at the Take Back America conference of progressives in Washington from March 17-19.
The first was as an example of what could happen elsewhere if the Employee Free Choice Act, leveling the playing field between workers and bosses in organizing and bargaining, was law. The second, New Era, was cited as an example of how partnership between unions and outside community groups, in that case with the nation’s oldest and most-respected civil rights organization, benefits workers.
But the overall list of wins is long and getting longer:
* By a 52-0 margin, Teamsters local leaders ratified a new national agreement with DHL Express, the first such national master contract with the firm in years. Teamsters nationwide are now voting on it.
But negotiating committee chair Del Slawson Sr., in a mailing to members, had to fend off some critical questions, including denying the contract bans the right to strike. He said it is banned only in cases where conflict can be settled by the grievance/ arbitration procedure -- and that if DHL refuses to obey the verdict from that, the Teamsters can still strike. He also said the firm’s German parent company and investors “would be watching closely,” since DHL lost almost $1 billion last year.
“Nevertheless, we believe this contract gives our members excellent wage increases…while preserving the flexibility the company needs,” Slawson added.
* National car-haul bargaining began March 17. The contract expires May 31. “The union is committed to protecting members’ jobs and to maintain members’ health, welfare and pension benefits,” said Car-haul Division Director Fred Zuckerman. That bargaining follows the recently ratified National Master Freight Agreement.
* The Teamsters successfully petitioned for a representation election among the remaining mechanics at Chicago-based United Air Lines. And one big issue, which Teamsters President James Hoffa pointed out in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration, is just how few UAL mechanics there are left.
In 1999, he noted, United employed almost 16,000 mechanics in the U.S. Though Hoffa did not say so, the Machinists represented them. IAM was ousted by an independent union -- called a “rogue union” and a pro-management union by others -- the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, in 2003. In AMFA’s first years there, through 2006, 3,289 UAL mechanics lost their jobs. UAL, Hoffa told the FAA, now has fewer than 5,000 U.S. mechanics. The rest of its maintenance work is outsourced overseas.
The Teamsters use that job loss to argue they would better represent UAL mechanics. And Hoffa told the FAA the outsourcing of two-thirds of the mechanics’ jobs overseas raises safety questions he wants the agency to probe.
There is one catch to the UAL vote. Since airlines are under the Railway Labor Act, either the Teamsters or AMFA must get an absolute majority of all voters -- not just those who cast ballots -- or there will be no union at all.
* The UPS Freight win, at the former Overnite Express, came after Overnite was sold to the larger shipping firm, where the Teamsters have a contract with a card-check recognition clause. That clause is similar to a key provision of the Employee Free Choice Act, Change to Win Executive Director Greg Tarpinian said.
“The Teamsters’ latest try at Overnite was one terminal at a time,” Tarpinian explained, getting NLRB and court rulings whenever the trucking firm broke labor law, which it repeatedly did. “In 1999, they called a nationwide strike -- but it was busted.
“Fast forward 10 years” and UPS has bought Overnite “though Overnite management stayed the same. But in the last two months, the Teamsters have rolled through Overnite with card-check and organized 10,000 workers there with the equivalent of EFCA.” The latest groups are in Richfield, Ohio and in Pennsylvania.
* The New Era win, with the NAACP’s clout added in, came first last July and then earlier this month, said Hillary Shelton, director of the civil rights group’s Washington office. “What most people don’t realize,” he said, “is that unions brought African-Americans into the middle class” once the union movement overcame its own racial history. Before the union movement brought in blacks, they “had been in a U.S.-based apartheid system that locked people out of jobs if they were people of color.”
That’s what happened at New Era, and that’s why the NAACP got involved in the Teamsters campaign there. New Era’s largest plant, in Buffalo, is unionized with the Communications Workers, but its other plants were not.
After the 111 workers at Mobile voted for IBT Local 991 -- following a company campaign that included illegal firing of 20 of them -- New Era stalled in bargaining a first contract. The NAACP and the Teamsters, in a February press conference, brought pressure on the firm, which manufactures caps for major league baseball teams and other professional and college sports teams, through a public report on its abuses.
The resulting publicity got the company to negotiate a contract, Shelton added. “With a stroke of a pen, salaries went from $8 an hour to $18 an hour. They got life insurance across-the-board. They got health insurance across-the-board and they got the most comprehensive anti-discrimination policy in history” for a mostly African-American workforce, he said. All but three of the fired workers were reinstated, and their cases went to arbitration. And New Era agreed to a company neutrality clause in union organizing at its other two cap plants, in Jackson and Demopolis, Ala. The Teamsters will try to organize Jackson and CWA will go after Demopolis.