Last month tens of thousands of Teamster Union members across the United States watched in disbelief as the promise of sweeping reform and change in their union came crashing down as the votes from Canada and Quebec were tallied in favour of the Hoffa-Hall slate. Teamsters United, the reform slate led by Fred Zuckerman, won the U.S. by a margin of a few thousand votes, but lost Canada by several thousand votes. The end result was a victory for the Hoffa-Hall slate.
How did this happen? This is the question activists and campaigners for a stronger fighting Teamsters union must be asking themselves. How did the land of national healthcare, huge student demonstrations, of a social democratic party vote to return a union leader whose slate is surrounded by corruption allegations, who have overseen a dramatic collapse of hard fought for pensions, of allowing corporations like UPS jack up productivity while demanding concessions?
How is it that the Canadian and Québécois voted for Hoffa Jr. by over 75 percent of the votes cast?
The answer in some ways is simple.
For the same reason that thousands of workers in New York, Boston, and the West Coast voted for Hoffa Jr. If the voting order had ended with the East Coast being counted last maybe the question would be different. Why are those Bostonians so wedded to Hoffa?
But to understand why the vote was different in Canada we need to look at the a few things beyond simple answers.
Teamsters Canada has 125,000 members in 26 locals, the largest being 1999 in Quebec with 20,000 members and local 938 in Toronto with over 10,000 members.
Roughly 50,000 of those members are in transportation – including 7,000 at UPS and 10,000 at Purolator. Like Teamsters in the U.S. the union represents many different sectors: dairy, armoured car and construction along with the recent addition of locomotive engineers and maintenance of way employees and graphic communications members via mergers.
Teamsters Canada is an autonomous affiliate of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. This means that much of the basic work of the union, including bargaining is done by Teamsters Canada.
Much of the power that now resides in Teamsters Canada over the day to day affairs of the union originates from the 90’s when reformer Ron Carey briefly ran the union. In recognition of demands of Teamsters in Canada for more independence reformers in the Teamsters fought for and won the creation of the position of President of Teamsters Canada at the 1996 Convention against the arguments of Hoffa Jr.
These changes recognised the vital importance for unity in Transportation between Canadian and American workers, given the massive increase in cross border trucking and many of the same firms operating on both sides of the border, and the need for workers in Canada to have a greater say over their own affairs in the union.
That said the International Presidents position still has tremendous powers over Canadian and Quebec locals. The president has the right to put locals in trusteeship, devote or not devote resources to organising drives etc.
Hoffa-Hall win Canada
So why was the vote so lopsided in favour of the Hoffa-Hall slate?
There are some fairly basic reasons.
Firstly, Hoffa-Hall slate had 3 people for Canadian VP positions, no local official in Canada was willing to break ranks and stand for Teamsters United. Teamsters United officially stated that it wouldn’t seek to run any candidates in Canada as a sign of respect for the autonomy of Teamsters Canada.
It has been several elections since any opposition slate had any traction with any level of leadership in Canada. You have to go back to 2001 when Diana Kilmury, a stalwart of Teamster reform from British Columbia, and John Hull from local 938 ran and received almost 35% between them.
This was the product of the long fight by Kilmury and other reformers in B.C. being joined by forces in local 938 who had fought to get rid of a corrupt leadership via finally getting the International to trustee their local only to have find Hoffa Jr. refuse to hold elections and end trusteeship. In this election both B.C. and 938 had leaders on the Hoffa-Hall slate. Despite this Teamsters United won 33 percent of the vote from 938, a sizeable amount which speaks to the residue of the fight in 2001.
Hoffa-Hall had the recently elected President of Teamsters Canada, François Laporte, his rival in the 2015 Canadian elections from B.C., Stan Hennessey and the President of local 938 Craig McInnes on the slate. They were acclaimed at the convention. This allowed those who were supporting Hoffa to say that Teamsters United didn’t care, think, or understand the issues of Canadian or Quebecois Teamsters. In short, it allowed the Hoffa supporters if needed to portray Teamsters United as the big bad Americans and Hoffa as the candidate that will support the autonomy of Teamsters Canada. This was not a small issue.
That no opposition has arisen in an organised way for some time also meant that no real sort of rank and file or reform movement exists in Canada. This doesn’t mean all is honky dory. It just means there was no organised presence to campaign for Teamsters United. The only information members would have received would have been the election materials sent out. It meant no one leafletting hubs, speaking up at meetings or in the workplace, no arguments in favour of supporting Teamsters in the US and their fight against Hoffa.
Despite this 23% of votes went to Teamster United in fact Teamsters United won the Rail Conference vote in Canada. This is up as a percentage of votes over the last 3 elections, despite low turnout. Clearly this speaks to some discontent with the status quo in Teamsters Canada.
Where is the reform movement in Canada?
So why is there no reform movement or rank and file movement in Canada? For this the answers are less easy and involve more speculation than facts.
Less corruption at the local level. After a wave of trusteeships in the late 90’s and early 2000’s much of the old guard in various locals and at the national level were removed or retired. This meant that the sort of corruption that has existed in the U.S. didn’t and doesn’t seem to exist. This of course doesn’t meant that things don’t happen. You just don’t deal with routine news stories of individuals with criminal records running locals or elected officials being investigated. This means one of the key issues which has driven the growth of the reform movement in the U.S. isn’t as pressing in Canada.
While there have been concessions that have been voted on in some areas of the union, notably in freight and YRC, the total collapse of pension plans like is happening in the U.S. has not happened here. This may have to do with different funding calculations and formulas. Almost every union has in form or another been forced (some with a fight, too many without) to concede ground on the pension front. It is unfortunately part of the general attack on private sector workers by employers in many industries. This also removes an issue that has drawn many Teamsters to oppose the Hoffa-Hall slate that has overseen the disaster in the pension funds and clearly played a major role in the Central and Southern states supporting Fred Zuckerman.
At UPS, it would appear that gains were made to wages, pensions and benefits in the 2015 round of bargaining, the company employees 7,000 Teamsters. The deal was accepted by an overwhelming majority of voters. This isn’t to say there aren’t issues of workload, too many part-timers not getting full time hours etc. But on the basic economic questions it seems as though Teamsters are making gains.
Purolator, where 10,000 Teamsters work, has a contract expiring in the near future so it remains to be seen if the sort of gains made at UPS will be mirrored.
Another possible reason for the lack of a reform movement is that in several cases, places where members have organised to resist concessions or lack of democracy and could provide the seedbed of a reform movement, have opted instead to displace the Teamsters as their union and replace them with another. This has happened with a series of well organised groups such as flight attendants, armoured car workers, and a large group of airport screeners.
By making the unfortunate choice to not stay in the Teamsters and fight against what they perceived as bad contracts or lack of democracy, it means pockets of opposition that could provide both resources and leadership instead opted to join another union, often to find the same problems.
The Teamsters overall have dropped from nearly 2 million members in the 70’s to 1.25 million today. However, Teamsters Canada has actually grown despite some of these loses, from 74,000 in the late 70’s to 125,000 today. Some of this has been through mergers (GCIU, BLET, and BWME) but much has been through organising. Most recently Teamsters in B.C. have been successful in organising Canadian Cartage a large trucking company that was threatening to undermine standards in the industry on the West Coast.
Prospects for a reform movement?
All of this means that the tools and issues that drove the insurgent vote by U.S. Teamsters to elect Fred Zuckerman and a slate of reformers won’t be the same up here, they may be similar, but different laws, political cultures and context mean any movement that wants to make change will have to learn lessons from our neighbours to the south but also find ways to chart its own course. Looking for ways to find and discuss with 23 percent of voters why they chose Teamster United and what they think can be done to build a better stronger Teamsters union in their workplace and local is the first place to start building solidarity across the borders.
Teamsters in Canada have a proud record of fighting back both against employers and their own leaders when needed. From the fights in early 90’s in the Toronto area, to the fights in B.C. and most impressively the wildcat strike of the 1966 that shook the country when Teamsters struck against their own leadership and employers and shut down transportation.
With employers on both sides of the border driving austerity and attacks on workers rights and living standards ensuring that a union like the Teamsters help organise both members and non-members to push back is vital. The Teamsters union on both sides of the border has in the past used its power and numbers in key industries to resist employers and drive up living standards for millions of workers. The opening provided by the Teamsters United slate should give everyone hope.