It has been quite a trip to the graveyard for Teamsters. Six of the union’s seven regional leaders have been replaced in the wake of a merger between the Teamsters Union and Amalgamated Transit Union, and this week’s decision by the Teamsters Local 20 governing board to choose Sean O’Brien, a Hoffa critic, as the union’s next president raises questions about the union’s direction.
During the run-up to the vote, Mr. O’Brien told the union’s leadership that the union had to regain its credibility by putting forward a candidate who could not be labeled an extremist.
“I was the only candidate that said this was the opportunity we needed to really shake things up and come out strong in the rearview mirror with some new blood,” Mr. O’Brien said Friday. “I think we did just that.”
That’s certainly going to be controversial, given the ideological divide in the union. “Instead of leading by example, we saw candidates flip flop on issues, offer totally unreliable people, and shout out personal vendettas,” said Gary Rojas, a vice president at the Teamsters Local 1221 and former organizer in the Teamsters’ secretariat who has spent years running afoul of President Jimmy Hoffa Jr.
Mr. Rojas said that one candidate, Jimmy Roszko, had a record of backtracking on issues like law enforcement and Walmart and of drawing big paychecks. “I’m not calling Jimmy Roszko an extremist,” Mr. Rojas said. “But he’s an extreme individual, certainly.”
There were strong rumors in the union that the Hoffa leadership would have the bargaining strength to decertify the two unions and institute a one-union organizing strategy. But Mr. Rojas said that the vote exposed divisions among the membership, not unity. “The big thing that happened this weekend was that there was dissension in the ranks,” he said. “People thought they had a fighting chance to take this thing over. But there was an overwhelming consensus of unification.”
Mr. O’Brien said that he has no intention of de-unionizing the two unions and that he has little in common with Amalgamated president Larry Hanley, whom he called a real “Luddite.” Mr. Hanley, along with other Teamsters leaders, were at the top of a list of guilty by association during a guilty plea by Jimmy Hoffa Jr. in federal court last month. “Larry and the Hoffa regime have been trying to drag down the rest of us, trying to drag down collective bargaining and our pensions,” Mr. O’Brien said. “The only person I’ve ever heard roll his eyes at a Teamster position is Larry Hanley.”
Along with Mr. O’Brien’s win, the Teamsters’ politics are not greatly different from the rest of American labor. The most recent Washington Monthly survey of union outlooks showed that two-thirds of Teamsters believe unions are going in the wrong direction, compared with 42 percent of the workers in the private sector. Of the Teamsters, less than half (43 percent) think that collective bargaining leads to higher wages, compared with 37 percent in the private sector.
Mr. O’Brien, a vice president of Teamsters Local 130 in Baltimore, said that he was a first-generation American of Irish and German descent who came to this country because he could make it work. When asked whether his history makes him an activist for workers, Mr. O’Brien said: “I was an activist my whole life.”
Mr. O’Brien sees no contradiction in running against the long-held belief in labor that organizing is the key to better wages and benefits. “The current internal politics of this industry say not a shred of truth about it,” he said. “The labor movement has always done its best to organize, and it’s in our tradition to put our heads in the sand and talk about being the voice of the people.”
Before the vote, Mr. O’Brien stressed that he will make every effort to unite the Teamsters. “I don’t feel like there’s a fight ahead,” he said. “There are going to be different personalities, different opinions. But I’ve made my voice heard, and I believe Teamsters 20 is listening.”