Can the Teamsters Organize Amazon?

The question is dividing the union as it prepares for a future without a Hoffa.

Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

There has been a Hoffa at the head of the Teamsters for 37 of the past 64 years. James R. Hoffa presided over the union from 1957 until 1971, a few years before his infamous disappearance. His son, James P. Hoffa, took over as president in 1998 and is now set to retire, launching a major contest for the future of the storied union.

This month the Teamsters will begin voting on a post-Hoffa future, selecting between two leadership slates that agree on one issue above all: the need to organize Amazon. This is a difficult task, as the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union can attest. They were behind the effort to organize warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, this year. Amazon flouted labor law regulating the election so egregiously that the National Labor Relations Board has ordered a do-over.

The Teamsters think they can succeed where other unions have failed. A formidable union, they represent 1.4 million members in the U.S. and Canada. While the archetypal Teamster in the public imagination likely drives a truck, the union’s ranks include public defenders, funeral directors, and zookeepers. An increasing number of Teamsters are women and people of color, and they have big dreams for their union when it comes to Amazon. Over the summer, Teamsters overwhelmingly approved a resolution to organize Jeff Bezos’s conglomerate and in September, Teamsters Canada filed for the union’s first election at an Amazon warehouse in Alberta. Were a union to organize Amazon, it would transform working conditions for the company’s massive workforce, which is among the nation’s largest.

But the Teamsters don’t all agree on how best to go after Amazon, as reflected during their second debate in Las Vegas in September. (I was a moderator, alongside Rebecca Rainey of Politico and Caroline O’Donovan of BuzzFeed.) On one side is the Hoffa-endorsed Teamsters Power slate, led by Steve Vairma and Ron Herrera. Opposing them are the Teamsters United slate, led by Sean O’Brien for president and Fred Zuckerman. Supporters of the O’Brien-Zuckerman slate say they imagine a more militant future for the union, marked by stronger contracts and a more aggressive stance with employers. But supporters of the Vairma-Herrera slate say the experience and diversity of its slate is a better fit for the changing union.

“You know, my opponents in this administration decided six months prior to the election that they were going to roll out a plan and a platform,” O’Brien said in an interview ahead of the debate. “My opponent says we really can’t get into it because we don’t want to give away our strategy. Well, I’m not afraid to give away my strategy.”

O’Brien, the president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston, said his union goes to cities across Massachusetts, partnering with community leaders, to urge local governments to pass resolutions holding Amazon and companies like it to basic labor standards. In Boston, he said, they’d been able to keep Amazon out “on two separate occasions.” O’Brien also says he wants the Teamsters to organize stronger contracts with other companies in order to show Amazon workers they can stand up to their employer.

Due to recent history, that’s a sticking point among the Teamsters, who represent thousands of UPS drivers. In 2018, members voted down a tentative bargaining agreement on the basis that it included too many concessions and carve-outs for UPS. A nasty bit of internal politics preceded the vote. O’Brien was serving as the union’s package division director, a powerful position involved with negotiating a new UPS contract when, supporters say, he reached out to opponents of the agreement to try and build consensus for a stronger contract. Hoffa subsequently removed him. O’Brien’s replacement later invoked a rule in the Teamsters constitution to impose the contract over the wishes of union members. Members voted this summer to strike that rule from the union’s constitution, but the memory of 2018 lingers. For many, Hoffa’s tenure is synonymous with cronyism and crooked politics.

O’Brien calls Hoffa a lightweight compared to his legendary father. “My own opinion is that he was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” O’Brien said, adding that Hoffa junior “never worked in the industry. He was a corporate lawyer. And because of his name there’s a sense of entitlement now.”

“It was unbelievable,” said Nick Perry, a UPS driver who was active in the “vote no” effort and supports the O’Brien-Zuckerman slate now. Perry also belongs to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, or TDU, and the organization hasn’t always had the best relationship with O’Brien. In 2014, O’Brien served a two-week suspension for threatening to retaliate against TDU members who were running for office against a political ally, but he’s since won TDU over with a lot of hard work, plus the support of his running mate, Fred Zuckerman, a TDU-backed reformer who ran an insurgent campaign against Hoffa in 2016. “At some point, you have to accept that somebody can change,” Perry explained. “Because if you don’t accept that, then you’re just treating somebody as their former self.”

To O’Brien’s supporters, the slate he leads represents a necessary rhetorical and tactical departure from the Hoffa clique. “He’s an aggressive leader,” said Lindsay Dougherty, who’s running on the slate. “More on the militant side in terms of dealing with the employers, which is very much my mind-set as well.”

Not everyone thinks militancy alone will organize Amazon. The Power slate, led by Vairma and Herrera, touts the diversity of its slate as a way to broaden the union’s appeal to women and people of color, like those who fill the ranks of Amazon’s workers.

“I think I’ve assembled a team that’s well-equipped to address today’s issues because we have folks that obviously are part of the Black Lives Matter movement,” Vairma said by phone after the debate. The slate also includes members who are law enforcement and corrections officers, he added. “These folks are going to be bringing their perspectives to the table so that we can start having these very difficult conversations and start coming to some solutions. And I think that’s important to have as we go forward,” he said.

“Moving forward, I think in order for us to win against our employers you have to have an inclusive vision that is not just about diversity. Diversity is about numbers, statistics and all that stuff, but inclusion is about culture,” said Richard Hooker, the secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia. Under Hoffa, “everything is stagnant” and that’s a problem, Hooker, a supporter of the Power slate, said. “When you become stagnant, you give the employer an advantage, because if you don’t have an engaged membership, if you don’t have a membership who looks like the leaders or even has a chance to be included in the leadership process, you will have a problem.”

At the September debate, O’Brien repeated an accusation he’d levied at Vairma during the pair’s first debate: Vairma, he said, had called members of the O’Brien-Zuckerman slate “tokens.” Vairma has disputed this characterization of his remarks. “If you go back and look at the video — and thank goodness there is a video, because it tells the truth — what I said is my team, my individuals are not tokens,” he said during the debate.

Bernadette Kelly, who’s running on the Vairma-Herrara slate as a candidate for vice-president at large, said that she’s confident her slate, if elected, is capable of bringing about change, the Hoffa endorsement notwithstanding. “Sean O’Brien was the closest thing to the hierarchy that we had, and he went in another direction when he thought that he could potentially not win in the future,” she said. “So the question is, who is the team that can actually do the work? Both slates come from the Hoffa era. There’s no way around that.”

“I think the break is actually a good one,” she said. Her slate, she added, has “been able to bring the folks that were able to succeed, and do the work, and actually produce for the members rather than the ones that went along to get along and then complained about it afterwards, like the other slate.”

Vairma, for his part, said he’s prepared to reach out to the opposition should he win this year’s election. “I think the way you build the bridges is that you include them in the process,” he said. “And I have a history of setting politics aside and making sure that whether you were a member of an organization that I disagree with or whether you agree with my political viewpoints on issues, when it comes to doing the work of our membership, you set all of that aside.”

Can the Teamsters Organize Amazon?