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date: 26 November 2020

The Teamsters and the American Working Classlocked

  • Robert BusselRobert BusselLabor Education and Research Center and the Department of History, University of Oregon

Summary

During the latter half of the 20th century, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) represented the labor organization most readily recognized by the American public. Rooted in the vital sectors of transportation, warehousing, and distribution, the Teamsters became one of the largest unions in the United States, wielded considerable economic leverage, and used this leverage to improve the lives of low-wage workers across a broad swath of occupations and industries. The union’s reputation for militancy and toughness reached its apotheosis in the controversial career of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters’ most prominent post-World War II leader. Under the leadership of Hoffa and his immediate predecessor Dave Beck, the union (with some notable exceptions) embraced a business ethos, often engaged in collusive and corrupt practices, and came to symbolize the labor movement’s squandered potential as a transformational social force. Fear of Hoffa and his associations with underworld figures provoked an intense backlash, resulting in the IBT’s 1957 expulsion from the AFL-CIO, concerted legal and legislative action aimed at curbing Teamster influence, and a lingering public perception that the union was a hopelessly corrupt and malign force.

Hoffa’s unsolved disappearance in 1975 cemented the Teamsters’ image as a suspect institution, and analysts of the IBT have often offered either superficial or sensational accounts of the organization’s history and operations. With the deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s, the IBT suffered serious losses in market share and membership that eclipsed many of the union’s crowning collective bargaining achievements. A series of lackluster, corrupt leaders who followed Hoffa as union president proved unable to counter these developments, triggering the rise of an aggressive internal reform movement (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), federal intervention and monitoring, and the election of a reform slate in 1991 that assumed leadership of the union. However, since the union’s victory in an epic strike against United Parcel Service in 1997, the Teamsters have struggled to regain their ability to assert working-class power, especially within the private sector transportation industry, where they once exercised nearly unchallenged hegemony.

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