Teamster morale rides on Hoffa-led strike

Truckers gird for first national strike since Teamsters elected son of

Since Jimmy Hoffa was elected president of the Brotherhood of Teamsters four months ago, the union has had no nationwide strikes. But that's about to change.

The Teamsters expect to be out on the picket lines soon - perhaps as early as this weekend - at the Overnite Transportation Co., America's sixth-largest trucker. The two sides have been bargaining over a contract for five years.

If successful, the strike could help Mr. Hoffa, son of the legendary boss who ran the Teamsters in the 1950s, build a reputation of his own. He would also bolster morale at the nation's largest union, which is still recovering from the scandal of having its former president, Ron Carey, removed because of election improprieties.

A victory might also boost the broader union movement, which has been steadily losing members over the past decades. The Teamsters, for example, are down to 1.4 million members from more than 2 million in the 1970s.

Important target

Overnite is the largest predominantly nonunion trucking company left, and the Teamsters have been trying to organize it for the past five years. The bargaining centers around wages, work rules, and pension benefits for the portion of Overnite workers who are unionized.

"There is a lot of credibility resting on this organizing drive," says Mike Belzer, a professor at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

After recent failures, a victory for Hoffa would be important. The flight attendants at Northwest Airlines recently rejected a Hoffa-negotiated contract by a 2-to-1 margin. Teamsters at brewer Anheuser-Busch also rejected a Hoffa-led contract at five of six locals. And the reform arm of the Teamsters is unhappy with Hoffa's leadership so far.

"Basically, he's driving the union backward with his 1950s approach of keeping members in the dark," says Ken Paff, national organizer at the Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

Despite these setbacks, Hoffa still carries an aura. When he appears at rallies, Teamsters hoot and holler. They ask him for his autograph. Last weekend, the mayor of Memphis, Tenn., up for reelection, greeted Hoffa, who was in town for an Overnite rally. And Hoffa has asked a former federal prosecutor to write a new ethics code and police the union.

Uphill battle

But organizing and winning concessions from Overnite will be a challenge. Since the Teamsters represent only a fraction of the Overnite work force - the two sides disagree on the numbers - the union will not be able to shut down the Richmond, Va., trucker.

When the Teamsters struck United Parcel Service (UPS) in 1997, for example, most of its deliverymen went on strike, effectively closing down the package carrier.

'Ambulatory picket'

Instead, at Overnite the Teamsters plan "ambulatory picketing."

They will follow some of Overnite's 8,000 trucks after they leave a terminal and then set up a picket line once the truck arrives at a customer.

"While we are set up, no union vendor will cross - that means United Parcel Service, Yellow Freight or Roadway," says David Cameron, a spokesman for the Teamsters.

The union tried this tactic for a few days in July. A spokesman for the company, Ira Rosenfeld, says it had only a "minimal effect."

The threat of the strike, however, has had an effect on Overnite in a different way. Overnite's parent, Union Pacific, had planned to spin off the trucking division in a public stock offering. It has traveled around the country talking to potential investors. However, the Teamsters have been shadowing the meetings. "We tell investors the company is a bad risk at any price," says Cameron.

Union Pacific, citing market conditions, recently withdrew the stock offering. "They missed the boom stock market because they were fighting the union," says Belzer.

Pension funds at stake

Overnite, however, says it won't give in. One of the key issues, according to Rosenfeld, is control of the pension fund.

The Teamsters want the Overnite pension to be merged with the union's funds. Overnite, citing the condition of the Teamsters' own fund, is resisting.

The Teamsters claim the key issue is money and work rules. They maintain that Overnite has yet to make a counter offer to their own "modest" proposal. "The workers are boiling mad," says Cameron, the Teamsters spokesman.

"We've been trying to hold them off. It can't go on like this much longer," he says.

The frustration has spilled over to violence.

According to the union, workers have been beaten up. According to the company, equipment has been vandalized.

These actions recently prompted three members of the Senate subcommittee on Employment, Safety and Training to write the Teamsters, outlining their concern.

"The violence that has ensued at Overnite Transportation Company alone raises questions warranting the oversight of this legislative body," stated a letter from Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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