Few projects represent the rank-and-file strategy better than Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). TDU is a reform movement inside the 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), one of the largest and most powerful unions in the country because it primarily represents workers in logistics.
TDU was founded in 1976 in the aftermath of a wave of wildcat strikes that shook the freight industry. It started as an alliance of socialists who had taken Teamster jobs and a layer of militant truck drivers who had been organizing against contract concessions.
They faced an uphill battle in the Teamsters, which was notoriously corrupt and controlled by the Mafia. Braving goon squads, they took on do-nothing leaders and organized to beat back concessions. They achieved some important early victories in the 1970s and 80s by voting down national contracts in freight and UPS, even though union rules requiring a two-thirds majority to reject thwarted the membership’s wishes.
By 1989, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) was set to impose a government trusteeship on the IBT for its deep ties to the Mob. Instead, TDU won a major victory by persuading the DOJ to require the union to give members the right to vote for their top officers.
Having won the right to vote, TDU helped organize an insurgent campaign for Teamster leadership, headed by Ron Carey, a former UPS driver and head of New York Local 804. In 1991, Carey and his slate won an upset victory.
With Carey in office, TDU faced the challenge of how to transition from a scrappy outside force serving as a thorn in the side of union leaders, to being a supportive but independent movement helping to shape and implement the new leadership’s reform agenda. TDU did not dissolve following Carey’s victory, understanding the importance of maintaining an independent leadership layer in the union.
TDU’s organizing paid off most noticeably in the 1997 UPS strike, which saw 185,000 Teamsters walk out in the largest private sector strike in the US in years. The union focused on the precarious condition of part-time workers at UPS; its message of “Part-Time America Won’t Work” resonated, garnering broad public support. Meanwhile, the rank-and-file organizing built up over years ensured that UPS workers stuck together. After being out for two weeks, UPS Teamsters won what many deemed labor’s biggest victory in decades.
Unfortunately, the resurgent IBT was unable to build on the victory at UPS, as a few of Carey’s aides engaged in a campaign fundraising scandal that resulted in Carey being removed from office, even though he himself was later exonerated in court. With Carey out of the picture, old guard figurehead James P. Hoffa, son of the mob-connected James R. Hoffa came to power in 1998 and remained till 2021.
In the face of this setback, TDU returned to its roots, focusing on rank-and-file organizing around workplace demands, winning office in some key locals. TDU led successful national “Vote No” campaigns in freight, carhaul, and UPS — although arcane union rules sometimes allowed Hoffa to impose the contracts anyway.
In 2016, a TDU-backed reform slate came within a few thousand votes of defeating Hoffa, shocking the union leadership, and six TDU-backed candidates swept the Central and Southern regional elections. As old guard unity started to crumble, TDU kept organizing for better contracts and member mobilization.
In 2021, a seven-year campaign by dissident retirees led to a major victory, as Congress agreed to backstop ailing multi-employer pension funds like the Teamsters’ big Central States Fund. The Butch Lewis Act, named for a TDU leader in Cincinnati, shored up pensions for millions of workers, after years of union-busting and concessions had weakened pensions and led to cuts for many.
In 2021, Hoffa stepped down. The Teamsters United slate, a coalition of TDU with longtime local-officer allies and with former Hoffa allies, won the membership vote two to one against Hoffa’s team. New officers pledged to take on both Amazon and UPS.
Throughout its 45-year history, TDU has focused on the core tenets of the rank-and-file strategy: identifying and building a layer of respected workplace-based leaders; bringing workers into struggle around workplace issues that affect their lives; building power from the bottom up while contesting for union leadership where it makes sense; and whether or not in office, focusing on fighting the boss.
There have been plenty of setbacks, and much work left to do. But few other workers’ organizations can match TDU’s longevity, along with its record of concrete victories affecting millions. TDU remains an example and ally for insurgents in other unions, from teachers to auto workers.