On Nov. 15, rank-and-file Teamsters in the southern U.S. delivered a huge blow to Jim Hoffa Jr., the current general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The Teamsters United slate, which is challenging Hoffa's 17-year rule of the union, won the Southern Region by a vote of 10,789 to 8227. John Palmer and Kimberley Schultz, candidates with Teamsters United, will become the new vice presidents of the Southern Region.
Since taking power in 1998, Hoffa has run for re-election four times, most recently in 2011 against a divided opposition. This win for the reformer Teamsters United slate makes history as the first time an entire region voted down Hoffa and his slate.
Challenging Hoffa and weak, sellout union leaders
In his 17 years as general president, Hoffa has presided over almost two decades of concessionary contracts, declining membership – especially in core Teamster industries like freight and car haul – and countless corruption scandals. Most recently, federal authorities filed charges on Hoffa's secretary-treasurer, Ken Hall, for obstructing an investigation into corruption in the Teamsters.
While Hoffa's corrupt reign sparked opposition from the start, two major factors in the last five years have poured gasoline on the proverbial flame. First, Teamsters at UPS – the single largest employer of Teamsters and the largest private sector union employer in the U.S. – voted overwhelmingly to reject a concessionary contract negotiated by Hoffa and Hall in 2013. Unable to convince the membership to approve it, Hall used an obscure and legally questionable clause in the union constitution to force it through.
Second, in 2014, Congress approved a bill granting authority to underfund pensions to cut benefits for current retirees. The Teamsters' crisis-ridden Central States Pension Fund – the largest multi-employer pension in the country – immediately applied to the Treasury Department for cuts as deep as 70%. With cuts still looming, members have rightly blamed Hoffa's failure to secure and protect pensions for Teamsters and demanded change.
The Teamsters United slate in 2016 represents the sharpest challenge yet to Hoffa. Established in 2015, the slate drew together a coalition of rank-and-file militants from across the country, reform-minded union leaders, and activists in Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Led by Fred Zuckerman, candidate for Teamsters general president and current president of the massive Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, Teamsters United has run on a platform of fighting for better contracts, aggressive industrial organizing in companies like Amazon, protecting pensions from cuts and cracking down on corruption in the union.
After narrowly losing the Eastern Region – where Hoffa benefits from the support of a couple giant locals in New York historically connected to the mob – Teamsters United bounced back to win the South and make history. They flipped big Hoffa locals in Texas, Florida and Georgia, and retained support in places like Tennessee because of the work of countless activists.
Florida: How the South was won
Florida Teamsters gave a hard blow to Hoffa's slate. In 2011, Hoffa won every local union in Florida by a margin of 2851 to 867 in combined opposition votes. This year, Teamsters United crushed Hoffa in Florida by a margin of 2092 to 1800 and winning majorities in six of the state's nine locals.
Historically, Florida and Texas have delivered the bulk of Hoffa's votes in the Southern Region, with their large number of members relative to the region and the lack of an organized opposition. Hoffa loyalists like Ken Wood, president of Local 79 in Tampa Bay and current Southern Region vice president, whipped votes largely unopposed for Hoffa, in exchange for multiple salaries and pensions.
In 2016, however, rank-and-file Teamsters from Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa and Miami crafted a statewide strategy to defeat Hoffa and deliver a win for Teamsters United. Beginning in August, these activists began traveling to worksites across the state and into neighboring Georgia to talk with members about Fred Zuckerman, Teamsters United and rebuilding a fighting union.
The result of the strategy speaks for itself, with Florida comprising about 3100 of the nearly 7000 vote swing from Hoffa to Zuckerman that won the Southern Region.
Rank-and-file organizers from Local 512 in Jacksonville, for instance, drove up turnout by 60% and flipped it for Zuckerman by a margin of 302 to 254. By comparison, the same local voted for Hoffa in 2011 by a margin of 197 to 150.
By taking the fight directly to all of the state's locals, especially Hoffa strongholds like Local 769 in Miami, Teamsters United drove up turnout among supporters and won over huge segments of Hoffa voters.
Ballot counting in the Central Region began on Nov. 16, with the Western Region and Canada still to follow. Organizers expect to know the final result of the election by Nov. 18.