The Teamster Century

The story of the 20th Century is the story of the Teamsters union. From the turn of the century when disconnected locals made up of nearly powerless horse drivers until today when the 1.4 million Teamsters work in every imaginable profession, the Teamsters have been instrumental in creating the middle class. Our success is a testament to the strength of collective bargaining. Without the Teamsters, working men and women would have no weekends, no pensions, no health insurance. Looking back over the Teamsters Century we see that with every contract, every strike, every grievance, every election we have built a foundation. From this foundation we can see the past, but more importantly, we will build our future.

The First Teamsters

Since colonial times, the men who drove the horsedrawn wagons formed the backbone of America’s wealth and prosperity. Despite their essential role as the guardians of trade, they remained unorganized and exploited. In a teamster’s life, work was scarce and jobs insecure. Poverty was commonplace. In 1890, the typical teamster worked 12-18 hours a day, 7 days a week for an average wage of $2.00 per day. A teamster was expected not only to haul his load, but to assume liability for bad accounts and for lost or damaged merchandise. The work left teamsters assuming all of the risks with little chance for reward.

In response to the conditions, groups of teamsters started forming in the late 19th century. By 1898, Midwest team drivers had organized into 18 local unions. The activity caught the interest of American Federation of Labor (AFL) leader Samuel Gompers, who called on the locals to create a national teamsters organization under the umbrella of the AFL. The next year the Team Drivers International Union (TDIU) was chartered, with an initial membership of 1,700.

Organizational competition culminated in the establishment of the rival Teamsters National Union. Gompers Convinced the rival unions to meet. As a result, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was born in Niagara Falls, NY in 1903. Cornelius Shea was elected its first General President.

The early International struggled. Labor laws were nonexistent and companies used anti-trust laws against unions. In 1905, the international backed a bloody strike at the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward Company. The strike lasted more than a 100 days, cost about $1 million and led to 21 deaths. In the end, Montgomery Ward’s cutthroat tactics broke the strike. Shea’s skills as a union leader were questioned and his reputation tarnished. By the 1907 convention, Local 25’s Dan Tobin had solidified national support and was elected General President. His election brought forth new momentum to the fledgling union.

Tobin began his term with an aggressive plan to organize. The Teamsters union set its sights on bringing the beer wagon drivers, travel haulers and the men who made deliveries for bakers and confectioners into the union.

Workers sought International representation to advance their economic aims through trade unions. Despite the gunfire and bloodshed that often confronted these workers’ efforts, Teamster union activity resulted in improved working conditions. Contracts became standardized, reduced hours of work were won, and the right to overtime pay established. But the freight-moving business was radically changing. In 1912, with the first transcontinental delivery of goods by motor truck, the wave of the future was obvious. Horses were fast being replaced by trucks. Tobin recognized the trend and set out to organize the fast growing motorized truck delivery industry.

For several years, trucks and horses worked some of the same jobs: Teamsters at the reins and steering wheels. Desperate to compete with the new motor carriers, horse drawn freight firms foolishly sought to economize by eliminating noontime feedings for Teamster horses. Teamsters responded by striking, safeguarding their animals’ well being.

World War I and the 20’s
The start of World War I in Europe, in 1914 , led to an economic downturn in the U.S. that quickly gave way to an industrial boom. The war-powered boom was a powerful engine helping to drive Tobin’s relentless organizating.

Teamsters played a crucial role in the war effort. Union members helped secure military success by speedy movement of overseas troops and supplies from ports to battle lines. Speeding through France and Germany, American trucks were a key part of the U.S. war effort.

Following the war, Tobin emerged as a pre-eminent U.S. labor leader, and the International’s position in the vanguard of the U.S. labor movement was cemented.

Americans prospered in the post-WW I era. Teamster locals responded to new opportunities with zeal, making sure Teamsters won their fair share of the nation’s new production of wealth. In 1920, Tobin persuaded the membership to double the per capita assessment charged to all locals. This made it possible to raise International strike benefits. In addition to rapid organizing of the burgeoning trucking industry, the International expanded by affiliating with the Canadian Trades Labor Congress.

By 1925, the union’s treasury had reached $1 million. The International was prosperous enough in 1926 to make a donation of $5,000 to brother trade unionists striking in the anthracite coal mining industry. But in October 1929 America’s course changed.

Lean Years: Teamsters and the Depression: 1929 – 1945

The catastrophic stock market crash of 1929 triggered a chain of misery and despair in America. As banks collapsed, the unemployment rate jumped from three\ percent to 25 percent. The Depression hit Teamster locals hard. By 1933, Teamsters membership rolls hit a Depression-era low of 75,000.

In Response, the union redoubled its efforts to organize the far-flung and fast-growing over-the-road trucking industry. Under the leadership of Minnesota’s Farrell Dobb’s, the Teamsters used a “leap-frogging” organizing approach. The keystone of this approach was the control of truck terminals, from which truckers could be organized to press for area-wide bargaining and uniform wages and working conditions. In two years, Teamster membership jumped to 146,000.

Teamsters also embraced President Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR expressed a deep concern for the plight of the “forgotten man” and introduced and won a passage of a series of legislative initiatives designed to pull the country out ofthe Depression. In these efforts, Roosevelt relied on the leaders of organized labor, especially Teamsters General President Dan Tobin, to make his case.

The National Recovery Administration (NRA) was the crux of Roosevelt’s legislative plan. It established minimum wages and maximum hours of labor for each industry. Hours were reduced to spread employment over workers. FDR also won passage of the National labor Relations Act. It also provided protection against management interference or intimidation aimed at union activity.

World War II
Teamsters were an integral part of America’s ultimate victory in the Second World War, both by their contributions on the battlefield and on the home front.

In 1942, President Roosevelt asked Teamsters General President Dan Tobin to travel to Great Britain and report back on how British unions were helping to win the war. On his return, Tobin urged the American labor movement to emulate the British approach of suspending all labor discord in the face of the Axis’ threat to world freedom. Roosevelt appointed Tobin to the National War Labor Board, which had wartime jurisdiction to arbitrate any labor disputes in which all the normal collective bargaining measures had been exhausted.

A National Conference of Teamsters was formed to assist in the economic and military emergencies facing the U.S. The conference actively promoted war bonds and organized drives to collect scrap metal and rubber to be used in military supplies. In 1943, Victory Plaza was dedicated at the entrance to the Chicago City Hall in tribute to these Teamsters efforts. Chicago Joint Council 25 was responsible in that year for the sale of $6.5 million in war bonds. Nationwide, other Teamsters locals, councils and conferences followed suit.

Teamsters served on the front, too. By 1942, 125,000 teamsters were in the military. The Allied thrusts that led to the defeat of the German Army would not have been possible without the Teamsters who drove speeding trucks full of troops to the front.

Growth and Power: The Post-War Years: 1945 – 1957

Following the war, returning veterans were guaranteed maintenance of their seniority upon return to work. By 1949, membership had topped one million, the result of effective organizing in booming industries of the post-war economy such as the automotive trades, food processing, the dairy industry and the workers servicing an ever-expanding array of vending machines.

The International perfected its strategy of creating multi state bargaining units, area-wide negotiations and control of the trucking terminals to make drivers nearly unbeatable in a sustained job action.

At the 1952 convention, after 45 years at the helm Tobin announced his retirement. Seattle’s Dave Beck was elected his successor.

Between 1952 and 1957, the Teamsters grew in members and in strength at the bargaining table. In 1955, a 25-state contract covering all over-the-road and local freight hauling was negotiated. Making this victory even more remarkable was the fact that 13 of the states covered by the agreement were in the anti-union South.

At the 1957 International convention held in Miami Beach, Florida, Jimmy Hoffa was elected President and membership stood at 1.5.million.

Union Power- 1957 through the 70’s 1957-1979

Despite some legislative assaults, the Teamsters grew in size and power from the late 50’s to the late 70’s. Unions and workers prospered as the middle-class reaped the benefits of the New Deal and post-war economic surge. Labor leaders like Teamsters General President Jimmy Hoffa were recognizable public figures who shaped public debate.

The union used the position to better the lives of hard-working Teamster members. Seeking to expand their political clout, the Teamsters established D.R.I.V.E. (Democrat, Republican, and Independent Voter Education) in 1959. D.R.I.V.E. soon became the nation’s largest Political Action Committee (PAC).

The 1964 National Master Freight Agreement was a watershed event for the Teamsters. It covered 400,000 members employed by some 16,000 trucking companies and spawned similar bargaining in other Teamster trades and crafts.

Teamsters were also at the forefront in the battle for social justice in America. In 1965, the International contributed $25,000 to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This was the union’s largest monetary contribution to a social cause of the time. Whatever working men and women marched for jobs, welfare, or justice, there marched a sizable contingent of Teamsters.

The Growth Slows
By 1973, the American economy began to slow, but the Teamsters bucked the trends and continued to better the wages, security, and working conditions of the membership.

As General President, Frank Fitzsimmons engineered an alliance with the Nixon White House that put him in a position to safeguard the interests of working men and women during the wage and price controls of the early 70’s. Other 70’s era advances included a 1975 master agricultural agreement won by the Western Conference, dramatically improving wages and conditions for more than 30,000 farm workers employed by 175 separate growers. In 1976, Teamster membership topped 2,000,000.

Against the Tide: 1980’s through 1996 1979 – 1999

With the landslide election of Ronald Reagan, the labor movement’s fortunes changed. Despite his promises, Reagan began a wholesale assault on labor unions beginning with the busting of the “PATCO” air traffic controllers union in 1981.

The Reagan era bureaucrats also implemented trucking deregulation with an incredible zeal, causing steady decline in the Teamster membership rolls for the first time since the Depression. With each year, big business lobbyists eroded labor law and took the teeth out of its enforcement. The Teamsters joined the rest of the labor movement on a slide that led many to predict labor’s demise.

I response to the legislative assault on unions, the Teamsters renewed the focus on D.R.I.V.E. which was built into the nation’s largest and most powerful political action committee.

In 1989, in response to a government-filed lawsuit, the General Executive Board signed the Consent Decree under which the union would conduct its first ever direct election of union officers.

In 1991, Ron Carey, a New York local president, won the first ever Teamster national election. Over the next five years, the Teamsters continued to lose membership and the treasury plummeted to near bankruptcy.

New Beginnings
In 1997 the Teamsters’ strike at UPS sparked a resurgence in the labor movement. Then in 1998 a new era in Teamster history opened. Under the banner of restoring Teamster pride and unity, James P. Hoffa won a landslide victory. At the joint council and local level, the Hoffa message turned into quick action. It was time to pull together, restore the pride and organize.

Within a year, the Teamsters could be proud of many accomplishments. Bankruptcy was no longer a danger, the national carhaul agreement won the support of the 80 percent of the members, and RISE, an in-house anti-corruption effort, was established.

This last accomplishment may well be the era’s most important. After a decade of supervision by the Justice Department, the International is ready to police its own affairs. The new program features a code of ethics, written and enforced by Teamsters.

In the 20th Century, the union achieved undeniable success in elevating generations of workers and their families to higher standards of living. The Teamsters are poised even more in the 21st.

“History will judge us by our ability to uphold the Teamster tradition of making people’s lives better”. said James P. Hoffa, Teamsters General President. “I am confident that through our growing unity we can build a foundation that will make lives of future generations better through our actions today.”

James R. Hoffa

James Riddle Hoffa
Labor’s Hall of Fame Induction, September 30, 1999

James R. Hoffa negotiated contracts that propelled a generation of struggling workers into the middle class. Under his leadership, millions of Teamsters were able to achieve the American dream.
Hoffa’s crowning achievement, the negotiation of the 1964 National Master Freight Agreement, ranks as one of the greatest accomplishments in U.S. labor history.

Working families everywhere are living better lives because their wages and benefits are tied to Teamster contracts.

Today’s 1.4 million Teamsters are fighting to protect the gains won for working families by building on the proud legacy of General President James R. Hoffa.