The election of supposed reformer Sean O’Brien as president of the Teamsters Union, along with his entire slate, has been greeted with near universal and uncritical enthusiasm on the left. Yet O’Brien has a long bureaucratic history, including involvement in corruption. The slate was also uncritically endorsed by long-time Teamster reform group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which had a few members running on the O’Brien slate. Here, former TDU member Edgar Esquivel explains O’Brien’s background as well as that of others on his slate. He also explains the unprincipled actions TDU took in order to accommodate O’Brien. This story has some fundamental lessons for those who are struggling to transform our unions, especially regarding the “union democracy” movement. In a future article, Oaklandsocialist will review the history of that movement (going back to the “Miners for Democracy) and draw some conclusions.
Where is TDU Going? The Plot Against Teamsters Reform
by Edgar Esquivel
TDU’s 180-degree turn behind the endorsement of New England’s most notorious old-guard warrior – Sean O’Brien – exposed the hopeless illusion that the Teamsters union can be reformed. Will genuine reform “from below” have to wait another five years after their betrayal? Will O’Brien be able to deliver on his campaign promises?
With the lowest voter participation in Teamsters’ history of under 16%, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) will be swearing in a new General Executive Board (GEB) next March. For the first time since members first gained the right to vote for International officers in 1991, there was no reform candidate heading any slate. The extremely low voter turn-out was a clear indicator members were not excited about the two old-guard choices. In a blow-out of 67% to 33%, members have elected the O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United slate headed by Boston’s Local 25 head Sean O’Brien, over the Hoffa backed and Rome Aloise engineered Vairma-Herrera 2021 Teamsters Power slate. The overwhelming result is a repudiation of the failed 23-year Hoffa regime in which business unionism and inefficient bureaucracy have ruled the IBT.
The Teamsters United (TU) victory was more than five years in the making. The victory for TU is much owed to the activism and network of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). TDU has been the only reform caucus within the Teamsters union since 1976 but not having a genuine reformer willing to take on the lead of the slate after Fred Zuckerman gave up the slate’s top spot, they capitulated by endorsing O’Brien for General President (GP). Despite their endorsement, O’Brien refused to allow them to run his campaign. When questioned about their endorsement of O’Brien and his ruthless background, TDU’s response was that reformers should trust Zuckerman’s judgement in giving-up the TU top spot he had led in 2016. After O’Brien’s endorsement the reform movement fractured, causing some long-time militants who had been active in past general elections to leave TDU in disgust. Former reform candidates: Tom Leedham and Sandy Pope did not endorse O’Brien’s candidacy and were amongst the many influential genuine reformers to have severed all ties with TDU. Tim Sylvester, the founder of Teamsters United in 2015 also did not endorse the O’Brien and TDU alliance.
Former Local 804 Secretary-Treasurer Jim Reynolds who was elected multiple times to TDU’s International Steering Committee (ISC) wrote about the O’Brien endorsement: “I have responded directly to the question of supporting Sean O’Brien for IBT General President to TDU. My concerns are genuine and based on first-hand knowledge. These concerns were also reflective of previous critical articles that were posted and documented in several Convoy Dispatch articles showing the true character of O’Brien. The articles have been taken down to cover-up the truth. TDU has ignored its own principles and ethical compass with this endorsement. Although I have been a longstanding member since 1984, I am compelled to rescind my membership and encourage all others to do the same.” TDU refused to publish his statement. Reynolds added, “I hope this goes out in mass. All the ex-TDU members that exemplified courage under fire were abandoned by the decision to endorse O’Brien. TDU has become an embarrassment.”
More ironic was Local 572’s Frank Halstead’s initial opposition to the O’Brien-Zuckerman alliance followed by his 180-degree turn. Over the past ten years he had been a vocal critic of O’Brien and of his slate’s national campaign manager Brian Rainville. Rainville had worked as Chicago’s Joint Council 25’s spokesperson under the tutelage of now barred John Coli, the son of labor racketeer and gangster Eco James Coli—a close associate of the Chicago Outfit’s crime boss Joseph “Joey the Clown” Lombardo. Better yet, Halstead referred to Rainville as Coli’s “bagman” during his extortion schemes. After Coli was expelled from the Teamsters in 2017, in 2019 he pleaded guilty to shaking down Chicago film studio Cenespace and tax fraud. In the hopes of getting his prison sentence reduced, Coli agreed to cooperate with future federal investigations. The Covid-19 pandemic crisis have temporarily put a halt to further investigations that could possibly bring down more corrupt Teamster officials. Despite such baggage O’Brien hired Rainville as his national campaign manager. Such move has led many within Teamsters circles to question what type of dirt Coli may have on O’Brien considering both Chicago and Boston represent the troubled motion picture division where extortion schemes in exchange of labor peace have been common practice for decades. Both their Chicago and Boston locals have also had historic ties to organized crime.
As the Southern California TDU chapter leader, Halstead’s complete flip-flop is by far the most upsetting considering his background. As the son of a radical labor activist there is no denying that no other rank-and-file Teamster is more knowledgeable on IBT politics and perhaps the entire union than him. His father Fred Halstead was a Trotskyist and staff writer for the The Militant. In the 1960s he was one of the most outspoken critics of America’s war in Vietnam. In 1968, the elder Halstead entered the U.S. presidential race running as candidate of the Socialist Workers Party. For those on the Left, the younger Halstead’s endorsement of O’Brien is a striking blow to the movement and ideas his father intended to advance. He would certainly be flabbergasted by his son’s support of a business unionist and thug. Amongst former TDU-ISC members and activists it is believed Halstead was offered a job in the future O’Brien administration in exchange of his endorsement.
TDU’s Brief History
Since the birth of TDU in 1976 the organization had worked as an instrument for educating members, fighting against corruption and organizing the rank-and-file against give backs. But perhaps their greatest accomplishment was winning Teamster members the right to vote following the federal government’s take-over of the union in 1989 for its continuous ties to the Mafia. TDU was instrumental in winning the first reform administration in Teamsters’ history when in 1991 Ron Carey was elected by the rank-and-file as GP of the IBT—a historic event that not only shocked the corrupt old-guard but more-so corporate America. Carey’s victory changed the direction of the Teamsters and put a halt to the “go-along to get-along” business unionist agenda of the past.
In 1996 TDU again helped Carey win reelection and got behind a campaign to mobilize UPSers in winning the 1997 strike against Big Brown. But Carey committed the mistake of not having TDU run his reelection campaign and instead opted to hire Jere Nash as his campaign manager and two Democratic party operatives: Martin Davis of November Group political consultants and Michael Ansara of Share Group telemarketing. Together they illegally funneled more than $200,000 into Carey’s reelection campaign. The Election Supervisor Barbara Zack Quindel found that Carey was not personally involved or that he had any knowledge of the transaction. But following the victorious UPS strike, Quindel nullified the 1996 election and called for a new election because Carey had benefitted from illegal campaign contributions. In November 1997, new Election Supervisor Kenneth Conboy disqualified Carey from the rerun election.
Following the government’s witch-hunt that removed Carey from office in 1998, TDU endorsed the candidacy of Portland reformer Tom Leedham in a special election. Unfortunately, Washington’s plan worked to help restore the old-guard to power with the election of James P. Hoffa Jr.,—the son of the notorious and mafia-tied Jimmy Hoffa who in the 1950s and 1960s had invited the most infamous members of La Cosa Nostra family to infiltrate the halls of the Teamsters. In the 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016 elections TDU again endorsed the unsuccessful candidacies of leaders like Leedham, Sandy Pope and Zuckerman who had demonstrated in the past with actions to be reformers by challenging Hoffa, concessions and the continuous corrupt practices of high-ranking union officials that included officers like O’Brien.
It would be correct to imply that the legacy TDU was founded upon to fight nepotism, gangsterism, thuggery, bullying, sexism, homophobia, racism, contract give-backs, bloated salaries, the collection of multiple salaries and pensions—and every other negative element that has reigned the halls of the most bureaucratized and corrupt union in North America was abandoned when they endorsed a byproduct of all these inadequacies in Sean O’Brien.
Any objection of TDU ceasing to be a reform organization was put to a rest at their last convention held the weekend of October 1-3 when former national organizer Ken Paff made the motion to remove TDU’s Bill of Rights from their original constitution. It is believed that the motion was made at the request of O’Brien himself. But why? Perhaps Article VIII may be the reason:
Just Salaries for Officers. A union officer can’t understand the problems of members who make less than half what he makes. No officer should make more than the highest paid working members in his jurisdiction. No multiple salaries from union, company or government sources, or special fringes and pensions. Salary increases limited to the average increase for membership, and subject to membership approval
The question is what did O’Brien offer Paff and new national organizer David Levine to commit such treachery?
The OZ Teamsters “Divided” Slate
Only eight of the twenty-four candidates on the O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United slate are actual reformers with a track record of fighting against Hoffa and the old-guard. Only three of those eight candidates are TDU members: John Palmer, Matt Taibi and Willie Ford. But only six out of the eight reformers on the slate will have a vote on the GEB because trustees do not vote. Thus meaning, the six reformers would be out-voted by O’Brien and the rest of his incoming GEB made up of fifteen old-guard GEB officers with the ability to vote—thwarting any possibility of stopping non progressive measures.
Out of the sixteen total old-guard officers on the slate: O’Brien, Greg Floyd and Bill Hamilton are current members of Hoffa’s GEB. Interestingly, in 2013 Hamilton developed a bad reputation in Philadelphia after pushing UPS’s healthcare concessions on Local 623 that O’Brien himself had helped craft as Teamcare. As leader of Local 107 and Joint Council 53 he earns four salaries totaling $372,641 and four pension contributions—a major issue reformers and TDU had fought against since their inception; but officially abandoned in 2019 with O’Brien’s endorsement and as of recently the removal of the Bill of Rights at their Convention. In 2018 Hamilton supported the addition of another tier of UPS drivers best referred to as 22.4’s. After UPSers rejected the contract, Hamilton supported the two-thirds rule in the Teamsters constitution that imposed the contract on members. After joining O’Brien’s slate he backpedaled claiming he was against the 22.4’s. In the past few years Hamilton has had Fed Ex Freight and XPO Logistics decertify from his local due to poor representation. He also sits as Co-Chairman of his region’s Pension Fund of Philadelphia which as of last April was in endangered status.
Rocco Calo out of Local 1150 in Connecticut, is an old-guard officer with a very questionable record running on the slate. In 2015 his local was placed into trusteeship after the Independent Review Board (IRB) found a systemic lack of financial controls that investigators said resulted in thousands of dollars being embezzled. The Hartford Courant reported that the union’s failure to adequately document expenses also led to millions of dollars being spent without approval from the executive board or members of Local 1150, and that tens of thousands were spent on meals and personal expenses. The IRB also revealed that more than $11,000 was spent on nearly 200 meals for local officers that had no union benefit. The Courant added: “From January 2010 to August 2014, Secretary-Treasurer Calo ate at places like Wood-N-Tap, Riverview Bistro, Chili’s, and On The Border.” It’s unknown why Calo was able to remain an officer after he violated his fiduciary responsibilities.
Chris Griswold of Local 986 is another old guard officer that through nepotism has managed to climb the bureaucratic ladder of the Teamsters union. He inherited his local from his father who has turned Local 986 into a family business much like the Hamiltons in Philadelphia and the Colis in Chicago have over decades—by staffing their locals with family members, friends and in-laws. Make no mistake, Griswold is no reformer and like Hamilton also promoted the disastrous 2013 and 2018 UPS contract concessions. After joining O’Brien’s slate he flipped on the 2018 concessions he helped push at his home local.
Portland’s Local 162 President Mark Davison all of the sudden also became a “born-again” reformer running when he joined the O’Brien slate. As an Oregon Teamster he made a name for himself as one of the most anti-reform and anti-TDU advocates of the state standing firmly against reform candidate Tom Leedham in the 1998, 2001 and 2006 elections. He sat on the UPS Western supplemental negotiations and supported the healthcare concession of 2013, the 22.4’s in the 2018 agreement as well as the imposition of the contract by Hoffa. After being added to the slate with the opportunity to gain another salary and pension contribution he hypocritically turned his back on the 22.4’s. At the Tempest post-debate debrief, Leedham accurately referred to Davison as leader of the “Vote Yes” movement over the past three UPS contracts.
The last candidate added to the O’Brien slate was Seattle’s Rick Hicks. Hicks can easily be described as one of Hoffa’s most reliable gofers. He’s been gunning for a spot on the Teamsters GEB since at least 2016. When Oakland’s disgraced Teamster: Rome Aloise was suspended for two years after negotiating a sham contract in exchange of gifts, Hicks expected Hoffa to replace him with the vacant GEB spot. But Hoffa decided not to fill the vacancy and Hicks’s expectations were shattered. In 2013 Hicks also supported the UPS healthcare concessions and in 2018 issued a statement strongly supporting the agreement by calling it the “richest contract” since 1997 while attacking the Vote No movement. He went as far as having his director of communications and research Jamie Fleming engineer a video to counter the argument of those opposing the 2018 concessions. Since being added to the O’Brien slate, Hicks has flipped on his support of the 22.4’s and now has acknowledged they were a concession.
The O’Brien-Zuckerman Teamsters United slate was not a reform slate by any shape or form. It was an unbalanced and lopsided slate composed of two-thirds old-guard warriors who strongly have opposed and attacked the reform movement, Vote No activists and more so TDU since its birth. Victory for genuine reform was within reach this election cycle, however after what Paff and Levine committed this time around, and worse yet at their last Convention—no further progress is possible until this swindle is exposed and removed by a genuine reform movement from below willing to throw-out the traitors.
The purpose of this essay is not to please anyone, but to tell the truth of an organization (TDU) that educated members better than any old-guard entity could have ever and who I proudly supported. I owe a lot of my Teamster knowledge and education to them. But if the truth is unpalatable, it cannot be helped. To those I may have offended I can only say: brothers and sisters—this history of betrayal has been told a thousand times over.
From the moment the new GEB takes office next March, the duty of all rank-and-file Teamsters will have to be to closely monitor Sean O’Brien, TDU and rest of the new GEB and hold them accountable for all their campaign promises. But more important will be to finally put an end to Hoffa’s 23-year reign of failure, business-friendly unionism and inability to mobilize the membership.
Edgar Esquivel has been a member of Teamsters Local 952 in Orange County CA for 24 years. He was formerly an activist with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). He holds a Master’s Degree in History from California State University-Fullerton and has served as an adjunct professor of History at both Mt. San Antonio College and Santa Ana College in Southern California. He has in the past written for New Politics and Socialist Worker.
Oaklandsocialist adds: Also see our follow-up article, “The Union Democracy Movement: An Analysis”