Labor Educator



Members of Teamsters and Laborers Can Now Vote Directly for Their Officers




By Harry Kelber

July 11, 2001



Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Laborers’ International Union of North America, two unions long corrupted by mobsters and racketeers, have now put in place new systems for electing officers that are probably the most democratic in the labor movement.


Both unions were compelled to reform internal election practices under pressure from the federal government. In 1989, the Teamsters signed a consent decree that gave the U.S. Justice Dept. tight supervision of the union’s activities as the price for settling a civil racketeering lawsuit against its officers. A 1995 agreement between the Justice Dept. and the Laborers allowed the union to conduct its own internal reforms, but with close monitoring and oversight by government inspectors.


This year, for the first time in LIUNA’s nearly 100-year history, its top 15 officers will be elected by a direct vote of the full membership. The Teamsters held their first mailed-ballot election in 1991 under the  supervision of court-appointed officers.


A few international unions have traditionally held membership-wide elections for top officers, including the Steelworkers, Machinists, Postal Workers, Letter Carriers and Mine Workers, but 56 of the 66 AFL-CIO internationals elect their officers by the votes of delegates at conventions. The latter group includes four of the largest unions: the Service Employees, the State, County and Municipal Employees, the Teachers and the Food and Commercial Workers. None of the 15 building and construction trades, except for the  Laborers, allow their members to vote for national officers.


The Laborers and Teamsters are now nearly unique in providing opportunities for challenges to incumbents. The Teamsters’ magazine (Jan.-Feb., 2001) features statements and photos of reformer Tom Leedham’s Rank-and-File Power Slate and a special message to carhaulers, criticizing President James P. Hoffa. The Laborers publish a Bill of Rights for candidates seeking convention delegate slots. The candidates for international office are entitled to use union mailing lists, speak at all local union meetings and publish campaign materials in the Laborers’ magazine during the months before the election. Inspectors are available to ensure an honest election, both at the local and national levels.


The unions that prefer election of officers by convention delegates say that letting the entire membership vote is too costly. But today, when most international unions hold conventions every four years, rank-and-file members have hardly any connection with their top officers. To deny them a voice in selecting their officers is to mock the very notion of union democracy.


A long time ago, many unions would run a “battle page” in their official publications in which members could read about the views of incumbents and challengers prior to every election. In most unions today, challengers are completely ignored or given as few opportunities as possible to reach the membership. I remember that when I ran for a seat on the AFL-CIO Executive Council in 1995, the only coverage the AFL CIO News gave me was a brief paragraph that reported my defeat.


Do unions want to instill pride and loyalty in their members or not? By denying dues payers the right to choose their leaders, they only feed resentment over “taxation without representation.” In case they’ve forgotten, that’s a phrase that resonates with most Americans.


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