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Boston Globe

Can O'Brien Beat Bezos?

The Teamsters have elected a new President whose legacy will be determined by organizing Amazon

Brian Young's picture
Nov 19, 2021

In one of the most important union elections in recent memory, a successor to the Teamsters' long-time President James Hoffa has been chosen by the membership. The election marks the end of the 23 year Hoffa reign over the union.

By a stunningly wide margin, Boston Teamsters leader Sean O’Brien was elected President of the 1.4 million-member union. A fourth-generation Teamster, O’Brien ran on Hoffa’s slate in 2016 but has since become a vocal critic of the outgoing Teamsters President after the union pushed through a contract with UPS in 2018 that was opposed by 54% of the union. However, a loophole in the Teamsters' bylaws required two-thirds of eligible members to vote on the contract. Since this didn’t happen the union was able to implement the deal without the majority support of the membership.

O’Brien’s election comes just as negotiations with UPS are set to start again. O’Brien will take office in March of 2022 and the UPS contract will expire in 2023. UPS is the largest private union employer in the country. O’Brien has promised to take a hard line with the company saying that they are ready to use their $320 million strike fund if needed. With more people shopping online, profits have soared for UPS, but the company is also facing growing pressure from non-union companies like Fed-Ex, but also Amazon.

While the UPS contract will likely decide whether O’Brien wins a second term, his legacy may be shaped by the Teamsters campaign to organize Amazon. UCOMM previously reported that at the 2021 Teamsters convention, the union under Hoffa made a commitment to organize Amazon. O’Brien has said that under his leadership Amazon workers will be organized with the Teamsters.

“I want Amazon to know that the Teamsters are coming for them. We’re coming for them hard,” says Sean O’Brien. “We have to leverage our political power on a national level to look at how we take a deep dive into Amazon and get the politicians involved, look at the anti-trust laws, look at what the pressure points are at Amazon that’s going to help us organize.”

O’Brien and his running mate Fred Zuckerman appear to have defeated the Hoffa endorsed slate of Steve Vairma and running mate Ron Herrera in all of the union’s regions except Canada. According to the most up-to-date results, O’Brien got about 66% of the vote to Vairma’s 33%.

The election marks an end to the storied career of James Hoffa, the son of the infamous Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa. The younger Hoffa took over the union in 1998, although he also appeared on the ballot in 1991 marking this as the first time in 30 years Hoffa has not been on a Teamsters ballot. During his time in office, he saw some organizing wins including bringing more than 12,600 workers at UPS Freight, 9,000 mechanics at United Airlines, 22,000 school bus drivers at First Student/FirstGroup since 2006 under the union's Drive Up Standards campaign, 3,200 customer service representatives at America West Airlines, and nearly 900 crewmembers of Atlas Air, Inc. and Polar Air Cargo Worldwide into the union. Hoffa also led the Teamsters through a split from the AFL-CIO in 2005. At the time, the Teamsters and SEIU left the labor federation over their belief that the AFL-CIO was not spending enough on organizing new members. The two unions formed Change to Win with other unions like the UFCW and the United Farmworkers.

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