Members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have elected Teamsters United’s Sean O’Brien as the influential union’s president after more than two decades of leadership from James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, who had ties to organized crime.
The vote was called on Thursday, with O’Brien decisively winning 66.5 percent to 33.4 percent. O’Brien will take the helm of one of the largest unions in North America, representing workers in a wide range of industries including transportation, manufacturing and film and television.
O’Brien, formerly the leader of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston, ran on a platform of taking aggressive action to organize Amazon workers and taking a tougher stance on the next United Parcel Service (UPS) workers’ contract, which expires in 2023. He and his running mate, former Teamsters United leader Fred Zuckerman, ran against the Teamster Power slate led by Steve Vairma and Ron Herrera, who campaigned on continuing Hoffa-era policies.
James P. Hoffa’s administration perpetuated business-unionist tactics that tend to position corporate leaders as having similar motivations to workers. Teamsters United and advocates like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) have coalesced behind a new approach, one that is more militant against business ownership.
“I want Amazon to know that the Teamsters are coming for them. We’re coming for them hard,” O’Brien told Truthout’s Candice Bernd in October. “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.”
While the Teamster Power slate also ran on a platform of unionizing Amazon workers, they were less transparent about their planned strategies.
Once the underdog, Teamsters United has risen in power over the past years, a departure from 2016 when Zuckerman ran for president and narrowly lost. TDU organizer David Levin told Truthout’s Bernd that the group gathered more petition signatures for O’Brien’s nomination than had ever been collected under the current election system.
The group has organized members behind changing the “two-thirds rule” that’s infamous for having led to the ratification of what workers say is an inadequate contract for UPS workers in 2018. The contract was ratified despite 54 percent of UPS workers voting against the proposal because the rule requires a two-thirds “no” vote if turnout for the vote is less than 50 percent. The contract created a second tier of workers, which allowed the company to pay newer employees less.
Sean Orr, a Teamsters United campaigner and UPS worker, told More Perfect Union: “For a concessionary contract to be forced on us, three years ago, and then for the membership to vote it down, and for Hoffa to say, ‘we’re going to pass it, we’re implementing it anyway,’ — that was a slap in the face to every Teamster in this country.”
Though advocates are optimistic that O’Brien and Teamsters United’s leadership will usher in a reformed era for the union, others have been critical of O’Brien’s checkered record. He is known among officers for being hotheaded and has been accused of being an opportunist by former TDU advocates. In 2013, O’Brien was suspended after threatening members of Teamsters Local 251 in Providence, Rhode Island, over their support of a challenger to the local’s incumbent leader.
He also oversaw Boston’s Local 25 in 2014, when workers were caught insulting TV crew members with racist and sexist slurs. He called those charges “fiction at best,” even though one of the men hurling slurs pled guilty to criminal extortion charges in relation to the event.
O’Brien was a member of Hoffa’s camp until 2017, when Hoffa fired O’Brien from his position as a lead contractor for UPS. Up until then, “in New England there was nobody that was more militant in supporting Hoffa than he was,” Edgar Esquivel, a former TDU member, told Truthout’s Bernd.