Local union members demanding — and winning — representation in national organizations

Union organizers say the ground is fertile for labor organizing

America’s unions are not only at war with large corporations like Amazon and UPS. They’re also at war with themselves.

Rank-and-file members are pushing for more representation in the larger national and international unions to which they pay membership dues. The divide between local and national is not a new one, according to experts.

"The national unions are afraid," said Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR), which has tracked over 235 strikes across the nation in 2021

"They're protective of their treasuries. They're cautious, they're worried that their members, you know, won't stay out. They're just not used to it. National leaders are not used to this kind of militancy. They are always worried that if everybody goes on strike, will they have enough money to pay for everybody’s strike benefits? That’s the great fear. But their membership is braver than the leadership." 

Though the process for substantial worker representation in national leadership is a long one, experts and union officials agree the trend is growing across the organized labor landscape. One example that’s been decades in the making is the recent election of a reform candidate to head the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). 

Sean O’Brien, along with a slate of other Teamsters United candidates, recently won an election to replace James P. Hoffa as general president. Hoffa, the son of famous Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, had ruled the diverse union since 1998. 

Former Teamsters General President James Hoffa

O’Brien’s opponent in the recent election, Steve Vairma, insinuated that the Boston-based union leader would be a divisive presence atop the organization. During the contentious campaign, Vairma cited a 2013 suspension of O’Brien for threatening union members during a local election. Both Vairma and O’Brien worked with former General President Hoffa. 


Vairma could not be reached for comment by Fox News before publication.

O’Brien, in a recent conversation with Fox News, said his priorities as general president are to unite the different factions in the union and collaborating with local members during the collective bargaining process. 

"That means bringing people from the shop floor into proposal meetings, into strategy meetings, into preparation of proposal meetings and through negotiations," O’Brien said. Such an effort would not only help the IBT better meet the demands of local members but also serve as a training mechanism for future negotiations, he said. 

Beyond uniting the various factions within the national union, O’Brien also said the Teamsters would continue their efforts to organize Amazon workers over the next couple of years. 


O’Brien was backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), an internal caucus that develops union leaders from the rank-and-file membership.

"We're not primarily an election group, we're about developing new leaders from the membership," Ken Paff, a founding member and national organizer with TDU, told Fox News. "We think there's been some bad leaders in the Teamsters, but we think a bigger problem is you need more leaders, more people coming up, more involvement of rank-and-file members becoming leaders in their local [union chapter]. And some of them at the national level. So that's our long-term commitment and activity within the union."

Paff said the success of O’Brien and other Teamsters United candidates is indicative of the larger trend of rank-and-file representation across the union landscape. The victories of TDU and, more broadly, union collective bargaining agreements could spark an uptick in unionization across the country. 

"We’re seeing more membership involvement, more militancy, more willingness to fight corporate greed," Paff said. "You need good organizers. You need good organizing strategy, but you also need to show that you're going to win and that's going to be important. And I think there's some of that coming up in the labor movement now." 

John Deere strike UAW

Striking workers picket outside of the John Deere Davenport Works facility on Oct. 15, 2021 in Davenport, Iowa.  (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Another case of increasing rank-and-file democracy is the push for direct voting in the United Auto Workers union (UAW). Coming on the tail of a historic strike by about 10,000 workers at John Deere factories across the Midwest, the push for "one member, one vote" has huge implications for the future of the union.

UAW workers at John Deere recently ended their weeks-long strike after 61% voted to approve a new six-year contract. Workers won a 10% boost to hourly wages and increased retirement benefits. The company has also pledged to maintain the health insurance program, which does not require workers to pay premiums. 

UAW International Executive Board elections have long been decided by a convention-delegate system that critics say has stifled the voices of rank-and-file membership and allowed the union’s administration caucus to consolidate power. 

"The union … may very well have one member, one vote," Bronfenbrenner said. "And I think what happened in John Deere, because the leadership was so cautious about the contract, the more likely they're going to get one more direct election of officers."


Though the results of the vote are not yet finalized, early results show that more than 60% of members voted in favor of the direct voting system. If this holds, rank-and-file members would have a direct say in national union elections going forward. 

The push for direct votes in UAW elections comes on the tail end of a corruption scandal that saw two presidents ousted and the Department of Justice issuing a consent decree. The scandals and discontent among rank-and-file members crystallized with the recent John Deere strike, which saw workers reject two contracts negotiated by the national union. 

"If you see 90% of the membership reject the contract like at John Deere, it's clearly a sign of a feeling of mismatch," Jonah Furman, a reporter at Labor Notes, told Fox News. "And if you talk to the workers at John Deere, they say, 'We think the international UAW is not listening to us, is not living up to our expectations. We want to strike. They're being slow about it. We want a better deal.'"

Furman, who has covered the surge in union activity extensively over the past year, noted that some of the discontent among rank-and-file members mirrors broader societal trends of people being unhappy with the status quo. The long-simmering anger towards inequality and working-class representation in democracy broadly was exacerbated for essential workers during the pandemic. 

"Whether you want to say it's like Bernie or Trump or social movements like Occupy [Wall Street], all these things we've seen that are sort of, you know, upsetting the apple cart, saying, ‘We want change,’" Furman said. "It doesn't end at the workplace, and it doesn't end at the union hall door, you know, people bring that feeling into their union.

"The manifestation in the unions is saying we're not going to accept the same contract we would have accepted, you know, five years ago, and you heard that at John Deere. People said if this was the contract in 2015 — the last contract — it would have passed overwhelmingly," Furman said. 


The pandemic has heightened tensions on the ground for many blue-collar workers, not only those represented by big unions. One organization working as a catch-all for unionized and non-unionized workers looking to build power in their workplace is the Industrial Workers of the World. They say their work, especially over the pandemic, has served to give workers a larger voice in their employment conditions. 

"We are connecting with people who want a union at their job, who want to improve their conditions, who want to raise wages, who want to shorten their hours and want more democracy on the job," Maxim Baru, an IWW representative, told Fox News. "We want to help people get those things. One of the things that sets us apart is our focus on building an atmosphere of mobilization and valuing people's participation and their empowerment in the process of getting unionized."

Recently, the IWW helped organize the nation’s first fast-food union at Burgerville, a chain of restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. The agreement came after three years and 51 negotiation sessions, according to the union. 


"Especially in the first and second wave of the pandemic, we saw a wave of people wanting to defend themselves on the job, and that demand to get unionized … the labor movement was simply not prepared to meet that demand. And we were one of the few unions that did not shut down and, in fact, increased our level of support," Baru said. 

It could take years to know if the surge in strikes during the pandemic will reverse a long trend of decreasing union membership in the country, but union organizers say the ground is clearly fertile for labor organizing. Taken together, the surge of strikes across the nation, the influx of direct democracy and reform candidates in two of that nation’s largest unions, and the increase in organizing activity by the IWW can be seen as a harbinger of a larger push for workers’ rights.