The Hoffa era is over as a new top negotiator is coming to the Teamsters

One of the nation’s biggest unions is electing a new president this week as workers are increasingly demanding more from their employers

The Hoffa reign is coming to an end. 

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is set to elect this week its first new leader in more than two decades. With nearly 1.4 million members, it is one of the largest unions in the country, representing workers from delivery drivers to airline staff to warehouse employees.

The Teamsters’ membership includes about 350,000 United Parcel Service Inc. workers as well as employees from DHL International GmbH, United Airlines Holdings Inc., US Foods Holding Corp., Sysco Corp. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA, among other companies. The union also wants to organize Amazon.com Inc. workers.  

The election comes when workers are demanding more from their employers amid one of the largest worker shortages in years, rising inflation, sharp wage gains and supply-chain snafus. Workers at Kellogg Co. have gone on strike. Starbucks Corp. is facing a rare union challenge in upstate New York. And support for unions among Americans is at its highest since 1965, according to a recent Gallup poll.

For the Teamsters, the election marks the end of the reign of James P. Hoffa. The 80-year-old son of former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa has been general president of the union since 1999. He isn’t running for re-election, meaning his successor stands to instill fresh blood into the top leadership spot.

Teamsters General President James Hoffa

Erik Loomis, a professor at the University of Rhode Island and labor historian, said the legacy of the name Hoffa is synonymous with the Teamsters. 

"A long era’s coming to an end," he said.

Mr. Hoffa is the union’s second-longest-serving general president since the Teamsters began in the early 1900s. He oversaw the revitalizing of the union’s finances and pushed for the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act that passed this year, which gives financial aid to pension funds. But the Hoffa name is still often associated with his father, who ran the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971. 

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Jimmy Hoffa’s tenure at the union — which has captured the imagination of Hollywood over the years, most recently in "The Irishman" — was marked by the senior Mr. Hoffa going to jail for jury tampering, among other charges. President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence. The late Mr. Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and was never found, despite a decades-long search by law enforcement. 

During most of his son’s tenure, the Teamsters remained under a 1989 consent decree that brought strict federal oversight to eliminate corruption and alleged Mafia influence. The decree ended earlier this year.

"In the Teamsters union, my father is a great hero, and I have been very, very proud to carry that name and to carry on the work that he started years ago and we’ve done that," Mr. Hoffa, the current union leader, said.

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
UPS UNITED PARCEL SERVICE, INC. 200.73 +0.83 +0.42%
DPSGY DEUTSCHE POST AG 58.77 -0.16 -0.27%
UAL UNITED AIRLINES HOLDINGS, INC. 40.61 -1.03 -2.47%
USFD US FOODS HOLDING CORP. 31.22 -0.19 -0.60%
SYY SYSCO CORP. 69.98 -0.20 -0.28%
BUD ANHEUSER-BUSCH INBEV 56.46 +0.06 +0.11%
AMZN AMAZON.COM, INC. 3,389.79 -47.57 -1.38%
K KELLOGG CO. 63.00 +1.07 +1.73%
SBUX STARBUCKS CORP. 111.24 -0.18 -0.16%

The election this week will decide who will take Mr. Hoffa’s place: Steve Vairma or Sean O’Brien.

Mr. Vairma is the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 455 in Denver and director of the Teamsters’ warehouse division. Mr. O’Brien is the president of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston and former head of the Teamsters’ packages division. 

Whoever is elected will begin his five-year term tasked with negotiating national agreements for DHL workers and car haulers, both in the first half of next year. And the next UPS contract is up in the middle of 2023.

Both slates aim to organize Amazon, whose workers aren’t currently unionized but have made inroads to organizing in some places across the U.S.

"We’ve got to find a way to leverage our relationships, leverage our rank-and-file members to help organize Amazon and to negotiate the strongest contracts in similar industries, like UPS and DHL so that…you have a product that you can show to an unorganized Amazon worker," Mr. O’Brien said.

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Ron Herrera, Mr. Vairma’s running mate, also wants the Teamsters to be the union that represents Amazon. But, he added, "Amazon only gets organized through a multiunion task force working together to understand the destruction that Amazon brings."

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company doesn’t believe unions are the best answer for its employees. "Everyday we empower people to find ways to improve their jobs, and when they do that we want to make those changes—quickly. That type of continuous improvement is harder to do quickly and nimbly with unions in the middle," she said.

On Friday, a group of Amazon warehouse employees in the New York City borough of Staten Island withdrew their petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold a union election at four company warehouses because of a lack of adequate support. That union push was the biggest challenge to Amazon by organized labor since a failed unionization effort earlier this year in Alabama.

On strikes, Mr. O’Brien said it won’t be the Teamsters’ first priority, but he is "very optimistic that once we restore the strength and pride back in our membership that strikes will happen." Mr. O’Brien said the union has a $330 million fund for strikes.

"We’ve got to be a more aggressive union," Mr. O’Brien said. "Basically we have to rebuild this whole organization and take it to a level that it hasn’t seen in decades because it’s been led by complacency."

Mr. Herrera said there will be more strikes by Teamsters members if necessary. "I think that the projection of the Teamsters has to be that we will seek economic action against any employer that disrespects its workers," Mr. Herrera said.

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Both candidates’ slates—which in total span 24 people, including candidates to serve as regional leaders and trustees—have more women compared with the union’s current leadership, which includes only one woman. The slate from Mr. O’Brien and his running mate, Fred Zuckerman, includes two women, while the slate from Messrs. Vairma and Herrera has five. Women make up more than a third of Teamsters members.

Mr. Hoffa, the current general president, has endorsed Messrs. Vairma and Herrera’s slate.

"We get criticized for being the Hoffa slate," Mr. Herrera said. He added that he takes pride in that "because I respect Mr. Hoffa so much."

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal