Chances are you haven’t heard of Silver Capital, a small, now-defunct Chicago-based company that used to manufacture mirrors, frames and glass-cutting boards.
Silver Capital’s workers were mostly Mexican immigrants, working for substandard wages and zero benefits–no healthcare, no pensions, no sick days. And no matter what the auto companies tell you, manufacturing work is not fun. Silver Capital workers suffered severe injuries (fingers chopped off, limbs gouged) and rarely saw a dime of compensation.
If only they had a union, right? Actually, Silver Capital workers did have a union. They were members of Teamsters Local 743, a 13,000-member local representing workers throughout Chicago. “The union never helped anybody,” says Marcela Garcia, who worked at Silver Capital for seventeen years. “You’d go to them with a problem, they’d say, ‘It’s not my problem. Talk to the company.'”
So when Silver Capital announced in September 2004 it was closing down for good–and offered employees like Garcia little to no severance–workers took matters into their own hands. They struck: a one-day walkout without union approval.
Union leaders responded quickly and decisively. Local 743 vice president José Galvan (who did not respond to calls for comment) went straight to the picket lines–where he told the workers that if they didn’t get back to work pronto, he’d call immigration.
State of the Union
Welcome to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), a 1.4-million-member behemoth of a union led by the man with the biggest name in labor: James P. Hoffa. While Hoffa’s grip on the union remains strong, he is facing an election challenge at the IBT convention in June from reformer Tom Leedham, principal officer of Local 206 in Portland, Oregon. The contest is one that ought to command the attention of the broader progressive community, since a healthy Teamsters union is key to a revived labor movement.
On paper the IBT is a force to be reckoned with; every day, hundreds of thousands of Teamsters load, ship and unload the goods that keep America’s corporate powers fully stocked and in the black. With members handling cargo at critical points throughout the US economy’s supply chain, the IBT has enormous potential power.
And though Hoffa, IBT secretary-treasurer Tom Keegel and four IBT international vice presidents refused to comment for this article, they have not been shy about trumpeting their commitment to building labor power, organizing new members and restoring “Teamster pride.” Hoffa was a major player in the drama last summer when the AFL-CIO split and the IBT defected to labor’s new Change to Win Federation.
So why are Local 743 officials–lauded by Hoffa for their “proven and experienced leadership”–intimidating immigrants and cutting deals with management at a little mirror-making company like Silver Capital? The short answer is, Teamster leaders often have a complicated agenda. Or, as Leedham argues, “There’s a big disconnect between the PR coming from Hoffa and the reality of what’s going on in our union.”