A few weeks ago, a major election was held in the United States, where working-class whites, in alliance with black and Latino voters, rallied around a progressive populist platform—and won. No, this is neither revisionist history nor some kind of collective blue-state fantasy, in which the Electoral College has been abolished and the popular vote prevailed. Rather, it concerns the largely ignored national election of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—one of the nation’s largest industrial unions—which in many ways serves as a microcosm of our political environment, and may provide lessons for Democrats as they move forward. Prime among them are that before the Democratic Party abandons populism or gives up on working-class whites as unwinnable, it would do well to look to look at how Teamsters have been able to win Rust Belt voters with a campaign that should be familiar to Democrats.
The Teamsters union has almost 1.3 million members in both the United States and Canada. Between November 14 and 17, just a week after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, the union was busy counting the ballots for its own election. When the US numbers had been tallied, it became clear that Fred Zuckerman and the Teamsters United had eked out a narrow victory among this country’s members. Progressive populists had gained more votes than Jimmy Hoffa Jr. and his establishment slate. Unfortunately, the Canadian members voted overwhelmingly for Hoffa’s slate, ultimately pushing them into the winner’s position for the union as a whole (Teamsters United have little presence in Canada). Nonetheless, Teamsters United’s US victory offers valuable lessons for despondent Democrats and progressives.
The narrative that most have settled on for why Hillary Clinton lost the election was that working-class whites abandoned her and the Democratic Party for a reactionary populist message. But Ken Paff, a former truck driver from Cleveland, now an organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union in Detroit, explains, “The same people lost to Democrats and won over by Trump were won by our movement. But where Trump benefited from blue collar desertion, we were the beneficiary of blue collar militancy.” By campaigning on a progressive populist platform that centered on fighting for workers’ rights, stronger health and pension benefits, and inclusion and diversity, the insurgent group of Teamsters was able to win in the United States.
The Teamsters may seem a peculiar place to look to learn lessons about democracy. They have a long and deep history of corruption, which, as late as 1988, was described in a federal racketeering suit as a “devil’s pact” with organized crime. Indeed, the name Jimmy Hoffa (the elder) evokes images of the heavy-handed, above-the-law union bosses decried by so many. But whereas the Teamsters have at times shown the worst of labor, they have also shown the best of labor.
Starting in the 1970s with a dissident group of Teamsters under the banner Teamsters for a Decent Contract, later becoming Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the Teamsters took back their union from leadership that regularly raided the pension funds for personal gain and mob investment, colluded with the employers they were supposed to be bargaining against, and engaged in self-destructive thuggishness.
The first major step in the process was to fight for free and fair elections. For most of the history of the union, leaders were elected in conventions where only delegates could vote. TDU advocated that elections must be given back to the members, with one member one vote. In 1988, with the federal government engaged in a massive racketeering case against the Teamsters, they had their chance to give effect to this idea. Paff, on behalf of TDU, wrote to then–US Attorney General Edwin Meese and argued that the only effective anti-corruption measure that the government could impose was “to direct the [Teamsters] to hold rank-and-file elections.”