In the wake of Sean M. O’Brien’s landslide victory in the Teamsters general election, one takeaway is not what O’Brien does during the next five years as the union’s general president but if many of the rank-and-file members will care. The second is whether those who care will carry the water for those who don’t.
Less than 200,000 out of approximately 1.4 million eligible voters cast ballots, according to the Teamsters Office of Election Supervisor, the official vote counter, and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a Teamsters dissident group and a strong O’Brien backer that was tracking the vote count in real time. The election supervisor’s office counted 173,500 votes, while TDU estimated that 190,000 votes were cast. Thousands of ballots went uncounted due to technical problems with the process, according to TDU officials.
The final tallies mean that only 13% to 15% of eligible voters cast ballots. The O’Brien slate, which included candidates running for officer positions, defeated the slate headed by his opponent, Steve Vairma, by a 2-to-1 margin.
There were low turnouts wherever one looked. At Louisville, Kentucky’s Local 89, which employs thousands of UPS Inc. (NYSE: UPS) workers at the company’s Worldport global air hub and is considered one of the most engaged Teamsters locals, only 18.5% cast ballots. At Local 25 in Boston, which O’Brien has headed for years, about 32.5% of members cast ballots, one of the higher turnouts across the system. At Local 455 in Denver, Vairma’s local, about 15% of eligible voters cast ballots.
The 2021 turnout continues a two-decade downward trend in Teamsters rank-and-file participation in general elections. In 2001, 341,336 members, or 23.2% of eligible Teamsters, cast ballots, according to data from the election supervisor. In 2006, 293,795 members, or 18.2% of the eligible voters, cast ballots. In 2011, roughly 260,000 members voted, or 18.2% of the membership at that time. In 2016, the number dipped to 210,000 members, or 15.5% of the membership.
The seeming lack of interest this time around appeared odd considering what was at stake. For the first time in 23 years, General President James P. Hoffa was not on the ballot. Not only were members tasked with electing a new head and slate of officers, they were charting the course of the Teamsters for years, if not decades, to come.
The next contract with UPS, the Teamsters’ largest individual employer with 318,000 workers, expires in almost 21 months, and talks are scheduled to start later next year. The union has established a division dedicated to organizing Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) and O’Brien has said the UPS contract talks will serve as a template for how it plans to confront Amazon. Overhanging the potential conflicts with the two giants is the massive spike in e-commerce delivery demand and the role the Teamsters will play in the unprecedented cycle.
The Teamsters have made small yet noticeable inroads in organizing workers at transport giant XPO Logistics Inc. (NYSE: XPO). Then there are airline workers, car haulers, LTL carriers and union members in multiple industries with huge stakes in the outcome.
In addition, the macro environment is as labor friendly as it’s been in several years. The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent supply chain snarls gave Americans a renewed appreciation for the work and importance of the logistics labor force. Persistent worker shortages give labor an unaccustomed upper hand. What’s more, after four years in the desert under the Donald Trump administration, the Teamsters and other unions have found an oasis in the pro-labor policies of President Joe Biden.
Michael H. Belzer, an economics professor at Wayne State University and a leading authority on industrial organization and labor economics, said in a Monday email that the lack of engagement on the part of the Teamsters rank and file mirrors the disconnected state between many Americans and their elected representatives.
For a union, however, “what really counts are those that participate,” Belzer said. Teamsters locals with strong trucking DNAs tend to have a stronger affinity for the union and thus a higher level of voter participation, according to Belzer. Many Teamsters members who work outside of trucking, by contrast, may not be as engaged, he said.
Patricia Campos-Medina, director of the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said in a Monday phone interview that the quality of the turnout may be more important than the quantity. Those who did vote are likely to be far more energized to see change at the top after more than two decades of Hoffa and the likely continuation of his policies under Vairma, who was supported by the pro-Hoffa faction, Campos-Medina said.
Like O’Brien, a firebrand who has called for a new era of Teamsters combativeness, those voters are likely to be more actively engaged in the union’s activities, Campos-Medina said. When examining the turnout from that perspective, the overall numbers don’t seem bad, she said.
In a communique over the weekend, TDU said that locals led by candidates running on the O’Brien slate reported a 74.6% higher turnout than the locals with leaders on the Vairma slate. The average turnout among the 171,000 members whose leaders were affiliated with O’Brien reported a 23% turnout, according to TDU estimates. The turnout among the 165,000 members in Vairma-affiliated locals was 13%, TDU said.
The numbers showed that the O’Brien slate was “better at engaging members and turning out members,” TDU said. The group, never known for its kid-gloves communications, added that Vairma’s “more-of-the-same message didn’t attract members, even in their own locals.” Most of the candidates on the Vairma ticket “don’t have a clue about how to involve members. In fact, they prefer passive members.”
Belzer said the Teamsters’ power as a unifying force will be most felt during upcoming contract negotiations. The decisive victory will give the O’Brien ticket a “mandate to do some pretty strong things, and they are coming in during a supply chain and labor market crisis in the industry. I expect them to turn negotiations into a community activity that will engage as many people as they can.”
(This story has been updated to include historical data from the election supervisor’s office.)