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Autonomous FreightAutonomous VehiclesNewsTechnologyTop Stories

Teamster presidential debate makes whipping boy out of autonomous trucks

Vairma, O’Brien warn that AVs will not roll if union has any say about it

If reality matches the rhetoric from the two candidates vying to lead the Teamsters union for the next five years, autonomous trucks will operate only over the union’s collective dead body.

In the first presidential debate since the Teamsters began holding full elections in 1991, Steve Vairma and Sean O’Brien voiced opposition to autonomous trucks, calling them dangerous, reckless and a threat to union jobs. O’Brien, president of Local 25 in Boston, said he feared the scenario of a four-deep platoon of autonomous trucks suddenly hitting a computer glitch that could lead to catastrophe on the highway.

O’Brien acknowledged that technology would eventually displace some union jobs, and said his administration would pursue ways to organize or bargain with IT manufacturers as a way to protect members from the potential fallout.

Vairma, secretary-treasurer of Local 455 in Denver, took an equally hard line on AVs. “There’s no place to be putting these autonomous trucks on the road,” Vairma said, adding that too many obstacles need to be overcome before driverless commercial vehicles become a reality. Vairma added that he will “oppose anything that takes away good Teamster jobs.”

The candidates, both of whom appeared in person Wednesday night in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night, said that organizing e-tailing giant Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN) would be a top priority in their administrations.

At their international convention in June, Teamster delegates approved a resolution to form a division dedicated to organizing Amazon. The action came weeks after Amazon decisively defeated a challenge by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union (RWDSU) to organize warehouse workers at the company’s Bessemer, Alabama, warehouse. The effort was the most serious threat to Amazon’s nonunion status in its 27-year history. The 56,000-member RWDSU has a fraction of the membership and resources of the 1.4 million-member Teamsters.

Both candidates said that organizing Amazon is critical to Amazon workers and Teamster members at UPS Inc. (NYSE:UPS), which with about 340,000 Teamster-represented employees in the U.S. is by far the largest Teamster employer. Should Amazon, which is UPS’ largest customer by revenue, resume its stalled effort to build a delivery network to pursue traffic that isn’t sold on its site, it could result in lost UPS revenue and lost Teamster jobs, they said. Neither man would comment on their organizing strategy.

The current five-year UPS contract expires on July 31, 2023, and talks are likely to begin during the second half of 2022. O’Brien, who in 2017 was fired by current General President James P. Hoffa as head of the Teamsters’ small-package division just ahead of the 2018 contract bargaining cycle, said the current contract is rife with concessions. Those givebacks include a first-ever two-tier wage system, utilizing non-union workers with their personal vehicles to make deliveries, and rampant subcontracting to non-Teamster workers.

O’Brien noted that the majority of UPS members rejected the contract, but that the union leadership imposed it by invoking a controversial rule that effectively ratifies a contract even if most of the rank-and-file oppose it. That language, known as the “two-thirds” rule, was removed from the Teamster constitution in June.

Varima countered by charging that O’Brien and his allies undermined the process from the get-go by urging the rank-and-file to reject UPS’ contract proposals even before the company would introduce them. Telling members to “vote no” was tantamount to telling them not to vote, Vairma said. The result was a low voter turnout that could have affected the outcome, he said. 

“Demonizing” the UPS contract will not help the Teamsters in organizing workers at other companies, notably Amazon, Vairma said.

Either O’Brien or Vairma will succeed Hoffa, who at 80 is stepping down after 23 years as general president. Ballots will be mailed starting Oct. 4 throughout the U.S. and Canada. The vote count will begin Nov. 15. Hoffa has endorsed the slate of officers led by Vairma, leading to the belief that a vote for Vairma would be a vote for the continuation of Hoffa’s policies.

O’Brien, who is considered more militant, raised that point several times during Wednesday night’s debate, telling members that if they support the status quo, “he’s your man,” gesturing to Vairma to his right.

In a sign that Hoffa’s legacy will hang thick over the proceedings, O’Brien said that “my opponent stated Jim Hoffa is not running, but that doesn’t mean his values and his bad habits won’t continue” in a Vairma administration. O’Brien’s candidacy is built around the idea that Teamster members are tired of more than two decades of go-along-to-get-along leadership, and want the fiery hand of an insurgent like him at the helm. 

The two will square off again Sept. 14 in Las Vegas. Fred Zuckerman, O’Brien’s candidate for secretary-treasurer, and Ron Herrera, Vairma’s No. 2, will debate Sept. 29 in Chicago. Zuckerman, head of Local 89 in Louisville, Kentucky, home of UPS’ Worldport global air hub, narrowly lost to Hoffa in 2016. 

The Teamsters instituted direct election of its top officers in 1989 as part of a landmark consent decree that called for government oversight of the union. While no longer under federal supervision, the union has incorporated a direct election system, including oversight by an independent election supervisor, into its constitution.

Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.

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