International Brotherhood of Teamsters Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has been instrumental in improving working conditions for laborers in numerous sectors of the business community and in standardizing contracts and promoting fair treatment for all workers.

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth century, most of the goods and merchandise manufactured and sold were transported in wagons drawn by teams of horses or mules. The drivers of these wagons were known as teamsters. Their work made their lives harsh and financially insecure. The average teamster worked a twelve- to eighteen-hour day and earned on the average $2 for the long day’s work. The workweek could easily be seven days. Teamsters were financially responsible for any merchandise that was lost or damaged and also for accounts that were not collectible on delivery.International Brotherhood of Teamsters

In 1901, in an effort to improve their working conditions and their lives, a group of teamsters organized the Team Drivers International Union (TDIU). The organization had a membership of seventeen hundred. However, factions developed during the first year. In 1902, part of the membership withdrew from the TDIU and formed the Teamsters National Union. Then, in 1903, under the influence of Samuel Gompers, the leader of the American Federation of Labor, the two rival groups reunited. In August of 1903, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (better known as the Teamsters) was founded at Niagara Falls, New York. Cornelius Shea was chosen as the first general president.

At the time, there were no labor laws to protect workers. Companies used antitrust laws against unions, arguing that work stoppages and strikes interfered with the free operation of the market and affected the prices that consumers paid. In 1905, the Teamsters supported a strike against Montgomery WardMontgomery Ward, based in Chicago. The strike lasted for one hundred days, resulted in twenty-one deaths, and cost $1 million, but Montgomery Ward defeated the strikers. The union leaders realized they needed to change their tactics.

Aggressive Leadership and Recruitment

In 1907, Dan Tobin, DanTobin, a member of the Boston Local 25, was elected general president of the Teamsters. He held the office for forty-five years. Tobin provided the aggressive leadership that the union needed to prosper. He immediately began an active campaign to increase and broaden union membership. Large numbers of teamsters from different sectors of business joined the union, including gravel haulers, beer-wagon drivers, milk-wagon drivers, and bakery delivery drivers. The union faced considerable opposition in its desire to represent beer-wagon drivers. The United Brewery Workers seriously objected to their recruitment by the Teamsters and stopped the recruitment in 1913 by appealing to the American Federation of Labor. It was not until 1933 that the Teamsters gained the right to organize the beer drivers.

During this period, the Teamsters began to make some important gains for their membership. The union won strikes and obtained standardized contracts with reduced hours, increased pay, and benefits. However, the battle for nationwide recognition of the union and equality in negotiating with business firms was not easily won.

Minneapolis, 1934

In 1934, Minneapolis, Minnesota, one of the major hauling centers in the United States and the major distribution center for the Midwest, had not been effectively organized by the Teamsters. The General Drivers Local 574 undertook the organization. There was intense hostility, especially from the Citizen’s Alliance, to the efforts to bring the local workers into the union. In February, Local 574 staged a successful strike at a local coal yard, with the result that several thousand workers joined the union. Trucking industry;strikeMany of the companies where the workers were employed refused to recognize the union, however.

On May 16, a general strike was called; demands included recognition of the Teamsters union, the right to represent warehouse and loading bay workers as well as truckers, increased wages and shorter working hours. The Teamsters managed to bring all trucking in Minneapolis to a standstill. The conflict escalated over the next months, reaching its crescendo on July 17, when two union pickets were killed and sixty-five were injured in a conflict with police known as Bloody Friday. Union leaders were arrested on July 31. A protest by almost forty thousand people brought about the release of the leaders. On August 21, the strike ended as the result of mediation. The major union demands were accepted, and the Teamsters union was recognized as the collective bargaining representative of its membership by the business firms.

Trucks and Hoffa

During the early years of Tobin’s presidency, the Teamsters were instrumental in advancing the use of “motor trucks” for deliveries. Tobin encouraged horse and wagon companies to train their drivers both to drive and to repair “motor trucks,” and he began organizing these drivers. In 1912, Teamsters from the Charles W. Young Company made the first transcontinental delivery of goods by truck. The five-man crew left Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with three tons of Parrot Brand Olive Soap and drove to Petaluma, California, in ninety-one days.

Although there is evidence that corruption was present in the union almost from its founding, it was particularly during the presidency of Jimmy Hoffa, JimmyHoffa that corruption and links to organized crime became an issue of national importance for the Teamsters. Hoffa stood trial and, after numerous appeals, was convicted and went to prison in 1967. Hoffa was, however, instrumental in winning enactment of the National Master Freight Agreement in 1964. The agreement provided standardized protection and benefits to all Teamsters. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters continues to be a significant force in American business relations, with its workforce, and in American politics.

Further Reading
  • Brody, David. Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the Twentieth Century Struggle. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Discusses the development of unions, their industrial and political importance, and the Teamsters’ interaction with other unions.
  • International Brotherhood of Teamsters. One Hundredth Anniversary: A Strong Legacy, a Powerful Future. Philadelphia: DeLancey, 2003. An official history of the Teamsters that portrays the strengths of the union.
  • Korth, Philip. Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1995. Detailed study of the strike that gained recognition and influence for the Teamsters.
  • Nicholson, Philip Yale. Labor’s Story in the United States. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004. Traces the history of labor from revolutionary times and the life of early teamsters as horse drivers; good coverage of late twentieth century Teamster activity. Bibliography, index.
  • Witwer, David. Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Historical study of how and why the Teamsters were plagued with corruption and efforts to combat it. Numerous perspectives.

Jimmy Hoffa

Labor history

Labor strikes

Organized crime

Trucking industry

United Farm Workers of America

United Food and Commercial Workers

United Mine Workers of America

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