Wednesday, November 4, 2009

My Life as a Teamster

Let's begin.

I was thinking about something and came across an error on one of my previous posts. I wrote about how many jobs I have had over the years and even though the list I posted was up to 81, I remembered another place I worked. It slips right in between numbers 5 and 6. I drove truck for a cartage company in Chicago. It was called TH Ryan Cartage and it was a local union cartage job. My Dad worked for Ryan with a steady house at Production Steel Company. He retired in 1982 after twenty years there. Basically, a cartage company was used by businesses. They would call to get a trailer hauled and either loaded and unloaded at a location or use cartage drivers to drive their own trucks for daily deliveries.

Many mornings I would report to work and be told to get into tractor number 241, an old B Model Mack, and head on over to the railroad yards to haul trailers around town all day. Drop one here, pick one up there. Load, unload. Then there was always the Revere Electric Company. They had a bunch of trucks and were a big electrical supply distributer in Chicagoland. They’d need drivers to take one of their trucks and do a route around the city.

A picture from the T.H. Ryan web site.

I drove dry vans, refrigerated vans, dry bulk, liquid bulk, (which was usually hazardous stuff like chemicals and solvents), flat beds, goosenecks, straight trucks, (both single and tandem axel), and even a small cargo van for a company called Emery Air Freight who was the forerunner to FedEX, DHL and all air freight carriers in existence today.

So many of the trucking companies that existed in the 1970's and 80's are gone. They tried mergers at first, but then died the slow death of bankruptcy until they just closed their doors. I remember along MN Highway 280 North of I-94 there being no less than seven freight hauling trucking companies. They are all gone, and some were the biggest names in the business. Admiral Merchants, Consolidated Freightways, Smith, Murphy. All gone. The old multi doored freight terminals with for lease and for sale signs that have disintegrated from being there for so long.

Getting back to my job at TH Ryan, since it was a union job, that meant I had to put in some time before I got the union wages. I think, if I remember back then to 1970, I had to work thirty days at below the current union contract pay scale. After that thirty days, I got bumped up to union scale. They took union dues out of my paycheck. I don’t remember what the union dues were back then either.

For my payment of union dues, I was given the pay of union scale. I was also put on a list of drivers that was based on seniority. I couldn’t work if someone higher up on the list wasn’t working. It was all done by seniority. There was quite a bit of posturing and negotiating for what we called a Steady House.

The Steady House jobs were companies that had trucks and used union TH Ryan Company drivers to operate those trucks. They would actually go to that company and it would be like they drove for them and not TH Ryan. In Minnesota, I worked for LaSalle Cartage and it was the same way. I never got a Steady House job in Chicago, but I did after a time at LaSalle. I drove industrial solvents for Worum Chemical. They did a lot of business with 3M who was headquartered in St. Paul, MN.

I drove a rig like this B Model Mack in the late 1970's in St. Paul, MN for LaSalle Cartage Co.

At Ryan, being low on the seniority list gave me a wide variety of work. Almost daily I’d get a different kind of truck and a different place to go. I loved truck driving. Where else could you get to work and then leave and be out on your own? I made it a point to try to get to at least one different coffee house or cafe each day. I found some real gems, and a few dumps too. Chicago is a big city.

Typical sign for what was called a coffee shop before the Starbucks era.

Of course coffee shops back in the early 1970’s were not like the coffee shops of today. No espresso and lattes. Just a diner counter where you could get just a cup of strong black coffee and maybe a doughnut or a sweet roll to go along. Breakfast or lunch. Quick food, called short orders, burgers, BLT’s, patty melts. Soup for lunch, the usual bacon, ham or sausage and eggs for breakfast, along with the coffee. The waitress would always ask, “Coffee?”, when you walked in and sat down.

And the interior of said Coffee Shop would look something like this.

I wasn’t rich, but I did make a real good wage as a union driver. More than most non union guys were making, and I had job security in the form of that seniority list. I knew I was protected from someone getting hired after me and taking my job. But I also knew that in economic hard times I could be laid off before those higher on the list.

Other benefits back in those days was complete health care, paid for by the employer, for you and all members of your family, and a deposit into a union run pension account. Paid holidays and certain rules regarding overtime. I remember when I worked in the motion picture business that some days I’d come in and start at double time the wages because of union rules.

In 1970, I was making right around five bucks per hour. That was great money back in those days and other than social security, income taxes and union dues, there were no other deductions, as I mentioned, because health and welfare was part of the compensation package.

At Ryan’s, we’d be milling around, loading trucks and checking oil on trucks and the big black Cadillac would pull up. A cigar smoking guy in a black suit would get out and the roach coach would pull in right behind him. He was the union business agent and he’d buy coffee from that roach coach for anyone who wanted one. He’d shake a few hands of the guys he knew personally, and that was just about every one of them, and he’d ask. “How’re things going?”

If there were any complaints, they were mentioned and a plan of action would be set up. Usually, a visit from him was because someone called his office and had a problem or a question about some part of the job that had something to do with the union. Maybe someone had worked an hour longer than someone beneath him in seniority, and didn’t get paid for it, or someone had broken the seniority barrier in some other way. It was usually management’s fault. The business agent would come, buy coffee, glad hand the guys and set management straight about the situation.

All the time the business agent stood around with all the drivers drinking coffee and talking, old man Ryan was on the dock, arms folded, waiting for the guys to get back to work. After all, time was money, but he didn’t dare say anything while the union boss was there.

That was then. This is now.

Times have changed. Unions are taking it in the shorts. Concessions are being made to wage structures and they started a long time ago changing around the benefit packages. Many union employees are paying part or even all of their health care costs. Some with larger households pay more than a worker with no kids. The business agents I have seen lately are driving Toyotas, not black Cadillacs, and they don’t smoke at all let alone cigars. The pension funds, always a point of controversy and the reason behind many a revolt to the union hierarchy in the early days, is, in my mind, still a big problem.

You see, you have to get vested to receive a pension. So, if you work your 30 days or whatever and pay the initiation fee to be a member of the Teamsters, then they would start putting so much into an account for you for your retirement pension. If you got laid off, you had to keep putting money into that pension fund, because if you didn’t, you wouldn’t get any of it back when you quit or retire. It was not a 401(k).

A case in point is my older brother. He worked as a Teamster in Chicago for a local furniture movers union. Eleven years I think. He got another Teamster Union job and held that for fourteen years, but it was under the guidance of an International Teamster Union. Even though these two unions are Teamsters and part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, he got no pension because their pension funds did not recognize the time and money paid to each account. Tricky, eh? Work 20 plus years as a Teamster, but retire and get nothing. Now he is fighting, with an attorney, to get something.

The Teamster Union Withdrawal Card

This excerpt, taken from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters website and an article written by current Teamster Union President James P. Hoffa states this:

Multi-employer plans such as the Teamsters Central States Fund are not well understood. They are set up as trusts and operated by joint management-labor boards of trustees. They are not controlled by unions and are required by law to be completely independent of the contributing employers and the unions representing their participants. Their trustees are legally required to act solely in the interest of the plan participants.

Many current and retired Teamsters are covered by the Central States Fund. The Fund was severely weakened after 1980 by deregulation of the trucking industry. Deregulation drove 700 trucking companies out of business. Many employees who had earned pensions were left high and dry. The workers of the defunct companies became the obligation of the fund and the surviving businesses. Meanwhile, the bankrupt companies paid little or nothing to cover the benefits earned by their employees.

Now, the surviving trucking companies may have to close their doors because they can’t afford their legal obligations to contribute to the fund. Tens of thousands of jobs would be lost, something this country–and Michigan–can ill afford.

Read HERE for more about the Central States Fund.

This plan gave the Teamsters loads of money to invest. Think of how many people who got into the union, paid their dues, initiation fees and got their retirement money paid into an account, then were laid off and never called back up and never had enough money to continue to pay into their retirement? Lots of cash for them to use to line their own pockets. Some say, and history mentions, the senior Jimmy Hoffa and his trials related to the Teamster pension fund money and loans to "The Mob".

In California, in the 1990’s. I was asked to work a show out in Hollywood. I wasn’t a union member in California. But I did have a withdrawal card from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters when I worked in Minnesota. I put in my 30 days and was asked to pay the initiation. I had the withdrawal card and they had to honor that I was already a member, just not working lately. That pained them to lose out on the initiation money. I found out that in L.A., and the entire West Coast that the Teamsters control with their blanket by local 399, there were over 2000 workers that paid to be in the union and never called again. Then, I was called, from Minnesota, to work. The transportation coordinator that called me knew me and wanted me to work. He didn’t call the union hall and ask for drivers. I refused to transfer into the 399 and returned to Minnesota and went back to work there, eventually. I should have refused to go to California in the first place, but that’s how I learned about the illegal and fraudulent methods they were using to gather up millions in fees and give nothing except false security hopes to workers.

The back of the withdrawal card.

In the beginning, the union brought us the eight hour work week and stopped the abuse of children and other workers in the workplace. It was a great idea, stand together as a union work force. One strikes, we all strike for mistreatment. Make the corporations treat workers a certain respectful way and evenly across the board. Make wages enough for a member to make a decent living. People wanted to be union members because of the benefits and the pay scale. Non union jobs paid less, had less benefits and offered no security for the worker.

Now, unions are less than half of what they were. Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers in the eighties and it hasn’t stopped. Now, the unions, like the Teamsters, are fighting for their own lives and because of the instability of the economy, wage and benefit concessions are being cut wholesale. Michael Moore’s movie about capitalism tells of an airline pilot that must work a second job as a coffee house barista to attempt to make ends meet. And that’s a union pilot. The disparity that once existed between union workers and non union workers has disintegrated, and probably rightfully so to a degree. It was such a wide chasm at one point. That was when unions were strong and membership flourished. When the corporations in America found ways to change that union landscape and get their products out into the markets without union labor, unions started to crumble. Less members meant less health and welfare payments and less money overall which led to failing pension programs and even more stinginess for benefits.

Even the eight hour workday is gone. Companies like WalMart hire a plethora of part time non union workers. None of them working enough hours in any one week to be eligible for company paid or subsidized benefits. In the trucking industry, there aren’t many drivers that still come in at eight a.m. and punch the clock. They are called in at random times and only work the hours needed. The Teamsters have fallen to their knees.

Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe as corporations go, the Teamsters might be as bad as any other corporation that is trying to make the bottom line as big as it can for stockholders. Some lower on the food chain will suffer, but some will prosper. After all, the twenty plus years my brother worked and paid into a pension fund gave them a lot of money that he’ll never get. It’s there somewhere. Someone is getting it.

One joke is that the Teamster Logo uses the twin horses because the horse is the only animal that can sleep standing up.

I must admit and confess. When I worked under the auspices of the Teamsters, I took every morsel they gave me. We prided ourselves as a code of honor to get paid for the least amount of work that we were asked to perform. The joke was our motto, which was, "Show concern, but take no action." By the way, they have all the money I paid in too. All together, about 14 years as a teamster in seven different Teamster locals. The St. Paul 120, Minneapolis 544, Minneapolis 638, California 399, Chicago Local 11, Chicago CTDU Local 1 and Chicago Local 705 IBT. I have no chance whatsoever to see any of the pension deposits paid into the fund in my name from any of these jobs.

My point? The times, they are a changin’ and have been for a long time. When this country stopped producing products and sent millions of jobs overseas by ending tariffs and opening up free trade, we, as Americans, lost jobs. The unions we thought would protect us from this failed to protect, and in fact, fell to the standards of the very industries they told us they were saving us from.

If the unions had remained strong, I’m not sure how it would be. If Ronald Reagan had not stepped in to crush the air traffic controllers and show the unions that they had no choice but to stop escalating wages and benefits, things might be different, but I’m not sure if the difference would put America back to work. This article about India’s Labor unions is interesting. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before things start coming back home. But that’s India.

China is a very different animal. The government is making foreign interests set up trade unions in China. This guarantees the flow of money into China. The American corporations have forsaken our own people to make more money now with no idea what the future will hold. It’s a wait and see chess game and so far, it looks like America and the Teamsters are in a checkmate. Who knows, maybe some day it won't be cheaper to operate a complete manufacturing facility in China for a fraction of what it would cost to do it here in the United States. Imagine the prosperity to American business and labor to rebuild infrastructure and operate factories that actually make something right here on our own soil.

There are many more sides to any story. The earlier part of this article tells of my own experiences as Teamster union member. The latter is some opinion based on the news as reported. The real issue is very much more complicated. But it does have to do with money, a lot of money. Seems that history has shown us that In America, when large quantities of money are involved, the existence of foul play goes up. This has been the case with the Teamsters in the past.



Mel said...

My father built tractors--he was a Union man. That was back in the day when belonging to the Union meant something. Being ignorant as I am, I'm really not sure what it means today...I guess that's pretty sad, huh?

Beautiful trucks. Seriously. They don't make 'em that pretty any more--it's all paint and glitz it would seem......

I don't suppose there's much hope for retrieving funds seemingly lost in the shuffle...and you're right--it went somewhere!
Oh....what different days those were.
Gawwwwdddddd...k....NOW I sound like my father.....LOL

susan said...

Unfortunately, it was the strength of the unions in this country back in the 60's that allowed for the current health care crisis. It was then that most industrialized countries were coming up with single payer systems but in general, the powerful unions didn't want to give up the benefits they already had in place. You're right that we have a bad situation everywhere and I see no end of troubles before something both sane and international comes along.

Spadoman said...

The following comment appeared on my Facebook page. My blog posts are posted there automatically after I post on Blogger. This is from an old work mate and friend that I've reconnected with lately. It's in 2 parts as it is too long for blogger to handle. Here is Comment, part 1:

Roger Hahn Another great story, Joe. I had two experiences with unions in my life that certainly formed my current opinion. My first job was a union summer job at Rahr Malting Company in my hometown of Shakopee, MN. Rahr, in an effort to be civic minded, would hire 30-40 of us local college students to do the work that the union guys hated. They painted, scraped, hauled, assisted the union guys and many of them had fairly rigorous days, down in these deep vats, using electric paint and rust scrapers all day long. And one summer when I did get lucky enough to land a job at Rahr those pits were where I ended up. Not much fun. But in the mid-70's they were paying $7.25 an hour to a college student! Big money to me.
Luckily, one day the father of one of my best friends happened to walk by and see me down there. He barely recognized me as I was covered head to toe in protective gear. And miraculously, the next day, I was off the paint crew and became the new assistant to Al, the plumber.
Al was the stereotypical union guy. And his goal, and then mine, was to disappear, do nothing and try not to be seen by anyone. Particularly management. It took a day or two for me to get my head around it when he would say "take your tool pouch and I don't want to see you until lunch". "Oh, and by the way, make sure to leave 15 minutes to a half hour early FOR lunch 'cuz you gotta' clean up and stuff and you don't want to waste time cleaning up on your lunch hour."
So, I quickly got into the routine of making myself extremely scarce around this huge plant. I had a regular routine where I would visit my friends, some of whom were actually doing something, find spots to hide and sit and snack and read. Yep, I read. My only trouble, really, was making sure I didn't slip into one of Al's hiding places.
Mind you now, that Al was also allowed to take a coffee break in the morning and the afternoon. And, of course, he had to allow plenty of time to get to the break room, wash his hands, take a leak and get his coffee and not miss a minute of the union break.
Well, this was a heck of a summer for me. I rode my bicycle to work, never got dirty unless some big-ass valve broke that Al felt like fixing, visited buddies all day, listened in on union talk from all the old-timers and collected a nice check every Friday afternoon!
The best part of the story is that there was a younger guy working there, a trained electrician actually, who had a real feud going on with management for some reason I can't recall. So, every day when the shop doors went up he would drive his vintage pickup or Harley into a bay and proceed to work on it all day, every day. And the union couldn't touch him. He was there many years later when I stopped in to see Al and still working on his stuff. He had created the most beautiful Honda Gold Wing touring bike you could imagine. With Rahr tools, Rahr utilities, Rahr's spray booth and, I'm guessing a considerable amount of Rahr's solvents, paints, paper towels, rags, etc.. Rumor had it that his personal tool box was outfitted with rows of sweet, suspiciously new tools.
Al retired from Rahr some years later and with a nice benefit package, too. I went to his party and saw one damn nice work shop at his house! All neat, shiny and seemingly of familiar brands of tools.

Spadoman said...

Comment part 2:

Years later, while owning a resort and canoe outfitting business in the Boundary Waters I exhibited at many sport shows around the midwest. As I ultimately did about 100 of those shows, from 5-10 days each, I got pretty good at my routine of moving in and out of these trade halls. UNTIL I hit places like Chicago, Kansas City and the like. Then the union guys had to move everything for you. You could not carry anything at all. NOTHING. So, instead of moving in and setting up in about a half hour I had to wait, and get on lists, and watch these guys moving like molasses and not listening so they'd end up stacking all of my cases of brochures, for a busy 10 day show in my little square so that I could then move all the crap back out of my little square so they could put the rental carpet down on the floor. And even tho' they weren't supposed to they always subtly had their hands out. And if ever wanted to get out of there ten days later you'd better have some greenbacks handy. And to top it off, they were all rude as hell. If you were finally moving your load towards your booth location and they ran into some other guys you'd better have your favorite paperback in your pocket because they could ignore you so hard it felt like a freakin' death threat! You didn't so much as ask nicely if we could get going 'cuz you just drove 12 hours in freezing temps, on icy roads, in deep slushy urban roads and had just gotten hassled by the Chicago Police outside the convention hall as if you were a terrorist trying to sneak into a damn boat show! And NO you can't park reasonably close to the building you dumb fuck, we gotta' keep these roads open for safety. What are you a goddamn businessman or something. What do you mean you drove all night so that you didn't have to spend another hundred bucks and pay 17% local taxes for the pleasure. Go on. Get outta' here.
So, while I think there was a great need for unions and the protection they offered their members many, many, many decades ago, I'd say that it's time for them to go. I saw Moore's latest movie, too, and he made some good points, but our country simply cannot compete when our union guys are making some truly outrageous salaries, with some major benefit packages. And I believe that many unions, or should I say, many union workers, started to get that during this latest "downturn in the economy".
I hope this comes out at least properly punctuated 'cuz it is three in the morning and I should be asleep!
Good discussion tonight, Joe. One perhaps better continued around a campfire, leaning against my American made bike ...

Spadoman said...

WoW, Thanks. I appreciate your comments.

Mel... I like the old trucks too, a lot better than the ones today. They all seem to look the same nowadays.
The funds weren't lost in any shuffle. If you don't pay steadily over the years, you get no pension. I guess I knew that up front, and with a lifestyle like mine when you quit and change jobs, it would have been impossible to keep up with it.
Those were different days and I'm not sure that in all cases they were better.
Thanks again for stopping by.

susan... Thnaks for being here. Yes, it is unfortunate, but it is also fortunate because unions paved the way for higher wages, in some cases, paid by non union firms to compete. My jury is out over the current state of affairs in the union and whether they are good or bad. I don't even think I can make it a black and white question.
Thanks again, Peace.

Roger... You're in depth comment telling of specific instances dealing with unions says a lot. Much of what you say is stereotype, because not all union members are that way, but some are. I worked hard and did a good job. I was honest and fair and polite. I got nothing for being that way and saw others not doing their job and cheating the company out of tools and hours, (which related to stealing money in the form of extra non earned wages). I was also called upon to be put on a certain job as management knew it would get done. But there is no reward for this in a union shop. That is certainly a bad side of things.
But still, there is the 8 hour work day and the end of child labor and discriminatory labor and sweat shops. They did some good at a time.

Thanks for your comment and your friendship.


Joe Brock said...

As a former Teamster Official in a large eastern city, I've long felt distressed at the demise in principles and integrity among my former peers. Unfortunately, they've become a copy of the type of greed that they once stood in lockstep against.

However, as someone versed in pension funding and ERISA, there's something missing from your story outlining you and your brothers pension vesting. If your brother worked at a company that made pension contributions in his name for 11 years, he should have a pension from that company. No company or union official can get their hands on that money, assuming that money is post-ERISA. Also, any money contributed for a company that has 5 year vesting is forfeited if you don't make the 5 year vesting period. That money doesn't go into "someone's" hands, but is returned to the fund and is used to calculate a pension formula for all participants in the fund who make vesting. That is, people smarter than me(actuaries)use statistics to calculate a certain % of people who won't vest in their funding calculations for all. These assumptions are used to calculate a benefit.