The Early Years
From colonial times to the turn of the last century, the men who drove horse-drawn wagons formed the backbone of North America's wealth and prosperity. Despite their essential role as guardians of trade, the lifeblood of the economy, they remained unorganized and exploited.
In a teamster's life, work was scarce, jobs were insecure, and poverty was commonplace. In 1900, the typical teamster worked 12-18 hours a day, seven days a week for an average wage of $2 per day. A teamster was expected not only to haul his load, but to also assume liability for bad accounts and for lost or damaged merchandise. The work left teamsters assuming all of the risks with little chance for reward.
In 1901, frustrated and angry drivers banded together to form the Team Drivers International Union (TDIU), with an initial membership of 1,700. The following year, some members broke away, forming a rival group, the Teamsters National Union.
The Young IBT
Samuel Gompers, leader of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was concerned by what he saw as a waste of resources and energy, and convinced the competing unions to meet and work out their differences. Agreeing that they were stronger in solidarity than separately, they re-joined forces to create the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) at a joint convention in Niagara Falls, N.Y. in August 1903. Cornelius Shea was elected its first General President.
The early IBT struggled. Labor laws were nonexistent, and companies used anti-trust laws against unions. In 1905, the IBT backed a bloody strike at the Chicago-based Montgomery Ward Company. The strike lasted more than 100 days, tragically took 21 lives, and cost about $1 million. In the end, Montgomery Ward's cutthroat tactics broke the strike. In the face of this setback and other issues, the union realized changes were needed.
At the 1907 Convention, Dan Tobin, a strong young leader from Local 25 in Boston was elected General President. His leadership, which would guide the Teamsters for the next 45 years, brought new momentum and vision to the fledgling union.
The Teamsters now entered into a period of aggressive organizing which resulted in a broadening of the membership base as well as increased revenue and recognition. And, the types of team drivers joining the union in large numbers expanded to include gravel haulers, beer wagon drivers, milk wagon drivers and deliverymen for bakeries. Teamsters would soon move into representing drivers of the new "motor trucks,” making them pioneers in the fledgling modern transportation industry.
A Guardian of Social Justice
As the Teamsters Union grew in stature and became more confident in its ability to protect members in the workplace, the success rate of its efforts increased. The union was winning strikes, contracts were becoming standardized and benefits were won that reduced hours and increased pay. The efforts of the union also began to bring about much deserved respect and a sense of dignity to its members for their contributions to society.
The Teamsters were also becoming known as leaders on issues of social justice. In 1912, the union set a precedent when delegates to the convention voted not to accept or allow any entertainment by non-union employees. Further, the union was one of the very first to recognize the importance of organizing women.
Teamsters also demonstrated openness to racial equality, being able to boast, "Teamsters know no color line." By World War I, the Teamsters were on their way to being one of the most diverse organizations in the country.http://www.teamster.org/history/teamster-history/early-years
Teamsters were involved in the first transcontinental delivery of goods by motor truck. As a result of that event and other similar experiences, the union became a staunch advocate for improved roads and driver safety training.
Dan Tobin, the visionary General President elected in 1907, saw that technology was radically changing the freight-moving industry. Recognizing the trend and to motorization as more than a passing fad, he set out to organize the fast growing motorized truck delivery industry. He began by organizing motor truck drivers and prevailed on horse and wagon companies to train their drivers in automotive skills.
In 1912, Teamsters from the Charles W. Young Company in Philadelphia drove off on a mission that would not only change the very basis of the union, but would earn a place in the industrial history of the United States.
The five-man crew of Teamsters drivers set out from Philadelphia with three tons of Parrot Brand Olive Oil Soap, and headed for Petaluma, California. The cross-country trip was made in 91 days, arriving at City Hall in San Francisco on September 20, 1912.
The trip was kicked off with a big truck parade and display sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer. The drivers were real "pioneers" as there were few roads of any consequence along the route and no conveniences or comforts.
These drivers had no Stuckey's, no gas stations, no restrooms, no padded seats, no shocks on the truck and no real protection from the weather.
They faced many hardships and breakdowns along the way, but pushed on in true Teamster fashion, proud of their skills and their new craft.
By the time they reached their destination they had captured the imagination of the country and set an historic precedent. This first transcontinental delivery by motor truck would serve as the inauguration of a new era in the transportation of merchandise.
This was an exciting time full of possibilities for the future with one regrettable downside for Teamsters. The horses, or "teams," that had been the faithful and trusted companion of the drivers, came to the end of their road.
An Honored Symbol
The Teamsters would show an ability to adapt to numerous changes over the coming decades, but through an almost unspoken agreement among the ranks, one thing would never change: The horse would always be a proud and lasting symbol for the members, honoring the heritage and traditions that gave rise to a great union.
As proof of their devotion to their loyal partners, even amid the many changes, Teamsters declared by proclamation at the 1916 Convention that the horse would always be the heart of the union and always remain a part of any badge, button, logo or flag.
1934 MINNESOTA STRIKE
In 1934 Minneapolis was one of the major hauling centers of the United States, and the major distribution center in the Upper Midwest. Thousands of truck drivers were employed in the city's trucking industry, but many were unorganized.
A small group of organized drivers in the city made up General Drivers Local 574 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Local 574 had been trying for several years with little success to organize drivers in Minneapolis. They didn't care what industry the drivers were from, they wanted to create one large industrial organization for all drivers.
A Hostile Environment
Union recognition for workers was difficult to obtain in Minneapolis. Since the turn of the century, an employers' organization known as the Citizens Alliance had been the major force active during labor disputes in the city. The group consisted of a council of prominent local property owners and various right-wing elements active in local politics. The Alliance took a strongly anti-union line, and was often not averse to using violence to break up strikes.
But Local 574 finally got a break. In February of 1934, the local won a difficult strike at a coal yard and the victory prompted thousands of workers to join the union en masse over the next few months. This gave Local 574 an unprecedented boost, both in terms of membership numbers and credibility among drivers and warehouse workers. By May, the number of organized drivers and warehouse workers in Minneapolis had grown to 5,000.
But many companies in the city refused to recognize the union. The only recourse left to the workers was to call a general drivers' strike.
The strike began on May 16. The workers demanded recognition of the union, wage increases, shorter working hours and the right of the union to represent "inside workers" -- workers employed in distribution centers but who were not drivers, such as warehouse and loading bay workers.
The strike brought all trucking inside the city to a standstill. It also used some techniques that were not normally used in labor actions.
Flying pickets were established and deployed from the union headquarters. They patrolled the streets in a vast fleet of cars and trucks to ensure that no scab trucks were on the move. They displayed a special union sign so as to prevent confusion.
A committee of 100 strikers, which had broad representation from workers of most hauling companies in the city, was established to direct day-to-day issues and coordinate relief to strikers' families. The committee established a daily newspaper, The Organiser, which reported information and news about the strike to members and the community at large.
A Women's Auxiliary group consisting of female supporters and the wives of strikers was set up to conduct solidarity work from the union headquarters, such as organize daily demonstrations at city hall, beef up picket lines, run a food commissary and help operate a small hospital for strikers injured on the picket lines and their families. Some of the women even took part in street fighting when workers clashed with police.
The strikers committee also established an important link between the striking workers and organizations of the unemployed, who made up a third of Minneapolis' working population at the time.
The support of the jobless towards the strike undermined the employer's ability to find scab drivers.