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Reflections on Steve Vairma’s career and failed run for Teamsters president

By staff

Status quo in the labor movement rejected

Denver, CO – Steve Vairma, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 455 in Denver, attended his last meeting as a Teamster before his May retirement. Vairma is retiring following an unsuccessful run for General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) in the 2021 International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) elections. Vairma ran alongside running mate and former Teamster Ron Hererra as part of the Teamster Power (TP) slate which was backed by the outgoing incumbent James “Jimmy” Hoffa Jr. Hoffa did not seek reelection after twenty-three years in office.

The elections resulted in a commanding win for their opponents Sean O’Brien of Local 25 in Boston and Fred Zuckerman of Local 89 in Louisville, who led the Teamsters United (TU) slate. The Teamster United slate won by a two-to-one margin in the election to determine leadership of the 1.3-million-member union, running on a demand from working Teamsters for a fighting union, and a strong contract fight at UPS in 2023 negotiations.

Now in power, the Teamster United slate is now leading the union as Teamsters at UPS enter into a historic contract fight that may result in a nation wide strike. Vairma made his exit just a year and a half after losing the general election. Similarly Herrera resigned as a Teamster official in late 2022 after audio leaked of his participation in an L.A. County Federation of Labor meeting in which remarks were made that were deemed anti-Black and anti-LGBTQ+ by his home local, Teamsters Local 396.

In addition, Rome Aloise, the architect of the Vairma-Herrera slate, was permanently banned from the Teamsters for allegedly threatening members, taking gifts from employers, negotiating a sham contract, and illegally using union resources to rig a local union election. To add to the list of controversies in the Vairma camp, in 2017, the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found Vairma’s Local 455 guilty of discrimination against a group of Somali workers they represented. The previous General President, Hoffa, supported Vairma and Herrera as candidates.

Hoffa, who was well-known amongst UPS workers for pushing through an unpopular contract in 2018, stepped down that same year. The contract entrenched two-tier driver positions among other concessions, and was voted down by 54% of voting members, but was ultimately imposed anyway due to the now-infamous “two-thirds rule,” an obscure loophole that allows a contract to be pushed through if fewer than two-thirds of voters reject the contract in cases where turnout is below 50 percent.

Referring to this rule, Hoffa said imposing the contract “brings a good contract to a lot of people who want that contract. It was the right thing to do.” The “two-thirds rule” has been removed from the constitution, due to the work of the Teamster United slate. The Teamster United slate also implemented other constitutional reforms including the addition of rank-and-file members to all bargaining committees, guaranteed strike benefits starting on day one of a strike rather than week two, and a ban of the codification of contract supplements and riders that have been rejected by the membership.

Following the implementation of the unpopular contract, Hoffa Jr. claimed, “People today are making excellent wages, [have] excellent health care, excellent vacations, excellent pensions, and it’s a wonderful contract that deals with all of the challenges we face in regard to e-commerce and all the things going on in the changing industries. The world is changing, and that contract anticipates those changes.”

Many UPS workers, however, felt the pain of the contract in the wake of COVID-19. “I don’t think the contract anticipates change; the guaranteed part-time wages are less than my city’s minimum wage,” says rank-and-file Teamster Kyle Burroughs, a member of Vairma’s local. “There was no form of hazard pay for work during the pandemic and we consistently worked at peak volume while UPS raked in record profits. I understand a worldwide pandemic wasn’t anyone’s prediction, but the claim that the contract anticipates a changing world is just untrue.”

Vairma, as recently as 2021, defended the unpopular UPS contract, calling it “one of the best contracts in our entire union.” Vairma also claimed that General President Sean O’Brien’s attacks on the UPS deal will make it harder for the union to win upcoming organizing efforts, including at Amazon, a key target for the Teamsters. O’Brien responded that only by winning much better contracts can the Teamsters hope to organize additional members.

Hoffa initially tried to stave off his growing unpopularity with the rank and file by appointing O’Brien to lead the contract negotiations at UPS in 2017. O'Brien sought to bring all Teamster officers into the negotiating process, including ones who had opposed Hoffa in his 2016 election like Fred Zuckerman and Local 251 Principal Officer Matt Taibi. In response, Hoffa fired O’Brien, allegedly for taking too hard a position against the company, leading to O'Brien's break with the incumbent administration.

In the election, O’Brien campaigned on the need for a Teamsters union that fights the boss to set a precedent of strong contracts, most notably the 2023 contract negotiations for the nation-wide UPS contract. In contrast to this message, Vairma represented what can only be called the status quo in the labor movement – all bark and no bite.

Vairma’s departure just before the UPS contract fight can be interpreted as a failing of leadership at the local level to properly fight for worker power. His history of struggle in Local 455 is also questionable. Vairma had called six strikes in his 20-year career as Secretary-Treasurer of his local, while O’Brien notes that he has led significantly more himself as a labor leader. During the 2021 debates, O’Brien stated, “If you're happy with the direction this International has gone over the last 10 years and you're happy with status quo, [Vairma] is your guy. This is his team.”

While Vairma consistently talked positively of the 2018 UPS contract, the way people talk about a contract will not be remembered – the actual effects of the contract on hundreds of thousands of people’s lives, however, will be. Should the 2023 UPS contract fight go well for the Teamsters, it will mark a significant win in the workers struggle, and O’Brien has signaled that he is intent on preparing the Teamsters for that fight.

Teamsters at UPS are negotiating their next contract and many of the same UPS Teamsters on the ground who helped O’Brien get elected, on a campaign largely about building a strike at UPS, are working hard to build a strike ready group of workers across the US. O’Brien is called upon to lead the fight he campaigned on and not accept a sub-par contract. If O’Brien lives up to his word the strike is widely expected to begin on August 1, 2023.

#DenverCO #Teamsters #strike #UPS