March 17, 2011
thought leaders | The DC Velocity Q & A

The gadfly: interview with Ken Paff

Working from the inside, Ken Paff has brought about reforms that give Teamster members more say in the running of their union. Now, he's working to eject the old guard and bring in new leadership.

By Mark B. Solomon

Anyone affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters knows not to expect a neutral reaction when Ken Paff's name is mentioned.

To his supporters, Paff embodies an independent voice that holds the entrenched Teamster leadership accountable for actions that affect the 1.3 million-member union. To his critics, Paff is a nuisance whose importance is greatly exaggerated relative to the size of his group, the 10,000-member Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

Paff and the Detroit-based TDU are joined at the hip; he became the group's national organizer in 1978, a post he holds to this day. His tenure has been marked by such accomplishments as overturning the "two-thirds" rule, which had allowed contracts to be ratified with the approval of as little as one-third of the membership. Paff was also instrumental in helping Teamster members win the right to vote for its top leadership.

Throughout this year, Paff's voice will be heard. In the upcoming Teamster general election race, TDU has endorsed Sandy Pope, head of New York-based Local 805, who will challenge incumbent James P. Hoffa for the presidency. If Pope prevails, she will become the first woman to run the Teamsters. Lest anyone miss the significance of Paff's endorsement, consider that 20 years ago he backed another head of a New York local also considered a dark horse candidate. His name was Ron Carey.

In an interview with DC Velocity Senior Editor Mark B. Solomon, Paff, who turns 65 next month, spoke bluntly about Hoffa, the state of trucking labor, and why Pope is his choice. He also lashed out at leadership for allowing UPS Inc. to spend more than $6 billion to buy its way out of the Central States pension plan, a move he fears will, in the long run, cost the union dearly.

Ken Paff Q: One Teamster executive called you—with grudging admiration—a "pain in the ass." Do you think that's a reflection of Ken Paff's personality, or the nature of a dissident?
A: It's the TDU movement that the Hoffa administration finds threatening. It's not dissent per se, and it's certainly not about me. It's about an organized rank-and-file movement. These officials cannot stand it when members speak up and demand accountability. If there were no TDU, they would not have to worry about an alternative vision for the union, and members who want change would be isolated from one another. So the Hoffa administration spends a lot of resources attacking TDU.

They attack dissent, and they tend to support only those locals whose leaders march in lockstep. As a result, they weaken the union. In suppressing dissent, they are also undermining rank-and-file power and Teamster unity in action.

Q: TDU is supporting the campaign of Sandy Pope to be the next Teamster general president. What qualities do you see in her that convince you she is the most qualified to head the union? And how would her election affect both freight carriers and their employees?
A: Sandy Pope is a Teamster. Hoffa is a celebrity. He is not involved in bargaining contracts, dealing with members' pension funds, aiding locals, or organizing—the lifeblood of the union. He spends his time at photo ops and golf outings, and with his inner circle.

Sandy Pope comes from the ranks and has experience in leadership at all levels of the union. Most of all, she has a vision for tapping rank-and-file power to build the union. To put the union's resources into building strength in core Teamster industries. And she's not going to be in bed with the corporations.

There is a great potential to draw Teamsters—who are by and large good unionists—into action behind union programs. We saw the beginnings of this in the 1990s, including during the UPS strike of 1997. That strike was not just won at the table. It was a full year of membership mobilization and involvement in [the] struggle. Sandy Pope was a part of that team. Hoffa and his people tried to undermine that struggle. They cozy up to UPS management and play "let's make a deal."

Q: How would you rate the job that Hoffa has done running the Teamsters? Where has he succeeded? And where has he fallen short?
A: His specialty is working the media, which can be beneficial for the Teamsters and the labor movement. But as a strategy, it points in the wrong direction. When he ran for Teamster president, his slogan was "The Hoffa name means power," and for a while, he seemed to actually believe that by puffing himself up, it could somehow make the union strong. But the air is out of that balloon. He's fallen short in defending Teamster pensions, maintaining and strengthening national contracts, and helping local unions. He ran on "local autonomy" but runs the union top down.

Q: Trucking labor has been in what appears to be a long-term secular decline in membership and in influence. What, in your view, can re-energize the freight division, if indeed anything can be done?
A: I start with this basic point: Transport and distribution are growth industries, and cannot be exported. It's not like manufacturing. So the Teamsters union should be in a growth mode in trucking, warehousing, distribution, rail, construction, waste, and public employment. In today's political and economic climate, that won't be easy, but it can be done with a long-term plan in place and a leadership capable of implementing it. It cannot be done trading Teamster power for short-term gains, like Hoffa's deal that let UPS bust out of the Central States pension plan. That was a crime.

UPS Freight is a critical piece of the plan. So is rebuilding the master freight contract. And organizing the non-union LTLs is another piece of the strategy. The present leadership has a short-term outlook—since it's a big challenge, they throw up their hands and head for the golf course, where they can meet up with trucking management. Can the union be rebuilt in freight and trucking? Absolutely. But it won't happen overnight, and it certainly won't happen with the present leadership.

Q: You have been skeptical of YRC Worldwide's efforts to survive through its series of restructured labor agreements. How do you assess its prospects? And have the rank and file sacrificed too much to keep the company alive?
A: When the ship hits the reef, you can't blame the galley slaves. It's been poorly managed.

We're all hoping YRC will survive. It may depend on the pace of economic recovery. The working Teamsters have done far more than their share to make it possible. Right now, they are about $11 per hour under [National Master Freight Agreement levels] on pensions and wages, and they've lost additional contract protections that took decades of Teamster power to win. I'd be hard-pressed to name any other group of American workers who have taken such a big hit in their standard of living.

Q: ABF Freight System, YRC's chief union rival, sued YRC and the Teamsters on grounds the two negotiated their own agreements outside of the National Master Freight Agreement. But the suit was dismissed as having no legal standing. Do you believe ABF has a case?
A: We said from the start that ABF didn't have a case, and the suit was promptly dismissed. But ABF management isn't stupid. They got a lot of press and reached a lot of Teamsters with their viewpoint. They also exposed that Hoffa approached them to offer them concessions, if they would acquire and merge with YRC. What genius was Hoffa listening to on that one?

Q: Legislation was introduced last year to reform multi-employer pension plans by requiring the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) to take over the pension obligations of retirees of bankrupt companies. However, bills in both houses went nowhere in the last Congress. Should this be a front-burner issue, and is there political will to change the system?
A: This should be a front-burner issue. We are in danger of losing pensions in this country. Not just Teamsters, but millions of workers, from teachers to industrial workers.

The Teamsters should take the lead and make this a rallying cry. Sandy Pope has talked about organizing a march on Washington to defend pensions, to involve all of labor, coalitions representing seniors, and pension rights advocates.

The bill to strengthen the PBGC should be a priority. The Hoffa administration supports the bill, which is a start. It's time for the Teamsters union to put muscle behind it. It's time to build a movement, starting with Teamster members. The Tea Party has tapped people's anger and frustrations, but they point it all in the wrong direction. We need a movement to aim at real solutions. Defending Teamster pensions—and all pensions—is a good place to start.

About the Author

Mark B. Solomon
Executive Editor - News
Mark Solomon joined DC VELOCITY as senior editor in August 2008, and was promoted to his current position on January 1, 2015. He has spent more than 30 years in the transportation, logistics and supply chain management fields as a journalist and public relations professional. From 1989 to 1994, he worked in Washington as a reporter for the Journal of Commerce, covering the aviation and trucking industries, the Department of Transportation, Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. Prior to that, he worked for Traffic World for seven years in a similar role. From 1994 to 2008, Mr. Solomon ran Media-Based Solutions, a public relations firm based in Atlanta. He graduated in 1978 with a B.A. in journalism from The American University in Washington, D.C.

More articles by Mark B. Solomon

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