Teamsters union General President James P. Hoffa has fired Sean M. O'Brien as head of the union's small-package division and lead contract negotiator at UPS Inc. and its UPS Freight less-than-truckload (LTL) unit.
The move triggered a blistering response from O'Brien, who had been tapped for the high-profile role less than seven months ago. In a letter to Hoffa dated Wednesday, O'Brien said he was never given the latitude to work toward getting good contracts for the 268,000 unionized UPS and UPS Freight employees; the five-year contracts expire next Aug. 31. The small-package contract, which covers about 257,000 UPS workers, is the largest collective-bargaining agreement in North America.
In particular, O'Brien chafed at being "taken to the woodshed" by Hoffa or one of his non-elected "minions" each time he reached out to a UPS local that had opposed Hoffa in last November's Teamster general election.
Hoffa, 76, won re-election for a fifth time, but his margin of victory over challenger Fred Zuckerman, head of Local 89 in Louisville, Ky., was very narrow. Notably, Hoffa did not fare well among UPS Teamsters, by far the largest single member bloc in the 1.3-million-member union.
O'Brien has been replaced by Denis Taylor, the principal officer of Local 355 in Baltimore. Taylor started with the Teamsters as a package car driver for UPS.
In a statement, the Teamsters said the move to replace O'Brien was made "in the best interests of the members at UPS," and that the decision was not politically motivated. Taylor is a "tremendous labor leader" who knows UPS "inside and out," according to the statement. The removal of O'Brien, who heads the influential Local 25 in Boston and is the union's eastern region vice president, lays bare long-simmering fissures between the Washington-based international union, which Hoffa heads, and Teamster officials located beyond of the international's direct sphere of influence. In his letter, O'Brien said he wanted to include local representatives who had opposed Hoffa in contract negotiating strategy, but that he was blocked from doing so because it was "considered treasonous."
O'Brien said the union is being run by non-elected "full-time political hacks" who have never been Teamsters and whom other Teamster officials have complained about for years. "It is a situation which you tolerate, and I don't have the confidence that you have the will to change," O'Brien wrote.
In perhaps the most damning accusations, O'Brien said certain staff members at the international union have turned the UPS division and the union in general "into their own personal playground" and that the "games they are pursuing come at the expense of the membership." The only name mentioned in the letter was that of Todd Thompson, who serves as an executive assistant to Hoffa.
"Sadly, you have chosen the route of least resistance and continue to allow ... Todd Thompson and others (to) run the union so you don't have to," O'Brien wrote to Hoffa.
Unless the status quo changes, it will be impossible to fashion the best possible contract for members employed at UPS, O'Brien warned.
Ken Paff, national organizer for the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), and a longtime Hoffa opponent, said O'Brien had begun taking a more aggressive stance toward UPS, and had angered Hoffa by publicly declaring that Zuckerman, the firebrand head of Local 89 in Louisville, be on the union's national negotiating committee for the upcoming UPS contracts. Local 89 represents UPS employees at the company's global sort hub known as "Worldport," and has more UPS members than any Teamster local.
"Hoffa didn't want anyone leading contract negotiations that he couldn't control," said Paff in a statement on TDU's website. With O'Brien out, "UPS and UPS Freight Teamsters need to be ready to fight for themselves," he added.
Paff said many Teamsters believe that Hoffa has become too conciliatory toward UPS management, and that he has not fought hard enough to win good contracts for the rank-and-file. Paff has said O'Brien is positioning himself to succeed Hoffa, and his stature would rise or fall depending on how UPS Teamsters perceived the outcome of the contract negotiations.
Zuckerman said in a statement "I don't care what side of the fence you were on in the last election. This is deplorable when you remove the lead negotiator because he is willing to stand up for the members and against the company."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mis-stated James P. Hoffa's age. DC Velocity regrets the error.