We’ve long argued that the major state and national unions like SEIU, AFSCME, and the AFL-CIO have been doing a poor job recently in representing their workers. Free to Serve members across Pennsylvania, in fact, tell us that very thing. So it’s encouraging to see news this year out of Philadelphia that shows the little guy can fight the big corporate union—and really shake things up.
The little guy, in this case, was a UPS package handler and Teamsters shop steward who grew disillusioned with the union in 2014. His fellow members were unhappy with their latest contract, and it seemed Teamster heads never visited the shop floor. As the Philadelphia Inquirer reported:
The rise of Richard Hooker Jr., 40, and his slate, dubbed #623livesmatter, marks the culmination of a grassroots effort to revitalize a 4,500-member shop at a major corporation during a time when legacy unions have languished. Around the country, rank-and-file union activists — from teachers to journalists to warehouse workers — have challenged the establishment, which they say is too complacent, too cozy with management, to fight for workers and keep corporations in check.
That struggle has been brewing for some time within the storied International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a union of 1.4 million members. Given the Teamsters’ size and presence in strategic sectors — from truck drivers to logistics workers — a successful challenge has important lessons for the entire labor movement.
It took a few years for Hooker, working with rank-and-file members and other shop stewards, to gain enough votes to replace Local 623’s leadership. They lost the election in their first attempt, in 2016.
By the time the next union leadership election rolled around, in November 2019, Hooker and his allies had already laid the groundwork. According to the Inquirer, they engaged fellow workers on issues that mattered to them. For example, the would-be leaders talked on social media and on South Philly community radio about how to win a grievance or handle a difficult supervisor.
The challengers’ campaign paid off, and they won by over 200 votes. Now Hooker is the first black president of the 101-year old Teamsters local.
Though the story covers a private-sector union, it has lessons for our government employee members at Free to Serve. The main takeaway: it’s absolutely possible to change your sitting union leaders—or the union itself.
It just takes ordinary workers who are willing to speak up and work hard to get the union representation they want. If we can learn anything from Richard Hooker, it’s that such change is worth fighting for.