Sean O’Brien was a rising star in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 2017 when the union’s longtime president James P. Hoffa effectively tossed him aside.
But this move appears to have set Mr O’Brien, a fourth generation teamster and manager of a Boston pub, on the path to succeed Mr Hoffa as union president and one of the most powerful union leaders in the country.
A Teamsters vice president who called for a more confident attitude towards employers like United Parcel Service as well as an aggressive initiative to organize workers at Amazon, O’Brien announced his victory to lead the nearly 1.4 million union union.
He won about two-thirds of the votes cast in a race against Hoffa-backed candidate Steve Vairma, another vice president, according to a tally posted on an election officer’s website late Thursday. He will take over the presidency in March.
The result appears to reflect frustration with the recent UPS contract and growing dissatisfaction with Mr. Hoffa Headed the union for two decades and its father from 1957 to 1971. The younger Mr. Hoffa did not seek another five-year term.
In an interview, O’Brien said that success in organizing Amazon workers – a stated goal of the Teamsters – would require the union to show the fruits of their efforts elsewhere.
“We need to negotiate the best possible contracts so we can get them to the workers at Amazon and point them out and say that is the advantage you have when you are in a union,” he said.
Mr. O’Brien was from Mr. Hoffa.
Since the union was officially formed in 1903, Dr. Widower in an email: “There have only been two national union elections in which an external reform candidate won the presidential election.”
During the campaign, Mr O’Brien, 49, railed against the contract the union negotiated with UPS to allow the company to create a category of employees who work weekends and work for a lower wage, among others perceived Flaws.
“If we are negotiating concession and shoddy agreements, why should a member, why should anyone join the Teamsters union?” Said Mr O’Brien at a candidate forum in September where he frequently linked his opponent with Mr Hoffa.
Mr O’Brien has also criticized his predecessor’s attitude towards Amazon, which is viewed by many in the labor movement as an existential threat. Although the union passed a resolution at its recent meeting pledging to “provide all the necessary resources” to unionize Amazon workers and eventually create a department to oversee that organizing, O’Brien said that efforts came too late.
“This plan should have been under our warehouse manager 10 years ago,” he said in the interview, referring to the position of warehouse area manager that his opponent, Mr. Vairma, has held since 2012.
In an interview, Mr Hoffa said that when he took office, the union was broke and divided and that he would leave it “financially strong and strong in every way”.
He said he was proud of the latest UPS contract, calling it “the richest contract ever negotiated,” and pointing out that it allows many full-time drivers to make nearly $ 40 an hour.
He said Mr O’Brien’s criticism of the union’s efforts at Amazon was unfair. “Nobody did that ten years ago,” said Hoffa. “It’s more complex than just organizing 20 people in a grocery store. It sounds like it’s that simple. “
Ignoring his own plans to organize Amazon, Mr O’Brien said he wanted more input from Teamsters locals but suggested political and economic pressure on the company in cities and towns across the country. The union has been involved in efforts to deny Amazon a tax break in Indiana and deny a delivery station in Colorado.
Mr. O’Brien, who once worked as a rigger and hauled heavy equipment to construction sites, was elected president of a major Boston town in 2006. Within a few years he appeared to have taken up residence in the wing of the union establishment.
In an incident in 2013 that resulted in a 14-day unpaid suspension, Mr O’Brien threatened members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group that took in an ally of his in Rhode Island. “They will never be our friends,” he said of the challengers. “They must be punished.”
Mr. O’Brien apologized for the comments, pointing out that the reform advocate who led the Rhode Island challenge Matt Taibi is now a supporter who ran on his list in the recent election.
The break with Mr. Hoffa came in 2017. Earlier this year, long-time Teamsters President appointed Mr. O’Brien to a position whose responsibility it included overseeing the union’s contract negotiations with UPS, which now has more than 300,000 Teamsters at work.
Understand Amazon’s employment system
Map 1 of 6
Employee turnover is high. The company rolled out a hiring spike in 2020, hiring 350,000 people in three months with a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour and good benefits. But even before the pandemic, Amazon was losing about 3 percent of its hourly workforce every week – meaning its revenue was about 150 percent a year.
Buggy systems created terrible bugs. Amazon’s disability and vacation system created frustration and panic. Workers who applied for leave were fined for lack of work, resulting in dismissals and subsequent dismissals.
Close surveillance has created a culture of fear. The company tracks every movement of the workers in its warehouses. Employees who work too slowly or inactive for too long run the risk of being laid off. The system is designed to detect obstacles for workers. While such layoffs are rare, some executives fear the metrics will create an anxious, negative environment.
Concerns about racial inequality are growing. The retail giant is largely run by colored employees. According to internal records from 2019, more than 60 percent of JFK8 employees are black or Latino. The records show that black workers in the camp were fired almost 50 percent more often than their white counterparts.
But the union removed Mr. O’Brien from his position a few months later after trying to be a critic of Mr. Hoffa in the last election, despite what was considered a long shot.
“I got a tremendous pushback,” said Mr. O’Brien in an interview. “I wouldn’t stray from my goal of getting the right people around the table.”
Mr Hoffa said he didn’t think having the Louisville leader on the team would be productive. “I didn’t want to get rid of Sean O’Brien,” he said. “Sean O’Brien was persistent.”
Two years later, Mr. O’Brien appeared at the Teamsters for a Democratic Union Congress and discussed his support for many initiatives the group has long supported, such as ending a rule that requires a two-thirds majority to reject a treaty if less than half of the voting members cast their votes.
The union approved its 2018 UPS contract using the two-thirds rule, despite a majority of voting members against it.
Hoffa said the rule tied his hands, but it also served a purpose: “We’ll see how you can ratify treaties without the two-thirds rule,” he said. “It will certainly be a challenge for him.”
Ken Paff, a longtime leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, said Mr. O’Brien had built credibility with the group by pushing for these reforms at this year’s Teamsters Convention, where many of them were passed, including their abolition the two-thirds rule.
“TDU could never have won alone,” said Paff. “We’ve suggested and moisturized her in the past, but the O’Brien team supported her.” That team included Fred Zuckerman, the Teamters leader from Louisville, Kentucky, who ran against Mr. Hoffa in 2016 and will now be the union’s second officer, its secretary-treasurer.
Mr Vairma, the presidential candidate backed by Hoffa, also backed some of the reform measures, including ending the two-thirds rule, and appeared at times during the election campaign to try to usurp the reformists’ cloak himself.
He presented a voice for his slate as a voice to diversify the union; his candidate for treasurer Ron Herrera, a vice president, is one of the few Hispanic officials to have served in the union’s highest ranks. He also tried to drag Mr. O’Brien into the union’s slow move towards Amazon. “Sean, you were on the board and I haven’t done anything in the past nine years you’ve tried to develop a proactive program with Amazon,” Vairma said during a debate.
The two candidates agreed on several points: that self-driving trucks pose a potential threat to the public and their members; that the union must combat efforts by employers to falsely classify workers as independent contractors; and that employers should not mandate Covid-19 vaccines without first negotiating with unions.
But the differences were evident in her sparring over the UPS contract, which Mr. Vairma accused Mr. O’Brien of “demonizing”, and in her general attitude towards employers.
Mr. Vairma warned that Mr. O’Brien was ruthless, while Mr. O’Brien criticized his opponent for being too shy. “Steve, you’ve already admitted that you’ve only struck six times in your 25-year career, so UPS knows you won’t be on strike,” he said.