ANALYSIS: Client Profile - Teamsters responds to members, not itsbedfellows. Despite being the butt of many jokes, the Teamsters unionhas secured its place in American politics and life

But recent lobbying has left many questioning who the infamous

union is fighting for. Douglas Quenqua reports.

Ever wonder how many Teamsters it takes to screw in a light bulb? Just

go online. A Google search returns over 150 answers. (Most popular: "14.

You gotta problem widdat?!") The Simpsons, too, has had endless fun at

the union's expense. Homer, a member of the International Brotherhood of

Jazz Dancers, Pastry Chefs, and Nuclear Technicians, once got into a

competition with a group of Teamsters to see who could be lazier ("Soooo

lazy," he cooed admiringly).

Point is, with its history of mob rule, uncompromising self-interest,

and one infamously "disappeared" president, it's hard not to poke fun at

the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. But surprisingly, the

communications staff at the 98-year-old union isn't overly concerned

about such things. Sure, they let reporters know that corruption and

mafia influence are a thing of the past, but image enhancement is not

what they get paid to do. PR, like everything else here, is a tool to

improve the lives and lots of its members (who range from truckers to

nurses to the people wearing Donald Duck costumes at Disney World).

Their job is not to worry about what you think of the Teamsters; their

job is to make sure the Teamsters have jobs.

When Teamsters go on strike anywhere in America or Canada - which can

happen several times a week - the 17-person, Washington, DC-based staff

works the local media, keeping the public pressure on the employer and

making sure the workers' plight stays on the mind of the community. Or,

when a state, local, or the federal government is considering

legislation that will create or destroy jobs, the Teamsters make sure

that their members' interests are front and center.

Such efforts have yielded the union a lot of attention lately - both

good and not so good. Director of communications Bret Caldwell and his

staff worked hard this year to stop one of President Bush's initiatives

(granting Mexican truckers unfettered access to American roads), while

vigorously supporting another (drilling for oil in the Arctic National

Wildlife Refuge). The union believes the former will take work away from

many of its members, the majority of whom are truckers, while the latter

could create tens of thousand of jobs for its members in Alaska.

Truckin' ahead

The communications staff has been talking to the media, inside and

outside the Beltway, targeting reluctant members of Congress, and trying

to whip up public support. President James Hoffa, son of the

presumed-dead ex-president Jimmy Hoffa, has been a key weapon in this

fight, granting interviews to high-profile outlets and using his name

and the accompanying fame to spread the message.

Of course, with 1.4 million dues-paying members, the Teamsters don't

rely solely on their PR staff to pass or defeat legislation. The union

employs a hearty government affairs team of about 18 lobbyists, which

made headlines this summer with its unusual approach to lobbying House

members on Alaskan oil drilling. Back in July, union representatives

challenged the environmental lobby to an Oxford-style debate over the

issue in front of House Democrats, who were in the unenviable position

of watching two of their most supportive blocs duke it out for their

votes. Proving conventional wisdom wrong, the bill was approved by the

House - and organized labor got much of the credit.

But it did result in a challenging scenario for the PR team: The

Teamsters were publicly criticized for turning their backs on old

friends - Democrats and the environmental movement - in order to secure

a few jobs. The team's response? Arm the high-profile Hoffa with this

oft-repeated and unapologetic mantra from the '60s civil rights

movement: "We have no permanent friends, only permanent interests."

Lately, the union president has been offering the line to everyone from

Tim Russert to Time magazine, and the message seems to be getting


"We have to fight for our members just like Friends of the Earth and the

Sierra Club have to fight for their members, but those are one-issue

groups." says Caldwell. "We know that drilling in Alaska is going to

create 25,000 Teamster jobs. These are good, paying jobs that will help

raise people to the middle class. It's a battle that on principal we

have to fight."

Caldwell joined the Teamsters after leaving the National Abortion and

Reproductive Rights Action League in 1999 (yes, he is a Teamster


Besides being responsible for all external and internal communications,

his staff produces a magazine for all members and retirees eight times a

year, and puts out over 120 news-letters. He oversees an impressive

annual budget of $6.2 million, but says it doesn't go as far as

one might think. ("Sending out a 32-page magazine to 1.7 million people

eight times a year eats up your budget pretty quickly," laughs assistant

communications director Brian Rainville.)

Outside PR firms are unheard of at the union. Teamsters recently hired

ad shop Greener & Hook to produce two spots (one for cross-border

trucking, the other for Alaskan drilling), but all the PR surrounding

them was done in-house.

Communicating with members

In addition to its more public work, the team's internal communications

efforts take up a major share of its time. "To understand this

department is to understand how much we focus on our members and how

much energy we put into making sure our members are educated on these

issues," says Caldwell. "PR externally is sometimes a small portion of

what we do. We work very hard at it, but focusing on our members is

what's important to us."

A large part of that is keeping members apprised of one another's


"The media doesn't report on contract victories every day, but we do,"

says Rainville, referring to the union's website. And all this unity

pays off come election day.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) made a lot of noise last year about

its plan to cut into the typically Democratic bloc of labor voters,

siphoning ballots away from Al Gore and handing them to George W. Bush

on the sole issue of gun ownership. But as loudly as the NRA claimed

victory, Caldwell and Rainville aren't so quick to congratulate


"The NRA made a very heavy push. They spent millions on that campaign

and generated a lot of media interest for their efforts," concedes


"But the fact is, Gore won those states they were targeting."

Adds Rainville, "Look at all the Teamster-heavy states - Michigan,

Pennsylvania - and look at how Gore did. We pushed our people to go out,

and that's what they did."

Which means the Teamsters may have more permanent friends than they



Communications director: Bret Caldwell

Assistant communications director: Brian Rainville

Media coordinator: Rob Black

Special projects coordinator: David Kameras

Communications coordinator: Joel Cossidis

Web coordinator: Eugenia Gratto

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