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.
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