Teamster Steelhaulers Show Muscle In Three-Week Wildcat Strike

Some 10,000 Teamsters covered by the National Master Freight Agreement did not return to work when the official strike/lockout ended on April 10. They are the steelhaulers—a group which has caused headaches for the carriers and union officials before.

Most steelhaulers own their own rigs, but drive for a major carrier; others drive company-owned trucks.

The steelhaulers strike began April 1 when the union struck many of the major freight carriers and others countered with a lockout. From the start, it was a rank-and-file controlled strike in some areas.

Canton and Youngstown, Ohio steelhaulers held mass rallies on April 1-2, organized by TDU. Strike committees were elected and picketing organized. By April 8, Pittsburgh TDU had sparked a similar movement in that city.

These three locals—Locals 92, 377, and 800—became a strong nucleus for spreading to other steel-producing areas: Gary, Cleveland, Eastern Pa., Erie, Detroit, Middletown, Ohio, and others.

Three issues were most important. Steelhaulers wanted a restoration of the full 26% of each load’s revenue they had received prior to the 1976 contract. (For owner-operators, the figure was 75%.) They also wanted payment for six sick days they were owed under the last contract, but which they hadn’t been paid for.



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Finally, the steelhaulers wanted the right to vote separately on their own supplement to the national master agreement. This demand, if won, could be quite significant in other areas as well. All 32 supplements to the national contract are voted on at the same time as the master agreement is ratified. Gaining the right to vote on the supplements would greatly increase the membership’s control of working conditions and the issues which are spelled out in the supplements.

TDU’s policy in the steelhaulers strike was rank-and-file action geared to pressuring local and national officers. It seems to have worked well. In the steelhaul section of the union, the national negotiators are primarily the local presidents for the major steelhaul locals. Therefore the strikers, in holding mass meetings regularly during the strike at local union halls, were putting the heat directly on the negotiators.

In the freight jurisdiction, the local officers often plead, “I can’t do anything for you”—but steelhaul local officers don’t have that handy excuse. The squeeze on them brought results. At one point some officers of Local 800 in Pittsburgh openly backed the strike, causing Fitzsimmons’ spokesman Bernie Henderson to denounce them. Other local officers took a “middle” position.

The outcome of the strike is not yet fully known. A contract is being announced as Labor Notes goes to press, and it looks as if the rank and file demands will be won, with the exception of the Right to Vote demand.

In any event, the strike has been a demonstration of rank-and-file strength. What began as a wildcat gained enough steam to force the International to finally make it official, even though they had earlier denounced it. The companies knew they were not just dealing with Fitzsimmons this time—and that’s why the settlement will be dramatically different from 1976 when the percentage cut was negotiated.

TDU organizer Ken Paff says his organization aims to build a strong steelhaulers national network and organization. But he emphasizes that the TDU intends to work within the union. Another organization, the Fraternal Association of Steel Haulers (FASH), called a strike last winter aimed at splitting steelhaulers out of the Teamsters. FASH played little role in the current contract battle, though some FASH members have been active.

Tiffany Ten Eyck is a former staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.