Teamsters Union

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Teamsters Union

United States 1903


The International Brotherhood of Teamsters—today named formally the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America—was established in 1903 from the merger of the Team Drivers' International Union and the Teamsters' National Union of America. Formed in a cauldron of controversy and dissension, the union throughout its history has remained a relatively loose confederation of local affiliates that retain considerable autonomy.


  • 1883: Foundation of the League of Struggle for the Emancipation of Labor by Marxist political philosopher Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov marks the formal start of Russia's labor movement. Change still lies far in the future for Russia, however: tellingly, Plekhanov launches the movement in Switzerland.
  • 1893: Henry Ford builds his first automobile.
  • 1899: Start of the Second Anglo-Boer War, often known simply as the Boer War.
  • 1903: Anti-Jewish pogroms break out in Russia.
  • 1903: Henry Ford establishes the Ford Motor Company.
  • 1903: Russia's Social Democratic Party splits into two factions: the moderate Mensheviks and the hard-line Bolsheviks. Despite their names, which in Russian mean "minority" and "majority," respectively, Mensheviks actually outnumber Bolsheviks.
  • 1903: Polish-born French chemist Marie Curie becomes the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • 1903: One of the earliest motion pictures, The Great Train Robbery, premieres.
  • 1903: United States assumes control over the Panama Canal Zone, which it will retain until 1979.
  • 1903: Wright brothers make their first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Though balloons date back to the eighteenth century and gliders to the nineteenth, Orville Wright's twelve seconds aloft on 17 December mark the birth of practical human flight.
  • 1906: Founding of the British Labour Party.
  • 1913: Two incidents illustrate the increasingly controversial nature of the arts in the new century. Visitors to the 17 February Armory Show in New York City are scandalized by such works as Marcel Duchamp's cubist Nude Descending a Staircase, which elicits vehement criticism, and theatergoers at the 29 May debut of Igor Stravinksy's ballet Le Sacrédu Printemps (The Rite of Spring) are so horrified by the new work that a riot ensues.

Event and Its Context

Early Teamsters

The modern-day image of a Teamster is that of a long-haul truck driver carrying goods from manufacturing and distribution centers to cities and towns across the United States. Clearly, the development of the highway system and motorized vehicles in the early twentieth century revolutionized the nature of hauling and transportation. "Teamsters," though, were originally the owners and drivers of "teams" of horses and mules that moved people and goods in an era when "horsepower" referred not to the muscle of an engine but literally to the hauling capacity of a horse.

Little is known about early teamster labor groups. During the colonial period, some teamsters on the eastern seaboard formed loose associations, and similar associations in such western cities as San Francisco date back to around 1850. These early associations were more in the nature of guilds than labor organizations, for most of their members were driver-owners; that is, they owned their own teams and were self-employed, in much the same way that today's Teamster might own his (and increasingly, her) own rig while performing work for others or as part owner of a joint business venture. Thus, in contrast to mines or manufacturing plants, it was not always easy to clearly distinguish employers from employees. The team drivers' primary concern was not wages and working conditions but "drayage" rates, or the rates they could charge for their services.

The distinction between employer and employee became somewhat sharper as the nineteenth century progressed, but only somewhat. The more successful teamsters, who often began with a single team of horses they drove themselves, frequently acquired several teams and hired others—often men who had failed as owner-drivers—to drive them. These drivers, who worked for wages, would seem to have been ripe for unionization efforts, but at least four obstacles stood in the way. First, teamsters performed a wide range of work; some were garbage collectors, others delivered milk, still others provided "taxi" services, while in the West some hauled coal or ore. Organizational efforts were difficult given this range of activities and employers. A second factor was the size of drayage operations. Most were small, consisting of the owner and perhaps as many as a half a dozen teams or as few as one or two. Unlike large manufacturing facilities or mining operations that often employed hundreds or even thousands of workers, small drayage enterprises were scattered throughout cities and towns. Third, a principal requirement for being a teamster was size, brawn, and a stubborn, often combative nature needed to handle a team of fractious animals and to perform hard, physical labor under difficult and unpredictable conditions. For this reason, particularly in the East, Teamsters were often recruited from the bar-brawling Irish American community. These men were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as immune to organizational efforts, so few such efforts were made. The final obstacle was that while owners typically hired others to drive teams, the owners themselves often worked side by side with their employees driving one of the teams they owned. Thus, while a distinct class of teamster employees was beginning to emerge, the distinction between employer and employee remained blurry.

The Team Drivers' International Union

Although some local teamsters unions were formed during the late nineteenth century, the first international union was formed on 27 January 1899, as an affiliate of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). In preparation for the federation's 1899 convention, AFL president Samuel Gompers invited a number of local teamster unions to attend with the purpose of organizing an international union. Nine locals, affiliates of the Team Drivers' International Union (TDIU) that had been formed a year earlier, sent delegates to the convention and applied for a charter, which the AFL executive committee granted. Headquartered in Detroit, the new AFL affiliate at first had 18 local chapters and about 1,200 members. Membership was officially restricted to drivers who owned no more than six teams, but in practice few owner-drivers were excluded, and the TDIU was dominated by team owners.

Almost immediately, dissension arose. Because of the six-team limit, the TDIU became in effect an employer cartel. It was able to use its bargaining power to increase drayage rates, but little of the increased revenue found its way into the pockets of employees in the form of higher wages. Particularly vocal in its dissatisfaction with this state of affairs was the Chicago affiliate, one of the TDIU's largest and the one most zealous in protecting its autonomy. Matters came to a boil at the union's 1902 convention in Toledo, Ohio, where the Chicago delegates pressed to lower the "per capita tax," a form of membership dues, to keep the national union weak. Their failure to get the reduction, combined with their resentment over the domination of the union by owner-drivers, led the group to secede from the union and form the Teamsters' National Union of America (TNU). Other locals joined them, and soon membership in the TNU swelled to over 18,000, even though no owner-driver who hired others was allowed to join.

The TNU wielded considerable clout. In Chicago, for instance, coal drivers mounted a successful strike against Marshall Field and his downtown department store. Field had announced that he was going to heat the store with more economical natural gas rather than coal, cutting into the profits of the coal team owners and potentially throwing employees out of work. After months of struggle, Field gave in and replaced the store's gas heating equipment with coal-burning equipment; when other stores and office buildings in Chicago followed suit, the coal drivers' jobs remained secure.

The Chicago union was also successful in improving working conditions for its drivers. At that time, workweeks of 70 hours were the norm, and 100-hour weeks, with half days on Sunday, were not uncommon. The union abolished Sunday work, reduced the workday to ten and a half hours, and successfully pressured for time-and-a-half pay for work before 6:00.M. and after 6:00 P. Additionally, milk drivers had commonly been required to put in 80-hour weeks during the winter and 100-hour weeks during the summer, with afternoon milk deliveries each day. The union succeeded in imposing a winter workday of 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P. and abolishing the late-afternoon delivery in the summer. The union refused to bend despite statistics cited by union opponents that the absence of afternoon deliveries was increasing the infant death rate in Chicago.

Formation of the IBT

The delegates at the AFL's 1902 convention in New Orleans, eager to bring the TNU back into the fold, passed a resolution instructing Gompers to try to smooth relations between the AFL and the dissident union. Accordingly, Gompers assembled a committee to bring representatives from the TDIU and the TNU together in Niagara Falls, New York, in August 1903. After extensive bargaining, the committee was able to resolve the differences between the two unions, and on 22 August 1903 the AFL granted a charter to the merged unions, now called the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT). In bringing about the reconciliation, the AFL committee made two major concessions to the TNU: it lowered the per capita tax from 25 cents to 15 cents, and it restricted membership to those owning no more than one team. Anyone who owned even just a second team was considered an employer and thus ineligible for membership. That month, the IBT held its first convention, and in October it moved its headquarters to Indianapolis, Indiana. Under the leadership of President Cornelius Shea, the new union began operations with 50,000 members and a war chest of $25,000.

The Aftermath

The formation of the IBT would seem to have ended dissension, but as events turned out, the dissension was just beginning. The IBT was not a single entity with a common strategy and shared mission but rather a confederation of smaller local affiliate unions, and these affiliates continued to feud both with one another and with the international union. In particular, the powerful Chicago Teamsters remained reluctant to cede power to a national organization. In 1905, in violation of their contract, they took part in a sympathy strike with garment workers against the Montgomery Ward company. Shea and several other Chicago Teamsters officials were arrested and charged with conspiracy for their part in the strike. Sensing the union's vulnerability, many employers—members of the Chicago Employers' Association—broke contracts with the local unions and threatened that if a single driver walked off the job or refused to haul goods for Montgomery Ward, all of the drivers would be locked out. In this climate of conflict, membership in the union plunged and a battle began over the IBT leadership. When Shea was barely reelected at the IBT's 1906 convention, a number of local affiliates in Chicago, Joliet, St. Louis, San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere seceded and formed a rival organization, the United Teamsters of America. Thus, the IBT opened its 1907 convention with a sharply reduced membership roll, almost no money, and mounting debts. Some harmony was restored when Daniel J. Tobin, an unknown Boston driver, unseated Shea by a mere 12 votes, and many of the dissident units rejoined the IBT. However, 17 Chicago locals refused to return to the fold and instead formed the Teamsters' and Helpers Union of Chicago and Vicinity, which survived as an independent union until 1934.

As if the chaotic political environment was not enough, the IBT was plagued with corruption in its early days. Many of the teamsters unions that had existed before the formation of the IBT, particularly in big cities such as New York, Detroit, St. Louis, and, of course, Chicago, had been hijacked by corrupt officials. Some of these unions carried on virtually no trade union activities, instead devoting their energies to fraud, extortion, treasury looting, racketeering, and even kidnapping and murder. Employers' associations routinely bribed union officials to strike against competing firms, refuse to work for firms attempting to enter an industry, agree to "sweetheart" contracts, or call off threatened strikes. Extortion was an even bigger problem. The union would simply threaten to not deliver goods unless the business owner paid union officials a bribe, and few business owners, faced with such a choice, refused.

This was the culture that Tobin inherited in 1907, and he found himself almost powerless to change it. At 150 pounds, he was in the unenviable position of trying to work his will on physically strong men more inclined to settle disputes with their fists than with discussion, negotiation, and compromise. Indeed, Tobin was nearly beaten to death in New York by local officials outraged by his efforts to enforce an IBT executive board decision, though he survived and remained president of the IBT until 1952. Understandably, however, he was thereafter reluctant to meddle in local union matters. The result, which is still reflected in the Teamsters' make-up and culture today, is a union that is an umbrella organization for a loose confederation of powerful, autonomous local affiliates.

Key Players

Gompers, Samuel (1850-1924): Gompers was born to Dutch-Jewish immigrants in London, where he began his working life at age ten as a cigar maker. He immigrated to the United States in 1863 and in 1886 was elected vice president of the Cigarmakers' International Union. That year he was a founder of the American Federation of Labor and served as its president from 1886 to 1895, then again from 1896 to 1924. In 1919 Gompers was appointed to the American delegation at the Paris Peace Conference following World War I. His autobiography, Seventy Years of Life and Labor, was published in 1925.

Tobin, Daniel Joseph (1875-1955): Tobin was born in Ireland, but he and his brother immigrated to the United States in 1889. He began his career as a sheet metal worker, but in 1894 he took a job as a driver for the Boston streetcar company. In the late 1890s he bought a team and wagon and delivered meat and dairy goods and won a contract to sprinkle Boston's streets. In 1900 he joined the Team Drivers' International Union, and in 1903 he attended the Niagara Falls conference that led to the formation of the Teamsters Union. In addition to his long tenure as Teamsters president (1907-1952), he served as AFL treasurer, a member of the AFL executive council, and vice president of the AFL's building trades department.

See also: American Federation of Labor.



Fink, Gary M., ed. Labor Unions. The Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Institutions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Garnel, Donald. The Rise of Teamster Power in the West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Perlman, Selig, and Philip Taft. History of Labor in the United States, 1862-1932. Vol. 4, Labor Movements. New York: Macmillan, 1935.

Witwer, David Scott. Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003.

—Michael J. O'Neal