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   Vol. 70/No. 4           January 30, 2006  
Union dues & contracts:
Lessons from Teamsters in 1930s
During and in the aftermath of the recent three-day transit workers strike in New York City the Metropolitan Transit Authority threatened to remove dues check off from paychecks of Transport Workers Union Local 100 members. State authorities had previously imposed this measure during the 11-day transit strike in 1980. The excerpt below from chapter 2, “Leadership showdown,” of Teamster Power, by Farrell Dobbs, describes how the class-struggle leadership of Teamsters Local 574 (later 544) in the 1930s dealt with the question of maintaining a union shop and organizing to collect dues. It was part of the fight to strengthen and extend union power in Minneapolis and throughout the Midwest. Farrell Dobbs was a central leader of the Teamsters organizing effort in Minneapolis and the 11-state over-the-road campaign that brought tens of thousands of workers into the union. He later became national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We are running this excerpt in place of the weekly Books of the Month column. Copyright © 1973 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

Whether an elected officer or an apprentice organizer, all on the union staff got the same pay. None had to be hired in order to serve the union; they would do that in any case as best they could. It was a matter of making it possible for a given number of individuals to devote their entire time to organizational work. On that premise maximum effort was expected from each person; any variations in the services rendered would then result simply from differences in individual experience and ability.

Neither union post nor individual talent had any bearing on the rate of pay. All staff members…received comparable wages.

To round out the organizational machinery a job steward system was established. Union members at each company selected a representative to fill the post. As would be expected, those chosen as stewards had played prominent roles during the strikes. In effect, the broad strike committee was being transformed into a permanent union body with vital functions.

As directed union representatives on the job, it was the stewards’ duty to defend the rights of union members; to see that working agreements with the employers were enforced; to bring all workers on the job into the union; and to insist that they keep themselves in good standing. Regular meetings of the steward body were held, with the union staff participating in the discussions.

Provisions for a closed-shop contract, entailing compulsory union membership and dues payments, had been included among Local 574’s prestrike demands. This had been done at the insistence of Hall1, who took the bureaucratic view on the question. That view sees the closed shop as a liberating instrument—for the bureaucrats, that is, not the workers. It enables officials sitting on top of a union to more or less freely ignore or go against the wishes of the rank and file. No matter how dissatisfied this may make the workers, dues must still be paid, and the bureaucrats continue to have a union treasury at their disposal.

A different view on the same question arises when workers are inspired by the union. They develop a healthy resentment against freeloaders on the job and look for ways of forcing them to favor putting a clause in the agreement with the employer making payment of union dues compulsory. It follows from this that the closed-shop question is a tactical matter; one to be decided according to the total complex of factors in a given situation.

In Local 574’s case, Hall’s closed-shop demand was unrealistic; as events proved, it took a bitter struggle to win even the simplest form of union recognition. Yet with other, more complex factors in the internal union situation taking precedence, it was unwise to oppose Hall on the closed-shop matter. The issue was simply allowed to die a natural death during the fight with the bosses.

Now that the employers had been defeated and the local was firmly rooted in the trucking industry, the rank and file strongly favored compulsory union membership and dues payments. The problem was one of finding a way to apply the desired compulsion. Key steps toward that end had been taken in setting up the union staff and organizing the steward system. A further measure was then devised which came to be known as a “fink drive.”

Drives of this kind took place periodically. They were conducted by mobilizing the entire union staff and a substantial number of volunteer union activists who took off from work for the purpose. A dragnet was formed to comb the city. Trucks were stopped on the streets; a check was made of loading docks, shipping rooms, warehouses, etc.; back dues were collected from delinquent members, and new members were signed up. Through this overall combination of measures the local was able to maintain a rather tight union shop.

1. Cliff Hall was hired by the executive board of Local 574 (later 544) to serve as the local’s business agent in 1934.
Related articles:
‘Many drivers want Teamsters’
Independent truckers in Miami discuss organizing
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