Trump and the Teamsters

Teamsters President Sean O'Brien.

Last week Donald Trump made an extraordinary announcement on his Truth Social platform. Trump was announced that Sean O’Brien, president of the 1.3 million member Teamsters union, had agreed to address the Republic National Convention in Milwaukee next month.

Any initial doubts about the veracity of Trump’s statement — and one should never trust the former US president with telling the truth — were dispelled with an announcement from the union itself. The Teamster president, it said, had asked to speak at both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, and the union was “very happy former President Trump has extended this invitation.” They were happy because members of the union “represent every political background, and their message needs to be heard by as wide an audience as possible.”

Union leaders are sometimes given access to the stage at party conventions in the US. In 2016, at the Democratic National Convention, I got to see a number of top elected union officials paraded out on stage — though none of them were given the chance to speak.

But this is different. Donald Trump is anti-union, pro-capitalist, corrupt, racist, sexist and is someone who conspired to violently overturn the results of the last Presidential election in 2020. Of course he wants leading figures from the unions to appear on stage with him. Trump is keen to win over the votes of union members, young people, women, Hispanics, Blacks and other ethnic minorities. Polls show that he is having some success with that already.

Obviously, trade union leaders should have nothing to do with Trump or the party he now leads and certainly should not help him win votes among their members. And let’s not forget that while not perfect, Joe Biden is by the far the most pro-union president in many decades.

What on earth was Sean O’Brien thinking?

Actually, his position — which sounds completely crazy — has deep roots in American labour history. Samuel Gompers, who died a century ago, was the leader of the American Federation of Labor for decades. He took the view that union members’ votes should not be taken for granted. Unions would reward their friends and punish their enemies.

This meant that many unions, including the Teamsters, not infrequently supported Republican candidates for higher office. The Teamsters supported Richard Nixon, an anti-labour, conservative Republican when he ran for president in both 1960 and 1972, the year of the Watergate break-in and subsequent scandal. They supported Republicans even when they were up against liberal, pro-union Democrats like Senator George McGovern. And it was not just the Teamsters — the AFL-CIO, the national trade union centre in the US, remained neutral in the 1972 elections. Its president, George Meany, was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War and detested McGovern and his backers.

Gompers’ position in the early years of the 20th century was wrong — even then. Many union leaders challenged that view and encouraged support for the Socialist Party, which was winning more and more elections. But Gompers wanted nothing to do with the Socialists and his view prevailed.

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) website hasn’t published a response to the news about O’Brien’s speech to the Republicans. Maybe this was because the TDU supported O’Brien’s election. In 2021, O’Brien headed up a “Teamsters United” campaign which was seen as representing the reform wing of the union. He won two-thirds of the votes cast against a candidate linked to the previous Teamster president, James Hoffa Jr..

Which goes to show just how messy and complicated internal politics are in the Teamsters.

But the issue of whether or not union leaders should appear on the same platform as Trump is not complicated at all.

O’Brien needs to reverse course and members of the Teamsters as well as other US trade unionists need to send a clear message demanding just that. If the Teamsters truly want their message to be heard by the widest possible audience, there are surely better ways to achieve that.

This article appears in this week’s issue of Solidarity.