Recently, President Hoffa received a letter from an Overnite striker asking
how much longer the unfair labor practice strike against Overnite would
continue. Here is his response:
Thank you for your letter regarding the unfair labor practice strike
at Overnite. It is clear that you have put in a great deal of thought into
the situation we are facing. While I hope the few words I offer here will
answer your questions and renew your optimism for this historic struggle, I
realize, in truth, only a successful resolution of this battle will be
sufficient to accomplish that goal.
First, let me make a clarification regarding one issue. You write
that you hope to return to work under the auspices of a Teamsters' contract.
Please remember that this is an unfair labor practice strike, the aim of
which is to compel Overnite to obey the law. This is not an economic strike
aimed at securing a contract. The distinction is important because
striking workers have protections in an unfair labor practice strike that
they do not have in an economic strike. The company cannot replace workers
engaged in an unfair labor practice strike, whereas workers engaged in an
economic strike can be replaced.
Regarding the essence of your letter, this protracted struggle has
been both economically and emotionally stressful. Only workers with
extraordinary character, determination, and courage can stay on strike for
this length of time. Do not put much faith in Overnite's press releases
concerning how well the company is doing. Those are for public consumption
meant to calm the nerves of Overnite's customers. We believe, in fact, that
Overnite has not been as successful as it is portraying. Overnite's tonnage
is down and its revenues are flat.
As for Overnite's so-called "decertification" petitions, those are
public relations stunts by Overnite to demoralize its workers in their quest
for collective bargaining rights. In fact, as I am sure you are aware, none
of those petitions have been successful. Each and every one has been thrown
out because of the company's unfair labor violations. Additionally, the
Labor Board has thrown out petitions because the company orchestrated their
circulation, and workers signed them under company duress.
You ask how much longer will this struggle go on? It will go on
until Overnite makes a binding agreement to obey the law or until a court
issues an injunction against the company to compel it to do so. Let's go
over the background of the Overnite campaign. The Overnite workers came to
the Teamsters in 1994 seeking assistance to address their grievances and
obtain collective bargaining rights. The Teamsters responded by launching
one of the largest private sector organizing campaigns in the past 25 years.
In 1994, 1995, and 1996, the Teamsters won dozens of elections all over the
country. Overnite's response to those election victories was to launch one
of the most horrific anti-worker, anti-union campaigns in recent memory.
Within the first months of the organizing drive, Overnite committed over 450
individual violations. In 1995, the Labor Board sought an injunction
against the company, but, under threat of budget cuts by the Republicans in
Congress, the Board initiated a settlement with Overnite that was little
more than a slap on the wrist. Overnite's violations of its workers' rights
continued so relentlessly that, by 1997, only four additional terminals had
the courage to stand up to the company and vote for Teamsters
representation. As word of Overnite's violations spread across the country,
workers became more and more terrified to demonstrate any interest in the
Teamsters. After three years of unlawful harassment, intimidation and
illegal discharge, Overnite clearly demonstrated to its workers that the
price of exercising their fundamental rights was too high. Since then, it
has become impossible to run a free and fair election at Overnite.
Overnite developed a "hit list" of top union activists to target for
termination. By the summer of 1999, over 200 of the top union activists at
Overnite had been fired for infractions fabricated by company officials. The
Teamsters filed charges and workers were reinstated with back pay, but each
case took years to muscle through the Labor Board. In the meantime, the
damage was done. Stories about Overnite's treatment of union activists
spread to the company's terminals across the country and made additional
organizing virtually impossible.
As you know, the Teamsters represent less than half of Overnite's
drivers and dockworkers. Now, some might ask, "What were the Teamsters
thinking when they launched a strike at Overnite when they represent less
than half the workers?" It's a good question, and the answer is simple:
Local 667 in Memphis launched the strike because so many of their top union
activists had been illegally discharged. If they did not take a stand
against Overnite's unfair labor practices immediately with the workers they
did represent, there would soon be no union activists with whom to wage a
strike - because they would all be fired.
Everyone in the labor and business communities are watching the
Overnite situation closely. All of labor is contributing to the Overnite
strike fund - from the AFL-CIO, to other International Unions, to individual
union members and retirees. Why? Because the Overnite situation highlights
a central question: Does the right to organize for union representation
exist in America anymore or can companies like Overnite willfully subvert
Last month, a potential member related a story of an organizing
drive he and his fellow workers are conducting. His employer held a captive
meeting and told the workers that the company was going to "Overnite you."
When the worker asked his boss what that meant, he was told that the company
was going to do the same thing to them that Overnite was doing to its
workers - harass them, intimidate them, and fire them, and even if the
workers won the election, the company would never agree to a contract - just
As you well know, Overnite has utilized legal tactics to stall the
process at every stage. It is well documented that Overnite has instituted
a scheme to deny its workers their basic bargaining rights. For example,
workers at Overnite's Bedford Park terminal in Chicago won their right to
engage in collective bargaining in 1982 - nineteen years ago - and are still
without a contract because Overnite refuses to bargain in good faith.
Overnite's strategy is simple - spend millions of dollars to stall, delay,
demoralize, and defeat the workers' desire for union representation. In
short, Overnite fulfilled its promise to the workers that organizing was an
exercise in futility. We are engaged in this extraordinary battle to
determine whether the Overnite workers, or any workers in America, still
have the fundamental right to organize and to bargain collectively on their
wages, benefits, and working conditions.
There is enormous pressure in this struggle and there are
extraordinary sacrifices made by workers, the Teamster Locals, and the
International. It has gone on far longer than anyone would have dared to
imagine. It is a hard road, but is there another road we can take to
preserve our rights?
I often wonder about the courageousness of those who came before us
when faced with an equally daunting struggle: the mothers who walked to
work for eighteen months during the Montgomery bus boycott; or Nelson
Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison because he insisted that everyone
should be able to enjoy the fruits of freedom. How was he able to emerge
after 27 years in prison and still retain the vision of freedom for all?
Will we have the courage to stay the course in our struggle against
Overnite's unlawful conduct? I believe we will because we know, from the
marrow of our bones, that our cause is just and that in the end we will
You ask if there will be a timely and successful conclusion to the
struggle? I can only answer that it will be successful. As to whether it
will be over this week, this month, or this year, only time will tell.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of the Overnite strikers have gotten
alternative work at union companies. Your Local should be able to assist
you. If not, contact David Cameron at (202) 624-8960.
Thank you again for your thoughtful letter.
James P. Hoffa