Rank-and-File Reformers Oust ‘In Bed’ Rhode Island Teamsters

Rhode Island Hospital worker Nick Williams was so angry that his new supervisor was his union business agent’s brother that he came home from work and Googled “Teamsters 251 sucks.” And that was the turning point that led to rank-and-file Teamsters taking over the local that covers all of Rhode Island.

Williams had found the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) website run by two 251 rank-and-filers. On October 31 all 10 candidates on their slate, line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
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The person who’d originally brought the union to the hospital, back in 1993, was Paul Santos, who worked in the shipping department. Santos had been a steward but resigned, disillusioned. Most people at the hospital saw him as the person they trusted most on union questions.

Sandra Cabral, who works with medical records, says she “never cared for the union because I felt I was paying monthly for favoritism.” In January this year she was approached by a co-worker about TDU. She was interested off the bat, but “when she told me Paul was involved, I said I’m going to check this out.”

After Santos joined the dissidents, TDU grew from 10 members in the local to 100. Santos will be Local 251 president.

Early this year, the TDUers collected signatures for three bylaw changes. They wanted elected stewards, rather than appointed; elected rank-and-file members on negotiating committees; and any increase in officers’ salaries to be voted on by the membership.

Secretary-Treasurer Joe Bairos enjoyed combined salaries of $187,999 last year, from the local, the New England Joint Council, and the international union, as well as a car and an expense account.

The January and February union meetings saw 600-700 people come to debate the bylaws—up from a usual attendance of 80 or so. More than 800 came to the March meeting, and had to vote in shifts, chanting about solidarity and democracy in the parking lot.

Because the incumbents mobilized, too, the bylaw changes won a majority but not the required two-thirds.

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The next phase of the United Action campaign, with Williams as manager, brought 300-500 members to a meatball dinner, a comedy night fundraiser, a picnic.

Williams says that when they’d go to neglected companies to campaign, the members would be hostile, thinking they were from the union. “But when they heard what we had to say, out of 130 in that barn, we got 100 for our email list,” he said.

The insurgents had the advantage of help from a