‘Big dollars were siphoned off and repurposed into fly-by-night unions’: Why one local gave a woman a shot to lead

Last Thursday, three days before Teamsters Local 27 became just the tenth all-male local to allow a woman to run for office, Sean O’Brien, the current member, chairman, and president of the local, won the re-election of the 477-member IHRA shop committee.

Those men never let a woman run for Local 27 office. Not so with O’Brien, who ran from 1994 to 1999 and currently chairs the Local 27 IHRA shop committee. O’Brien, a 34-year-old mother of two, is considered a Hoffa Critic — and not because she is a female, or because she doesn’t wear a tie. She wears a blue cravat, just like Hoffa himself, and became involved in IHRA in 2010.

And make no mistake, she is critical of Hoffa. “There was a dark underbelly to the Teamsters during John’s era,” she told the Washington Examiner. “Big dollars were siphoned off and repurposed into fly-by-night unions that did little work for the work being done. Instead of struggling against the rapacious individualities of Hoffa and his crew, the IHRA fought to do things differently. I see my role as showing the IHRA the way to become independent of organized labor. I want the IHRA to be strong on its own, free from corporate-sponsored interests, and able to independently adapt to its realities.”

Over the last several decades Teamsters Local 27 has focused its efforts on recruiting low-pay IHRA operators. So far it’s working. In October 2017, female members made up 64.6 percent of the IHRA workforce, a number O’Brien attributed to much greater organizational efforts by female members. O’Brien is working hard to retain that demographic. Her response to the 53,116 IHRA votes cast was to campaign in a straight-forward and quick manner: “Nothing extravagant. I try to avoid even the appearance of arrogance. I may not have a good deal of glitter around me, but I give 100 percent.”

O’Brien was endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a group that’s supported many Democratic candidates and is seen as somewhat close to Teamsters Union president James Hoffa. She received fewer votes than the only Democratic candidate for Local 27 president, Nick Cooke, but 5,717 more than the two Republicans. O’Brien’s slim margin of victory came from four counties in the western part of the district, and rural areas in between, compared to Cooke’s overwhelming victory in suburban Montgomery County and in the D.C. suburbs to the east.

Toasted the results of the #Teamster27 election. Great night! Tomorrow at our Local 27 for the election of national officers. pic.twitter.com/GEF2VMUEfj — Sean O’Brien (@OQbsalcD) February 2, 2018

The result “shows that the Teamsters Local 27 shop committee wants to work together to build a stronger union, and that represents a message to the entire organization that they can earn and keep a good wage and be a part of a union that has these opportunities open to them,” O’Brien said. “As long as they support those opportunities, I’m fully committed to keep fighting for them. And I can assure everyone that I will be out there working with all of our members.”

O’Brien’s opponent, Nick Cooke, said he was “disappointed” in the vote results and that “Women and minorities need to know that elected officials will be held accountable for everything they say and do.” Cooke, a former union president of an IHRA company in Indiana, said he ran because he wanted to make a change. It might not have been enough.

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