Last spring, Bill Hamilton was dispatched to Western Pennsylvania to urge UPS workers to vote for a contract that they didn’t support.

The most powerful Teamsters leader in the state, Hamilton, 70, didn’t agree with the assignment, which came down from Teamsters general president James P. Hoffa. But he had a job to do.

Now, Hamilton, a longtime Hoffa ally, says he’s had enough of the current administration. He’s breaking ranks with the establishment and joining the reform movement. To be sure, Hoffa, 78, is not expected to run again, but his administration is expected to pick a successor to run.

On a bitterly cold, cloudless Saturday in Northeast Philadelphia outside his home local, Hamilton announced to 250 cheering Teamsters that in next year’s international election, he would be running on an opposition slate. Hamilton, president of Teamsters Local 107 and an Eastern vice president on the international board, made the announcement next to running mates Fred Zuckerman, a longtime reform leader who runs a local in Louisville, Ky., and Sean O’Brien, a Boston Teamsters head who broke with Hoffa in 2018.

Bill Hamilton, Pennsylvania's most powerful Teamster leader, interacts with local union members outside his home local, 107, after announcing that he'll run on an opposition slate against the team of General President James P. Hoffa.
TYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Bill Hamilton, Pennsylvania's most powerful Teamster leader, interacts with local union members outside his home local, 107, after announcing that he'll run on an opposition slate against the team of General President James P. Hoffa.

In the last election in 2016, Zuckerman lost to Hoffa by 6,000 votes.

The reform movement in the Teamsters international union mirrors challenges to local union leaders across the country. In Philadelphia, a rank-and-file slate at a 4,500-member UPS local ousted legacy leaders last fall. Teachers at the School District of Philadelphia are angling to do the same. And journalists represented by the national NewsGuild elected an insurgent candidate last year.

Challengers broadly have delivered the same critiques: Establishment leaders are too comfortable, out of touch with members, and lack the organizing tactics to raise standards for workers, especially at a time when union membership is at a historic low and corporations are financing antiunion campaigns.

New leadership at the Teamsters, a union of 1.4 million workers where insurgents have been trying to take power for more than a decade, could have major implications for labor: The union could coordinate a vision for organizing employees at nonunionized workplaces — like FedEx and Amazon. And the Teamsters run one of the largest collective bargaining agreements in the country, a UPS contract that covers 243,000 workers.

It was that contract that inspired a wave of worker discontent in 2018, when a majority of voting UPS workers voted down a tentative contract, demanding their leaders get them a better deal. But the union leadership used a little-known rule in its constitution to impose the contract anyway, which set the stage for opposition candidates to take control of UPS locals around the country.

On stage Saturday, Hamilton called the maneuver “bulls---.” And O’Brien vowed: “No more substandard contracts! No more givebacks!"

In his role as head of the Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, Hamilton oversees 95,000 members in the state.

Attempts to reach Hoffa were unsuccessful, but a Hoffa spokesperson has responded to critiques by saying that “General President Hoffa remains focused on representing our members and continuing to negotiate industry-leading contracts.”

Richard Brzyski, a warehouseman at Balford Farms in Fort Washington who’s long supported the reform movement, hopes the two factions in the union will come together.

“Divisiveness is never going to work," he said. "If you’re divided, the employer has the upper hand.”