The new general president of the Teamsters visited Twin Cities union halls and job sites this weekend to rally members amid contentious contract negotiations at several Minnesota employers.
"We're going to be vigilant, we're going to take on the fight, and we're not going to be afraid to strike," Sean O'Brien said in an interview Sunday. "We have a $350 million strike fund. The old vulnerabilities of not being able to afford a strike, that's over now."
O'Brien took office last month and has been visiting local offices and work sites across the country to hear from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters' 1.2 million members. Minnesota, reflecting a national moment of labor activity, has a flurry of ongoing battles.
Teamsters at the Kemps ice cream plant in Rochester have authorized a strike and may soon walk off the job. Drivers at Sysco in St. Cloud have yet to find a deal after striking earlier this year. And negotiations will soon kick off for the 850 Teamsters at the UNFI distribution center in Hopkins.
"They're going to find out real quick it's better to get along with us than to fight us," said Tom Erickson, Teamsters Central Region vice president and Warehouse Division director. "We are going after employers that don't want to treat their employees right."
Erickson started his career as a SuperValu warehouse worker and is the first Minnesotan on the Teamsters international leadership team in a decade.
The pandemic's whiplash effect on the labor market — from mass layoffs to worker shortages — has emboldened workers across industries to seek better wages and working conditions.
Erickson said companies throughout the supply chain that are having trouble hiring and keeping workers need to "pay them what they're worth."
"They're not even close to being paid enough," he said. "And they have to have pensions and health care that is not just affordable but that workers don't pay anything for."
The 120-year-old Teamsters union represents 35,000 workers in Minnesota and surrounding states in a wide range of industries.
O'Brien was elected in a landslide in November and replaces long-time Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, who was first elected in 1998.
A fourth-generation Teamster from Boston, O'Brien takes over one the nation's largest unions at a time when labor activity is on the rise yet the ranks of Americans represented by unions remains near historic lows.
"There's a lot of momentum out there with a new generation of workers — you see it at Starbucks, you see it at Amazon," he said. "There's a thirst and an appetite to organize people, which is reassuring to us that we're going to re-establish a strong middle class."
O'Brien said he aims to grow the ranks of Teamsters in the coming years and branch out into new industries.
"I think we have a great opportunity to mesh old-school values with new-school direction and vision," he said. "And I think we're going to be tremendously successful in that as well."