A Young Gun For Labor

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Local 814 president Jason Ide, center, flanked by (at left) Mickey Flath, vice president, and Richie Johnson, the union's secretary-treasurer.

Photo by: Courtesy Local 814

Local 814 president Jason Ide, center, flanked by (at left) Mickey Flath, vice president, and Richie Johnson, the union's secretary-treasurer.

Contract negotiations are underway for some 800 members of Teamsters Local 814 in Long Island City. Sitting at the union’s side of the table is a young face that some say reflects new hope for organized labor in the city.

Jason Ide, the local’s 28-year-old president, is representing the moving and storage workers as they fight for a new agreement with the Greater Movers and Storage Bargaining Group. Slight in build but commanding in presence, Ide was elected in December, becoming the only principal officer under 30 in the network of more than 900 Teamsters locals. Yet the significance of his rise to power speaks less about his age and more about labor reform.

“Jason brings a combination of political savvy and effective organizing to the challenge of reforming a Teamsters local. And that’s why his slate was elected,” says Steve Early, a labor organizer and writer, who witnessed Ide’s address a labor convention shortly after his win.

Early, author of “Embedded With Organized Labor”, was first made aware of the New Orleans native in 2008, after Ide helped successfully negotiate a contract for fellow art handlers at Sotheby’s in New York.

The Sotheby’s contract became a defining moment for Ide, who’d been hired as an art handler at the auction house in the fall of 2004. Walking into Sotheby’s back then, Ide sensed tension, he says, among art handlers unloading pricey pieces from plywood crates.

“The guys at the job were very divided,” he recalled. Just months before Ide started at Sotheby’s, his fellow movers—members of Local 814—were fighting for a new contract. Some eight weeks into heated negotiations, the union rejected terms offered by management. The company barred the employees from returning to work until they accepted concessions. Many of the 50 movers felt their union leaders had caved in, forcing them to accept Sotheby’s demand for concessions.

“It became apparent that things could be better,” Ide says. “We worked for a company that had a lot of money. We had a decent union, but our contracts had deteriorated over time and there wasn’t much enforcement.”

Ide, whose trimmed auburn beard adds maturity to his youthful face, was as young as some of his co-workers’ children. Yet shared frustrations bred camaraderie. Aided by colleagues, Ide began rallying other workers. “We succeeded in reuniting everybody with a more hopeful vision, a possibility of negotiating a strong contract the next time and preparing ourselves for a strike or lockout,” he says.

Having helped out with a few strikes while at the University of Michigan, Ide was no novice. He’d protested alongside workers at Borders bookstore and stood in solidarity with non-tenure track university faculty. “It’s Michigan,” he says. “There were always labor-related things going on. And I guess that was my big exposure.”

At Sotheby’s, Ide started a strike fund in 2007 in case their contract expired the following year. “There was a strong sense that it was necessary to prepare to bargain, necessary to prepare to strike,” says Ide, who was elected to the bargaining committee.

And prepare they did. The art handlers contacted the International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ reform arm, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which offered workshops in contract negotiation.

That summer, the Sotheby’s workers won a three-year deal that included incremental wage increases and a hike in the starting salary from $13.25 to $15.89 an hour. Ide’s efforts earned him respect and admiration throughout Local 814. “I was impressed by what he did at Sotheby’s,” says Richard Johnson, local 814’s current secretary treasurer. “It was really the first successful contract campaign we’ve seen in Local 814.”

A longtime teamster, Walter Taylor recognized Ide’s leadership potential and sought him out to join a slate in 2009 to unseat Local 814’s incumbent administration. “Jason has a good way of getting his point across. He’s very sincere,” says Taylor, a member of the local since 1984.

Ide had run for president in 2006, winning 40 percent of the vote. Though Taylor didn’t beat opponent George Daniello, he was gratified by the growing discontent he detected among the members. A year before the 2006 election, much of Local 814 went on strike when their contracts came up. But the higher-ups in the local continued working and eventually agreed to massive benefit cuts, despite rank-and-file objections.

A generation ago, an earlier group of Local 814 leaders ran afoul of the law. In 1987, Bonanno crime syndicate boss Philip Rastelli and several top union officials were convicted of racketeering. In separate civil proceedings, a judge placed the union local in trusteeship.

Those days were long gone by the time Ide came on the scene. But Taylor says Local 814 still suffered—not from corruption, but from weakened contracts. New contracts allowed employers to hire low-wage workers who received no pension or welfare contributions. As a result, both benefit funds were depleted.

“This union has been plagued with bad contract negotiations, presidents that were out of touch with the membership,” says Taylor. “If you did ask questions, you were labeled a troublemaker or blackballed or retaliated against by people that were supposed to represent you.” Daniello did not return calls for comment.

A handful of members decided to launch the 814 New Directions Slate to take on Daniello. The charismatic Ide was pitted against the seasoned incumbent.

“Jason hit the ground running,” Taylor recounted. “He was out there every day the whole summer.” During the campaign, members uncovered a secret agreement Daniello had signed to reduce annual pension credits to zero after a key contract expired.

“That was the final blow for members,” Taylor says. Receiving 72 percent of the vote, the New Directions slate swept the elections in one of the union’s largest turnouts. Ide picked up 406 votes to Daniello’s 154, in results published in December.

While negotiations are in progress, there’s little time for Ide to revel in his victory. “With the last two contracts, most of the movers that we represent went on strike to get a better deal. And this time the same thing is at stake,” Ide says.

Ide remains optimistic about the difficult task of rebuilding members’ benefits package.

“If 814 is strong again, we’ll be able to protect the jurisdiction better,” he says. “The owners know that our fates are tied together.”