Teamsters with a Capital T!

(Originally published on September 4, 2011)

Working horses of the world, unite!

Blue Star Equiculture is an advocate for working horses, and we celebrate the work horses do, so it's no surprise that we'd also wish you a happy Labor Day for all the workers of the world, both horse and human.

As we have stated in our Credo, we believe that "work" should not have a pejorative connotation. Rather, for us, "work" is about dignity and well-being. On Labor Day, we should remember that the wages, hours, and working conditions that we take for granted, but which uphold those basic concepts of "dignity" and "well-being" were largely the result of organized labor.

Happy Labor Day!

So, it wouldn't be a Blue Star history of Labor Day unless we connected today deeply and intimately with the horses whose hoof prints have written our history. This Labor Day, we're going to talk a bit about the history of that most equine of unions (and our favorite Local 553), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the height of horsepower in America. Industrial and commercial America simply could not function without horses: horses were needed to haul goods to and from railroads, supply railroads with fuel, supply factories with power and raw materials, cart away finished products, and of course cultivate the food to sustain the horses and people who did all this work in the economy! All these horses required people to drive them.

The life of a teamster, though, was (like so many occupations at the time) extremely difficult and harsh. Teamsters in 1900 routinely worked 12 to 16 hour days for a paltry sum of $2, seven days a week, all while assuming liability for any damage or loss incurred to their (expensive) cargo, and sometimes being the one (not always the freight company!) expected to maintain and care for the horses upon which the entire system depended.

Teams and Teamsters being watched by Chicago police in an industrial lot during a strike in 1906.

In 1901, teamsters were so frustrated by their situation that they formed the Team Drivers International Union (TDIU), which united small, local unions of ice wagon drivers, meat wagon drivers, coal wagon drivers, laundry wagon drivers, etc. Disagreements and divisions soon emerged, and some teamsters splintered off to form the the Teamsters National Union. It quickly became evident that unity - not petty squabbling - was necessary if any real changes were to be achieved, and so the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was founded in Niagara Falls, NY on September 3, 1903. At that first convention the Brotherhood laid out its foundational philosophy:

Let each member do his duty as he sees fit. Let each put his shoulder to the wheel and work together to bring about better results.Let no member sow seeds of discord within our ranks, and let our enemies see that the Teamsters of this country are determined to get their just rewards and to make their organization as it should be -- one of the largest and strongest trade unions in the country now and beyond.

The Teamsters were particularly effective in their strikes in the early 20th century as a strike would essentially mean the complete paralyzation of transportation and transit. Company owners would be faced with backlogs of products, while continuing to have to feed and care for their freight horses. Breaking a strike with "scabs" was not easy, either, as being a teamster was a skilled job for whom replacements were not easily found. Teamsters frequently held "sympathy strikes" in support of exploited workers in other occupations, but whom the horse-powered economy touched as well.

Soon, the introduction of the truck (the real technological successor to the horse-drawn wagon, NOT the automobile) began to intrude upon the work of teamsters. The IBT recognized the growing importance of trucks, and so encouraged its members to switch to truck driving, and for truck drivers to join with the Teamsters. As trucks proliferated, horse-drawn freight companies struggled to compete. In several recorded instances, a freight company, to cut costs, would cut back on the number and amount of feedings the horses pulling their wagons received. In those cases, the Teamsters went on strike to protest the treatment of their horses, refusing to work until the horses were cared for properly, and setting a precedent for the Teamsters' insistance on humane treatment of working horses and support of animal welfare. Still, the trucks could not be stopped. In 1912, the Teamsters publicly performed the first transcontinental delivery by truck, a trip that took 91 days from Philadelphia to California. The stunt was repeated in 1916, and road conditions had improved to the point that the transcontinental delivery only required 30 days. It was becoming clear that horses would be replaced by trucks. In 1916, at the annual convention, the Teamsters were determined that it would be the horse, and not the truck, who would be the proud symbol of their union. The Teamsters declared by proclamation at the convention that the horse "would always be the heart of the union and always remain a part of any badge, button, logo or flag."

Horses are once again a part of the Teamsters Union. In January 2009, many of the carriage drivers, owners, and stable workers in New York City joined Teamsters Local 553, which had once been the union for the coal wagon drivers in Manhattan. And, in their support of the New York City carriage horses, the Teamsters have demonstrated that horses continue to remain the heart of the union.

My name is Antonino Salerno. I’m a professional cabinet maker and horse carriage driver. I’m 55 years old and came from Italy 29 years ago with a dream to drive a horse and carriage in New York City in Central Park. I have been driving horses since the age of 14. My grandfather and his eight brothers were all carriage drivers. We are three generations of horse carriage drivers.

I dedicated my life to horses and I never regretted that decision. It has always made me feel rich. If I’m having an off day, when I reach the stables and smell the scent of horses my mood quickly changes. I become happy. When I’m ready to drive the carriage to Central Park, I feel like the richest man in the world. I believe 99 percent of people who drive the horses in New York City feel the same.

Horse carriage drivers are like family, whether in a bar or at home, we talk about our horses, like a parent speaking happily of their children. Like children, horses become sick with colds and fevers. We have good stablemen who care enough to call day or night to inform us of the horses’ condition. When need be, a vet is called and we all do our share to help.

New York City has five stables [now four] that are all beautiful and have trained stablemen. The stables meet all New York City standards.

To be a horse and carriage driver, you must first love animals. Horses are beautiful, powerful animals, but also very delicate creatures that need owners who love and care for them.
 

New York City has the best carriage drivers and the healthiest horses in the world. Horsemen and horse caretakers around the world are impressed with our professionalism.
 
 
Antonio Salerno, owner of West Side Livery, in a 2009 letter to Teamsters Local 553, on why he is a Teamster.

 

Let's ALL "put our shoulder to the wheel" for the benefit of working horses - and working people - everywhere.

Happy Labor Day! How are you spending it?

(If you want to celebrate Labor Day traditonally, go find a parade! The original proposal for the Labor Day holiday stated that the day should feature a street parade to exhibit to the public "the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations"followed by a festival for the workers and their families.)

(Teamsters Local 693 in Binghamton, NY with a team of horses in the 2008 Binghamton St. Patrick's Day Parade.)

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FURTHER READING:

Check out this 2009 article about the NYC carriage drivers joining Teamsters Local 553 (featuring BSE friends Frank Rodden, Demos Demopoulos and Tony Salerno): Horse Sense

Teamsters and carriage drivers "put their shoulder to the wheel" for those less fortunate: TeamsterNation: Here's What Us Union Thugs Do At Christmas

To learn more about why Blue Star Equiculture (like the Teamsters) believes that the New York City carriage horses are well-cared-for and deserve to continue their proud tradition of working in Central Park, read our NYC Position Statement

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