The Inaugural Convention of the Printing Packaging & Production Workers Union of North America (PPPWU) will be held August 29, 2023 – August 31, 2023 in Las Vegas Nevada at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino.

July 15, 2023  •  The Communicator July-Aug-Sept 2023  •  By Fred Bruning

With renewed confidence and a high sense of purpose, officials and delegates of the new Printing Packaging & Production Workers Union of North America will meet Aug. 29-31 in Las Vegas for the organization’s first convention since its predecessor union, the GCC/IBT, was ousted from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters earlier this year.

PPPWU leaders said the convention demonstrates the union’s resiliency after the IBT’s abrupt decision to rescind terms of a 2004 merger agreement that brought together the Teamsters and Graphic Communications International Union (GCIU) into a partnership that formed the Graphic Communications Conference of the IBT.

“We’re here to stay,” said PPPWU President Kurt Freeman. “We are strong, united and determined to remain the top union in the printing, packaging and production fields. Our members expect good contracts and superior service and we are going to keep delivering.”

The meeting at the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel & Casino is the first on-site convention of the former GCC/IBT since June, 2016, and comes after a three-year covid health crisis made in-person events risky.

Delegates will vote on an amended constitution and by-laws, nominate and elect an international leadership team – president, secretary-treasurer and regional general board members – and address a variety of matters essential to the transition of the union from GCC/IBT to PPPWU.

“There will be hefty revisions of the constitution – changes to ensure that, structurally, the PPPWU is best set up to thrive as an independent union while we investigate the possibility of whether another merger is in our interests or not,” said general counsel Peter Leff.

Not since delegates gathered for the first time under the GCC/IBT banner has there been a national meeting of such significance. “The convention represents a historic moment for our union,” Freeman said.

It also underlines the remarkable developments of the last few months and the extent to which the trajectory of a labor organization – now the PPPWU – with a history that can be traced back more than 100 years has been altered.

A headline in the Graphic Communicator’s 2016 convention coverage noted that delegates were warned to “Get Ready to Fight for Union Survival” – words that at the time pertained to right-wing efforts to undercut organized labor but now can be read as an ironic forecast of turmoil prompted this year by the IBT’s move to unilaterally terminate the GCC-IBT agreement.

In 2021, the GCC/IBT held a convention – the fourth in its history – via video conferencing as a precaution against spreading the covid virus.

The theme was “Organizing for a Better Tomorrow,” and featured remarks by then-Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and the top Teamster leadership at the time, General President James P. Hoffa and General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall.

As President Joe Biden began putting together the most union-friendly administration in decades, Hoffa spoke optimistically about the “kind of change we can achieve when we have politicians who support our values” and Walsh said organized labor would be at the “center” of economic recovery as the nation began emerging from covid setbacks..

‘We made it clear to the IBT that in order to have successful negotiations, we needed to maintain our graphic communications, printing and packaging identity.’

PPPWU President Kurt Freeman

Despite its limitations, the GCC/IBT “virtual” convention was hailed a success.

“Delegates told me they were very impressed,” Freeman said, and Secretary-Treasurer/Vice President Steve Nobles added that “while we wish we could have met in person, I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.”

Hoffa and Hall did not seek re-election and, in late 2021, Sean M. O’Brien and Fred Zuckerman were elected to fill the top IBT posts.

GCC/IBT officials congratulated the new Teamster leadership team and particularly cheered O’Brien’s emphasis on organizing. “O’Brien and Zuckerman will bring enthusiasm and an exciting agenda to North America’s strongest union,” Freeman said after the election.

O’Brien wrote a Page 2 “Outlook” column for the Spring, 2022, edition of the Communicator in which he looked toward a future of mutual cooperation. “…I look forward to working with GCC members and leaders so we best can serve your interests,” O’Brien said. A headline at the top of Page 1 said, “Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien Greets GCC/IBT.”

The new IBT general president contributed columns twice more.

For the summer issue, he wrote a piece under the headline, “About Time We Stood Up to Corporate Bullies,” that denounced Washington for granting contracts to antilabor companies like Amazon “that repeatedly, knowingly and purposefully violate federal labor laws.”

In the fall edition, O’Brien hailed the Butch Lewis Act – a provision guaranteeing the survival of  underfunded multi-employer pension plans – included in the Biden administration’s landmark American Rescue Plan. He
told members Republicans would not have allowed such progress. “If that isn’t an example of elections having consequences, I don’t know what is.”

PPPWU leaders said there was no sign O’Brien and Zuckerman intended to end the GCC-IBT alliance negotiated years before by Hoffa and George Tedeschi, then leader of the GCIU and now PPPWU president emeritus. But in June, 2022, the IBT served notice it planned to scrap the agreement, claiming it was costly and of little advantage to the  Teamsters – claims rejected by PPPWU officials.

The IBT dictated terms GCC/IBT leaders found unacceptable – specifically, that the GCC surrender its autonomy and be absorbed entirely into the Teamsters sphere or leave the IBT fold by December.

“We made it clear to the IBT that in order to have successful negotiations, we needed to maintain our graphic communications, printing and packaging identity,” Freeman said at the time.

Autonomy is at the heart of the issue, union leaders say, just as it was when Tedeschi and Hoffa negotiated the 2004 merger agreement. “Jim Hoffa knew that autonomy was a fundamental requirement and had no trouble accepting those terms,” Tedeschi recalled. “Our union gave the Teamsters a valuable presence in the industries covered by the GCIU. For nearly 20 years, it was a deal that worked well for both parties.”

But O’Brien – often a critic of Hoffa – and Zuckerman made clear the GCC/IBT must submit to Teamster rule. “Bottom line is they wanted us under IBT control,” said general counsel Leff.

When the new IBT administration proved unwilling to compromise, GCC/IBT leadership brought the dispute to federal court and began preparing for a future independent of the Teamsters.

Freeman, Secretary-Treasurer/Vice President Steve Nobles and general board members took steps to establish a new union – the Printing Packaging & Production Workers Union of North America.

They moved the union office from IBT headquarters in Washington, D.C. to Silver Spring, Maryland. A new logo representing the component sectors of the PPPWU soon appeared on union envelopes and letterheads. Staff went to work. Service to members was never interrupted.

“Our staff personnel met the challenge in highly professional fashion,” Freeman said. “I am grateful for their outstanding service and dedication. It was another sign of our determination to stay focused, move on and get the job done.”

Now a labor organization that traces its history back more than 100 years enters a world of dazzling technology that has revolutionized the American workplace and brought enormous change to the printing, packaging and production industries.

Machines turn out products that once kept dozens of workers busy. Newspapers that employed thousands of press operators and production workers have abandoned the printed product for paperless computer-generated digital editions that require far smaller work forces. Material once printed in union shops and delivered by mail moves instantaneously via computer and smartphone.

As the first PPPWU convention approaches, Freeman says the union will meet the daunting challenges of today – and tomorrow.

“Our union has a proud history and is going forward with strength and solidarity,” he said. “The future is now.

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