Ken Paff

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Ken Paff
Ken paff 1.jpg
Ken Paff, National Organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union
Born(1946-05-16)May 16, 1946
OccupationLabor movement activist/leader

Kenneth T. Paff (born May 16, 1946 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania) is one of the founders and current National Organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a rank-and-file union democracy movement organizing to reform the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), or Teamsters.

Early years[edit]

Ken Paff was born in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, a small Rust Belt town near Pittsburgh. He was the son of a union steelworker and a homemaker, the youngest of seven children. In 1956, when Paff was ten, his parents divorced, and he moved to Santa Ana, California with his mother, where he attended high school.[1][2]

Joining the movement[edit]

In 1964 he gained admission to the University of California, Berkeley, where he went to study physics. There he became involved in the Free Speech Movement and the civil rights movement. After receiving his bachelor's degree, Paff began a Ph.D. program in physics at UC Berkeley, but quickly abandoned his studies to focus on movement activism. His first exposure to labor movement activism was in 1970 as a supporter of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers union, when he leafleted supermarkets in support of striking farmworkers in the Salinas Valley.[3] During this time he worked briefly as a computer programmer, then a teacher, but did not feel that either profession suited him.[4]

Building Teamster reform[edit]

Paff eventually found work as a truck driver in California, and soon moved to Cleveland, where he took a job with Shippers Dispatch, which was bought out by Preston Trucking. As a driver for Preston he became a member of Teamsters Local 407, the major freight local in the Cleveland area.[5][6][7]

At Shippers and Preston, Paff connected with rank and file workers across the Midwest who had been active in previous Teamster efforts such as Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF), and he got involved with starting a new Teamster reform organization. It was initially called Teamsters for a Decent Contract (TDC), since it was organized around mobilizing for the 1976 National Master Freight Agreement negotiations. At their founding convention at Kent State University outside of Cleveland in September 1976, TDC formally changed their name to Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).[8][9]

Being based in Cleveland, Paff and TDU drew the attention of Cleveland Teamster boss Jackie Presser, who would be elevated to Teamster General President in the 1980s. Indeed, Presser organized a contingent of retirees to picket the founding TDU Convention,[10] and opposed TDU members who showed up at union meetings. He also enlisted the help of associates of Lyndon LaRouche to oppose the TDU. The LaRouche followers, along with a mix of Teamster officials and others, eventually created the Brotherhood of Loyal Americans and Strong Teamsters (BLAST) in opposition to the TDU.[11][12]

From rank-and-filer to TDU national organizer[edit]

Paff and the reformers continued to build their organization. As members saw how TDU was consistently standing up to the Teamster officialdom, TDU began to grow. By 1978, the movement was too big to run on a purely volunteer basis, and the TDU Steering Committee voted to hire Paff as its full-time National Organizer. Paff decided to leave his job at Preston, take a very large pay cut, and take the position, which he holds to this day. At that point, TDU also moved its headquarters from Cleveland to Detroit, which brought Paff to the Motor City.[13][14]

As TDU's National Organizer, Paff has been a central force behind TDU's many accomplishments in the years since its founding, including defeating concessionary agreements such as the notorious freight "relief rider" that Presser attempted to foist on the membership in 1983, overturning the so-called "two-thirds" rule, which allowed contracts to be ratified with as little as one-third of the membership voting to approve, protecting Teamster members' pensions, and helping countless numbers of rank and file Teamsters learn their rights, run campaigns to reform their local union bylaws, run for shop steward, and win office to reform their locals.

One of Paff's best-known accomplishments is his work helping Teamster members win the right to vote for their top leadership. As detailed most clearly by author Kenneth Crowe, it was TDU's intervention with the Justice Department (assisted by attorneys Thomas Geoghegan and Paul Alan Levy of Public Citizen) that led the government to reject their initial plan to impose a government trusteeship of the IBT and opt instead for a system of government-supervised elections.[15][16][17]

Once Teamster members won the right to vote for top officers, the Teamster reform movement then faced the problem of fielding a candidate to run for office. After extensive internal debate, TDU decided to endorse Ron Carey, head of New York Local 804, for Teamster General President at their 1989 convention. In the ensuing two years, Paff was the acknowledged "field general" of the grassroots operation that led dark horse reform candidate Carey to be elected to the top office in the IBT.[18][19]

With Carey in office, TDU faced the new problem of how to redefine their relationship to a changed International Union. Although some thought that TDU's job was done now that Carey had been elected, Paff understood the continued necessity of an independent rank and file organization. "We need to be an independent movement that unites the best in the Teamsters, from top to bottom," he said. "The 1991 election opened up some important doors, but only the membership can complete the job we started."[20][21] That necessity became abundantly clear as Teamster old guard officials, although no longer in power at the International level, continued to use their power at the local and Joint Council level to stonewall Carey's reform efforts, sparking a virtual civil war within the union. In response, TDU helped Teamster members organize to pressure their recalcitrant local leaders to get on board with Carey's mobilizing strategies, particularly surrounding national contract negotiations in carhaul, freight, and at UPS. Although difficult at first, that so-called "pincer" strategy—with a mobilized rank and file uniting with a reform leadership at the top to pressure the mid-level leadership—paid off, as evidenced by the landmark 1997 strike against UPS.[22][23][24]

Soon after the UPS victory, however, TDU faced yet another, far more serious challenge, as Carey was removed from office when his campaign manager was caught laundering union money. In the subsequent rerun election he was replaced by old guard favorite James P. Hoffa. While some forecast TDU's demise, Paff worked with the rank and file TDU leadership to keep the reform movement on track. By keeping the movement focused on core substantive issues of union reform, such as contract campaign, member mobilization, and local union elections, Paff played an important role in guiding TDU through that difficult period.[25][26][27]

Now into his fourth decade as National Organizer of TDU, Paff continues to help rank and file Teamsters defend their rights, speak out for greater democracy, and prod reluctant union leaders to protect wages, benefits, and working standards.

Organizing philosophy[edit]

Those who have studied TDU's origins and its ability to persist over time have credited Paff's organizing strategy for much of its success. Kenneth Crowe notes that, while Paff could certainly be "stern" and even "caustic," he "provided the kind of egoless, highly organized, and determined leadership that the organization needed."[28] "The key for us in TDU," as Paff explained it, "is faith in the members. You're going to have hope that ordinary people can do extraordinary things, because if they can't, there ain't gonna be no hope for the change we're interested in. We started out to change the union, and we ended up changing ourselves." [29]

In keeping with his emphasis on faith in the members, Paff has developed and instilled an organizing culture within TDU that emphasizes local member initiative, and establishes a close connection between the staff, the elected leadership (known as the International Steering Committee, or ISC), and the membership.[30] He also argued forcefully from TDU's inception that the movement should operate openly, not clandestinely. "The employers are going to find out about you," he said. "The people that aren't going to find out about you are the rank and file. We're going to put ourselves out there. We're going to take that chance. If they come after us, they're going to have to do it publicly."[31]

Many analysts have credited TDU's model of mobilizing tactics and its long tradition of rank and file organizing as being key factors behind the successful 1997 strike at UPS.[32][33]

Awards and recognition[edit]

In 1988 Paff received the Nat Weinberg Award, given to "men and women who ... stubbornly refus[e] to accept defeat and...assert the right of working people to address and solve the problems that confront them." [34] In 1996 he was named a Petra Fellow by the Petra Foundation, awarded to "unsung individuals making distinctive contributions to the rights, autonomy and dignity of others."[35]

In 1996 Paff was portrayed in the movie Mother Trucker: The Diana Kilmury Story,[36] a biographical film focusing on the life of longtime Teamster reform activist and former IBT International Vice President Diana Kilmury. His character was played by actor Robert Wisden.

In 2003, the late Studs Terkel published an interview he conducted with Paff as a chapter in his book Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times.[37]


  1. ^ La Botz, Dan. Rank and File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union. London and New York: Verso Press, 1990, ISBN 978-0-86091-505-8, p. 177.
  2. ^ Terkel, Studs. Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times. New York and London: The New Press, 2003, ISBN 978-1-56584-837-5, p. 109.
  3. ^ Terkel, op. cit., pp. 109–10.
  4. ^ La Botz, op. cit., p. 177.
  5. ^ Fitch, Bob. Revolution in the Teamsters, pp. 19–24, 71–74 in Tikkun, vol. 8 no. 2 (March 1993), pp. 22–24.
  6. ^ La Botz, op. cit., p. 177.
  7. ^ Crowe, Kenneth. Collision: How the Rank and File Took Back the Teamsters. New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1993, ISBN 0-684-19373-6, p. 61.
  8. ^ La Botz, op. cit., p. 177.
  9. ^ Crowe, op. cit., pp. 46–51, 60–61
  10. ^ Crowe, op.cit., p. 60.
  11. ^ Terkel, op. cit., pp. 110–11.
  12. ^ King, Dennis. Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 1989, Chapter 37.
  13. ^ Terkel, op. cit., pp. 110–11.
  14. ^ La Botz, op. cit., pp. 177–78.
  15. ^ Crowe, op. cit., especially pp. 65–128
  16. ^ Paff, Ken, "Let Members Rebuild Teamsters," Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 18, 1987.
  17. ^ Paff, Ken, "Let the Teamsters Vote," Washington Post, June 21, 1987, p. B5.
  18. ^ Crowe, op cit.
  19. ^ Dobbs, Frank. "Can Carey Reform the Teamsters?," The Nation, February 15, 1993, pp. 192–95.
  20. ^ Dobbs, op. cit., p. 195.
  21. ^ Livingston, Sandra, "Reformers for Teamsters Face a Complicated Task," Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 17, 1992, p. 8F.
  22. ^ Dobbs, op. cit., p. 193.
  23. ^ Kosterlitz, Julie, "Collision Course." National Journal, July 6, 1996.
  24. ^ Larkin, Jim. "Teamsters: The Next Chapter," The Nation, January 4, 1999, p. 18.
  25. ^ Livingston, Sandra, "Teamster Reformers Ready to Move Forward," Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 22, 1997, p. 1C
  26. ^ Larkin, Jim, "Teamster Tragedy: Carey is Dead, Long Live the Reformers," The Progressive, Vol. 62, No. 1
  27. ^ Slaughter, Jane, "Teamster Reform Movement Survives Carey's Debacle," Monthly Review, Vol. 49, No. 11.
  28. ^ Crowe, op. cit., p. 50.
  29. ^ Terkel, op. cit., p. 112.
  30. ^ La Botz, op. cit., p. 178.
  31. ^ Terkel, op cit., p. 112.
  32. ^ Witt, Matt and Rand Wilson, "The Teamsters' UPS Strike of 1997: Building a New Labor Movement." Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 24 No. 1, 58–72 (1999)
  33. ^ Schiavone, Michael, "Rank-and-File Militancy and Power: Revisiting the Teamster Struggle with the United Parcel Service Ten Years Later." Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 175–191.
  34. ^ Nat Weinberg Award Selection Committee notification letter to Ken Paff, August 15, 1988
  35. ^ Petra Foundation website,, accessed October 17, 2008.
  36. ^
  37. ^ Terkel, op. cit., pp. 109–115.

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