Teamsters leader shaped by Lincoln County
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Every day is Labor Day for the working-class Lincoln County boy who rose to the second highest post in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a success story that amazes even the man who lived it.
A second-generation Teamster with a high school education, 55-year-old Ken Hall grew up in Yawkey and started his union affiliation as a roustabout with Pennzoil.
Fast forward to last March when the union elected him international secretary-treasurer, second in command behind Teamsters President James P. Hoffa.
He spends much of his time working in Washington, but he lives in Alum Creek and remains president of Teamsters Local 175 in South Charleston. First elected in 1990 at the age of 33, he's serving his seventh term as the local's chief.
His constituency includes 250,000 United Parcel Service workers. He earned his stripes after leading a 1997 UPS strike that resulted in a landmark settlement.
A master negotiator, calm and soft-spoken (most of the time), he has a homespun but tenacious manner that clicks at the contract table.
The work is about getting even.
"I grew up in Yawkey, in Lincoln County. I was there about 48 years until I moved to Alum Creek. I can't see Russia from my front porch, but I can see Lincoln County.
"We were a lower middle-class family. I'm a second-generation Teamster. My dad worked for Pennzoil. He was there when they elected the Teamsters in 1970. So I grew up understanding what the Teamsters were.
"My brother worked for Pennzoil also. When the oilfields were booming, they were working Saturdays and Sundays. I thought, I will never work more than 40 hours a week. Now I work more hours than they did.
"Despite the stigma associated with Lincoln County, I had great teachers. When I was older, I thought I might want to be a lawyer, but I don't think my dad would ever have sent me to law school. He was just fundamentally opposed. He used to quote something from the Bible about it being easier to put a camel through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the gates of heaven.
"I graduated from Duval. I made good grades and was president of the National Honor Society. I loved sports. I was the quarterback of our team. Team sports really help you in life. In the job I do, it's all about getting people together.
"My mom worked in a general store across the hill. I started working there in the evenings when I was 15. Through high school, I stocked, bagged groceries, sorted pop bottles, delivered refrigerators and dryers.
"Then I went to work for Westmoreland Coal. I applied to be a coal miner, but they wanted to send me to school to be a mine engineer. They put me to work as a supply clerk, and I started going to school.
"Just after I enrolled, I had an appendicitis attack, so I missed that semester. I enrolled to go the next year, and my father passed away from lung cancer. They found it on July 12, and he died on Sept. 25. He was 47. I was 18. So my plans changed quickly.
"I went to work at Pennzoil shortly after his death. I couldn't go to college then because I had to take care of my mother. My brother and I started drilling water wells on the side.
"I was a roustabout at Pennzoil, a general laborer. I started out loading pipe. I walked pipelines looking for leaks, repaired them and put in new lines.
"What drove me to unions is, my dad had worked for Pennzoil for 18 years. A provision of ERISA [the Employment Retirement Insurance Security Act] guaranteed that surviving spouses would receive half of their spouse's pension. That law took effect in January 1976. My father died in September of '75, so my mother missed it by three months.
"When my dad first started, Pennzoil was non-union, so workers contributed to their own pensions. After the union came, the company had to provide pensions that the company paid for. Because of that law, my mom got a whopping $2,400, what my father had contributed with a little interest. Eighteen years of his pension was lost.
"My dad never missed a day's work. He had a problem with a nerve in his jaw. He wouldn't have it operated on because he was afraid it would paralyze him. He would sit up night after night in a chair without sleeping and go to work the next morning. For 18 years he did that.
"Shortly before we found he had lung cancer, he fell off a big oil tank and hurt his back and was in traction in the hospital. After he died, the company personnel director came to our house with forms for my mother to sign. Where he had been off because of the injury was under workers' comp. And he had bills associated with that at the hospital. But they checked No Entry on that form and had it for my mom to sign. That put her on the hook for all those bills. I thought, there is a day coming when I will get even with you people.
"After about a year, I became a job steward. In three years, I started sitting in as a rank-and-file member of the negotiating committee.
"After 11 years with Pennzoil, I was offered a job as business agent here at the local. In '89, I was elected vice president with 80 percent of the vote. My boss retired in 1990, and I took over as president of the local. I was 33. A lot of our older members said, 'Who is this kid?'
"I have been elected eight times, the last six with no opposition. I'm very proud of that, particularly our last international election. Members in our local voted for me by 92 percent, one of the highest in the country.
"In '92, I was appointed as an international rep for the Teamsters and became a troubleshooter. When there were problems, a strike coming up, they would send me wherever it was in the country.
"In '95, I was appointed director of the package division. I still am. That primarily covers UPS. You are responsible for negotiating and enforcing the national contract.
"In '97, UPS had the big strike. I was the chief negotiator. We were out for two weeks and came back with a very good settlement that included turning part-time jobs into full-time jobs for the first time. It was considered the biggest victory for labor in 25 years. That was the big break in life for me.
"We struck Coca-Cola in May and had a one-day strike. In 2000, we had a 21-week strike with Coca-Cola. Things got better after that. Now they've got a new management team and started back to some of their old behaviors. That is the most unreasonable company I've ever dealt with.
"In May, we got a grievance decision. When you get that decision, whoever has to abide by it. They decided not to abide by it. I wrote a letter to their CEO. I'd never done that before. He sent back a blowoff letter saying it was a local issue. So I said, 'OK, pal, if you want to make it this way.' And we took them out. By 10 that morning, they decided to abide by the decision.
"Do I think strikes are necessary? Yes. Am I an advocate of striking? No. It isn't the way it was in the '50s, particularly when there's a company with a lot of competition. You've got people hanging around to pick up that work.
"Ultimately, what's bad for the company is bad for the people I represent. I don't ever go into negotiation hoping it ends in a strike. On the other hand, it's our only economic weapon.
"We're starting on our next national contract. I have the distinction of negotiating more national contracts than anyone in Teamsters. I've been successful because I don't scream and curse unless I'm provoked.
"The old style was to come in and pound on the table and scream and curse. That looks good to your members for a while. But what they really want is their contract. It's not about who can scream the loudest, although I do have my moments.
"My philosophy is if I want this and the company wants that, I find a way to amend my proposal to address their concerns about consequences. There have to be compromises. If our members want something, I have to make sure it will not put the company in a position that they cannot operate.
"I'm proud that our pensions are on the average three times what they were when I came here. I've made it a point to convince our members not to put all their money in an hourly wage. I tell them, if we negotiate another 50 cents an hour, take 15 cents of that and put it in your pension. Our members listened to that. We've got members retiring with pensions of $4,700 a month.
"Pensions are still one of biggest problems we face. I don't know what's going to happen to this country. If you are not in a union company, most people do not have a defined benefit pension. They've got 401(k)s. That's fine, until you get ready to retire and have something happen like 2001 and 2002 and, more recently, 2008 and 2009. You think you're good with a 401(k) and suddenly you have half of it. You see all these people who retired in their 60s, and now they're back out working, and that's only going to get worse.
"If you are in a leadership role, you should lead. I get a little pissed off when I hear Mitt Romney calling us union bosses. I've got about 1.4 million bosses. I'm not a union boss. I'm a union leader. The members pay my salary. I work for them.
"Everyone talks about the union pensions. What's wrong with them is companies filed bankruptcy when they didn't have to just to avoid their liability.
"These chief executives get bonuses and nothing was done to help the pension funds that lost all this money because of what they did. Those people should be in prison.
"This whole thing on Wall Street, I'm very clear what I think about that. You have all these chief executives of all these big firms who couldn't be happy with making millions. They wanted to make billions. With all the risky investments and derivatives, they destroyed this economy. If any one of us did one-tenth of what they did, we would be in prison, and they just keep doing it over and over.
"What the hell. You got somebody who destroyed a company, and they get bailed out, then they bring it back to the level before they destroyed it and get a multimillion-dollar bonus for bringing it back what they destroyed it to start with.
"In November, I was elected to the No. 2 spot in the Teamsters. I've held almost every position in the union. I was a steward, a business agent, a vice president and president of this local. I was an international rep, vice president of the Eastern Region and became vice president at-large for all of the U.S. and Canada.
"When I come out of the office at night in Washington, I look over at the Capitol and wonder, 'How in the world did someone with a high-school education from Lincoln County end up here?'
"I've had a lot of breaks and the most tremendous support from our members in this local who have allowed me to be away from here doing other things. And I have worked incredibly hard. I'm honored to have the position.
"I spend a considerable amount of time in Washington, but I live here and I'm still the principal officer of the local. I am involved in any major issue here.
"When I'm home, I have a man cave. I like to sit back and watch a little TV. I have a 4-year-old grandson who keeps me hopping. He loves the outdoors and is incredibly spoiled by his grandparents.
"I am never going to move to D.C. My plan is to take my last breath in the house I live in now. I have no desire to keep up with the Joneses.
"I make good money, but it has aged me. Even if I'm lucky enough to be off on a weekend, there's never a day when I'm not on the phone at least two or three hours.
"I work hand in hand with Jimmy Hoffa every day. He called just a minute ago. He's a great guy. There was a civil war within our union, and he has brought us back. We go over to Capitol Hill together sometimes. Members of Congress get their pictures taken with Hoffa. He is magic on the Hill.
"I think often that my dad never got to see me doing this. My mom passed away last year. She never enjoyed life after my father died. I credit my parents with the work ethic I have.
"One of my goals as a young person, when I first started working, was to be able to raise my daughter, get her through college and help her get started, and I've been able to do that.
"So I don't have any big goals other than work goals. I want to organize FedEx. The UPS workers make between $14 and $17 an hour more in wages and benefits. The contract I negotiated makes them the best-paid wage and benefit drivers in America.
"There's a tyrant at the top of FedEx. He's gotten sweetheart deals from the Republicans that allow him to operate the same company as UPS but be covered by different rules. So yes, that's a challenge, and I intend to accomplish that.
"The Teamsters tried to organize Overnight for 50 years. I was able to do that in 2007. UPS bought them, and we went after them, and I represent 99 percent of them. I've been very fortunate, but I've had a lot of cooperation.
"Even though I'm general secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters, I'm remaining as director of the package division because I made a commitment that I would negotiate their next contract. I would go crazy if all I did was administrative work. I like to be out where the action is.
"My primary job is overseeing union finances, not negotiating contracts. But I represent UPS, 250,000 people. How can I leave this local when they are the ones who put me where I am? I won't leave. That's our deal."
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.