Oral History Interview With: John D. Farrish
Interviewer: Scott Burwell
Place: Waynesboro, Virginia
Date: December 5, 2005
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General topic of interview: This is a very brief interview with the Principal Officer of Teamsters Local 29. It gives a general history of the local and the conditions that the average worker in the Shenandoah Valley labors under.
NARRATOR: John D. Farrish
DATE: December 5, 2005
INTERVIEWER: Scott Burwell
PLACE: Waynesboro, Virginia
Birthdate: December 3, 1953
Spouse: Elizabeth Ann Farrish
Occupation: Principal Officer, Secretary Treasurer, Teamsters Local 29
John Farrish was born in Staunton, Virginia in 1953. He graduated from Riverheads High School in Greenville, Virginia in 1972. He started driving a truck for Eastern Refrigerated Transport in 1975. He joined the Teamsters the same year. He started driving for Yellow Freight, which is the nation’s largest freight carrier, in 1984 where he received the 1,000,000 miles safe driver award. He was elected president of Local 29 in 1997, and principal officer in 2000. He enjoys hunting, fishing, and working on old trucks in his small amount of spare time.
This interview was not originally intended to be part of the Shenandoah Valley Oral History project; it was conducted for an urban social history class. The interview is brief but focuses on a part of local history that is often overlooked, the working class. The interview starts with a brief history of Teamsters Local 29. The general working conditions of the Shenandoah Valley are discussed as are the issues of race and migration. How unions actually help workers and the matter of ‘right to work’ and ‘closed shop’ states are also covered. A couple of local freight strikes are also discussed.
SB: Do you all cover the unions up in Harrisonburg, or is it just Augusta County?
JF: No, we cover all the way to the West Virginia line to the north, and south to Natural Bridge, Virginia, west to Allegheny County, and east to Zion’s Crossroads.
SB: All for Local 29?
JF: All Local 29, we have the largest geographical local in the state.
SB: Okay, well, a smaller population I guess. Do you know when the Teamsters first moved into this area?
JF: This local was formed in 1963. Prior to that, we were a spin off of Local 539 out of Winchester, Virginia. We spun off in ’63 and got our own charter. They went defunct, and we took them in.
SB: Do you know, the Teamsters, were they the first union in here? Probably not-
JF: No, no I don’t believe they were.
SB: ’63, well, we’re in the South and everything was segregated back then. Did the Teamsters let black people join back then?
JF: Absolutely, we’ve always embraced, we’re color blind. We’ve always embraced minorities.
SB: Well, I ask that because I’ve read a little bit about the labor movement and I understand that in the South, earlier in the century, a lot of unions wouldn’t let black people join.
JF: Not the Teamsters, that’s not true. We were very supportive back in the civil rights marches. I’ve got a poster in the board room that I’d be happy to show you. We were very supportive of, you know, we’re all about people’s rights. That’s what we’re here for.
SB: Absolutely, all right, with all the new warehousing and trucking that’s been popping up in the valley the last twenty, thirty years, do you think, as a whole, are the workers more unionized now then they were say twenty years ago? Are they less?
JF: Exactly the opposite, less. The reason being, the employers got smart. Used to, you know, you had your union employers, and your non-union employers. If you worked for a union employer, you were treated like a man, wages, benefits, the whole nine yards. If you were a non-union employer, you worked for one of them, it wasn’t good, they didn’t treat you very well. They got smart, they said the only way we’re going to keep this monster away from us is to pay better wages and benefits. That’s what they do, they stay just below the radar.
SB: Like Best Buy
JF: Like Best Buy, right, definitely.
SB: Why do you think the unions are sort of relatively weak in the Valley, or the South in general it seems like-
JF: Because of our politicians, because of right to work. Our politicians in the South, it’s like it’s always been; the rich man gets richer and the poor man gets poorer. Politicians are predominately Republican; I guess you know that’s definitely for the bosses. And in my mind, they call it a right to work state. They didn’t finish the sentence, it’s a right to work for less. That’s what it truly means, and if you’ve ever looked at a map of the United States, the right to work states versus the closed shop states, the line is identical to the Civil War, the North and the South. It’s never changed, that’s why the unions are weak in the South.
SB: You don’t believe that say, I want to get a job at UPS, I don’t want to join the Teamsters, you don’t believe UPS should be able to hire a person?
JF: I don’t mind if they hire him, but I believe that within seven days he needs to become a union member. My thought is this: if you don’t want to join a labor union, you have that right in this country and God bless you. You don’t want to be a part of this organization then good for you. Why do you want to go work where the union exists?
SB: Probably because UPS is a good job.
JF: Exactly because of the wages and the benefits, you want the honey but you don’t want to pay the price. You’re a scab, that’s what a scab is. A guy that wants to work and reap what we have, the benefits that we have fought for, but he doesn’t want to stand up and pay the price.
SB: That’s better than how my Dad would always explain it to me. How do you think the Latin migrants, legal, illegal, either way, how do you think they’re affecting things in general as far as labor, management, all that kind of stuff.
JF: The ones that work in my places are willing, and anxious, eager, to join the union. They actually become very good union members and I’ll tell you, the reason being for that in my mind is that where they come from is a whole different world from what we live in. And I think they see readily what the union does versus our people that were born and raised here, they think it’s a given. They don’t see the wages and the benefits they get are negotiated, they think it’s a given, it’s their birthright. Wrong, that’s not right and I think these people that come up from Mexico and Latin America, they say wow.
SB: That’s why they’re coming
JF: That’s why they’re coming and that’s why they’re anxious to join the union.
SB: Do you think the Teamsters are trying to reach out to them specifically?
JF: No, I don’t think so. We have our arms open and we’re willing, I mean, we want them. We want all workers, we don’t care what denomination you are, what culture you’re from. We want all workers.
SB: Has there been a problem with guys who are illegal, and when they join up, you all find out?
JF: I can honestly say I’ve not had that problem. If you want a little quick story, I had a guy that works for Morning Star Foods, from Puerto Rico and they fired him unjustly. We filed a grievance, arbitrated his case, he was off from work six months or more. They put him back to work with full back benefits and pay, $25,000 worth of back pay.
SB: That’s a pretty good deal.
JF: Exactly, we don’t discriminate. If you’re Latino American, African American, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re just a Teamster.
SB: Yeah that’s great, and actually this doesn’t have anything to do with the interview but we’ll be all right. At Best Buy, they make us sign something when you work there that they can fire you for any reason at any time and if you don’t sign it they won’t-
JF: They won’t hire you.
SB: Even though I’ve been there for six years, I know that if they decided to, when I went to work tomorrow morning, there’s nothing I could do about it.
JF: Right to work for less state, you can go work for a place for twenty five years, tomorrow morning go there, and it’s like I don’t need you anymore Scott. What did I do? Listen, I don’t need you anymore, leave. That’s all they got to tell you.
SB: Now, I have good friends who load trucks and drive for UPS. I also have a good friend who is a supervisor for UPS. He was in Fishersville, but he’s in Charlottesville now. His complaint would be to me that, say they found somebody who was drunk on the job. To him, if you’re going to get drunk on the job, we don’t need you, but they couldn’t fire him.
JF: That’s not true.
SB: He saw that as an abuse of power.
JF: That’s not accurate, if a guy goes to work drunk; he’s going to be fired. Now the difference is we have one time rehabilitation. We believe that we’re human beings, we don’t believe that we’re machinery. We believe that everybody has flaws, and a guy may have a drinking problem, he may have a drug problem. What we do, we give him one time rehabilitation. We send him to the best there is to fix his problem, and we put him back in the workforce. Now we’ve done our job, he slips again, sayonara. But if a man comes to work drunk, he will be fired. So that’s not accurate what that supervisor’s telling you.
SB: Well, you know, he’s sort of on the other side of things.
SB: But he is a good friend
JF: That’s fine, but this contract, that’s a UPS contract, I defy him to come in here and show me where you can’t fire a man for coming to work drunk.
SB: Has NAFTA had a noticeable impact on Harrisonburg or the Valley in general?
JF: I don’t think it’s had a huge effect locally, no.
SB: Some people cite NAFTA as a reason that so many illegals are coming.
JF: I believe that’s true. I know the cross-border trucking we fought diligently to get stopped because a Mexican driver is not held to the same standards as our American drivers on our U.S. roads.
SB: They let them come like thirty miles in or something.
JF: Well, they don’t adhere to the drug testing, they don’t have to adhere to the background checks for hazardous materials. Their equipment doesn’t have to meet the same standards. I mean, you can come into our country and do as you damn well please, but we hold our drivers to a higher standard. Which I think our drivers should be held to a higher standard, but I think they should as well.
SB: Well, I see trucks from Canada coming up and down. Does Canada have comparable safety regulations?
JF: They do, the Canadian trucks are good, safe trucks, experienced, safe drivers. They’re professionals. But for instance, Roadway Express, a few years back, not ancient history but opened terminals in Mexico. In Texas, Del Rio, well, take a border (town), El Paso, Texas. A Teamster driver for Roadway Express made $21 an hour, you cross the Rio Grande, a Mexican driver for Roadway Express, the same company, $7 a day.
SB: Well , honestly, basically that was all my serious questions. I have a last one, you got any stories about strikes around here? Anything that might be interesting?
JF: Not really, I’ve been in this Teamster, I’ve been in this very local. I joined the local May 16, 1975. I was a road driver, then I became a city driver, and then I became, then I’ve been on the executive board of this local for a long time as a recording secretary, and then I got to be the president, now I’m the secretary treasurer and principal officer. But as far as the strikes go, there’s only been two in the thirty years I’ve been here. Well, actually three, I forgot about (one). I was involved in two personally, two freight strikes; back in ’79 and back in ’94. In ’79 we were on strike ten days, we got exactly what we wanted, what we deserved, and went on back to work. In 1994 we were on strike twenty four days. We went back in for less than what they offered us before we went out, and no one even noticed we were on strike. So, UPS was a big strike in ’97. Now, they tried to rape our employees, our members, their employees, our members of their pension. We said that ain’t happening, and it didn’t. Some things are just worth fighting for, just like our United States. That’s why our boys are across the water right now fighting, some things are just worth fighting for, and you’ve got to do it.
SB: I know that Verizon just froze the pensions on something like 50,000 of their employees.
JF: Yeah, it’s terrible.
SB: Oh man, that’s only like thirteen minutes. Oh well, that’s fine with me.
JF: If you have any questions, I don’t know exactly what to elaborate on. We’ve been fortunate not to have a lot of strikes in this valley because for the most part our people are sensible people and they know what a good deal is and we work diligently to get them good contracts. When I take a contract to my membership, it’s worthy, I believe, or I wouldn’t take it to them. I will never recommend a contract that I don’t believe in.