WASHINGTON — A Republican lawmaker on Wednesday told Sean O’Brien, Teamsters general president, to “shut up” in a terse exchange at a hearing into the probe into so-called union-busting by US companies.
The tense back-and-forth between O’Brien and Sen. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., escalated into a screaming fight at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The dispute began after Mullin, who took over his family’s Mullin Plumbing business when his father fell ill when he was 20, complained that union plumbers were trying to intimidate him and his 300 plumbers into organizing in 2019.
“They would lean against my trucks. I’m not afraid of physical confrontation, sometimes I even look forward to it,” said Mullin, who also owns several other local businesses. “And that’s not my problem. But when are you going to do that to my employees?”
They also went on strike outside his workplaces, shouting “Shame on Mullin,” he said.
“‘Shame on Mullin?’ Because we were paying higher wages… and we (didn’t) require them to pay your boys’ exorbitant salaries?he asked.
O’Brien said the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has examples of employers illegally pressuring workers not to join unions.
Mullin, who also owns several other local businesses, questioned O’Brien’s six-figure salary. O’Brien was paid more than $300,000 in 2019, according to the latest report on union leader salaries from Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a grassroots organization of members, but the Teamsters leader actually took a pay cut when he was elected president general .
“As general president, elected in 2021 and inaugurated in 2022, Sean O’Brien had to take his base salary cut,” Kara Deniz, deputy director of the Teamsters’ strategic initiatives division, told CNBC. “He now has a constitutional salary of $225,000 per year, indexed to inflation.”
“The real problem here is a US senator who claims he makes $50,000 a year when investigated for ethics violations and has millions of dollars in multiple companies,” Deniz said. “For him to behave like a man of the people is pathetic.”
In 2018, Mullin was found to have broken house rules by appearing in a series of commercials for his plumbing companies and receiving improper business payments. According to The Washington Post, he was ordered to pay $40,000 back to the company, despite the decision of the House Ethics Committee not to impose financial penalties on Mullin.
“What do you bring for that salary? What job did you create, a job other than siphoning someone else’s paycheck…because you’re forcing them to pay fees?” asked Mullin O’Brien.
When O’Brien said Mullin was out of line, lawmakers fired back: “You’ve got to shut up.”
“We created opportunities because we hold greedy CEOs like you accountable,” O’Brien told Mullin.
“Am I a greedy CEO? I kept my salary down to about $50,000 a year because I put every penny into it,” Mullin said of his tenure as CEO of Mullin Plumbing.
“You mean you hid money?” O’Brien replied.
“You think you’re smart? You think you’re funny? No, no you’re not,” Mullin shot back as committee chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, tried to calm the outburst.
During testimony, O’Brien said that half of the senators on the committee “are only willing to offer right-to-work legislation.”
“These laws lower wages, create inferior benefits and undermine workers’ rights in every state where they are passed,” he said.
States that have enacted laws guaranteeing that workers will not be forced to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment are considered “right to work” states, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the country’s largest union federation, argues that the laws make unionization and collective bargaining for better wages, working conditions and benefits more difficult.
O’Brien said 1.3 million of his union members have lost their jobs and even their lives during the pandemic, while big companies like it UPS And Hook made record profits.
“They were going out, delivering packages, distributing groceries, picking up trash, doing all the essential services that we sometimes take for granted, all these big companies like UPS, Republic Waste (Services) and Kroger’s grocery warehouses, they were making record profits,” he said O’Brien: “My members feel taken advantage of today. And I think there are not only a lot of unionized workers, but there are also many non-union workers who think the same way.”
He said there are no consequences when CEOs and companies call out Starbucks and its CEO Howard Schultz specifically, “rather than support legislation to protect our workers’ decisions to join a union, they are breaking our laws.”
Natasha Amadi, a spokeswoman for UPS, said union membership at the company increased between August 2018 and February last year.
“The company has created approximately 72,000 Teamster-represented jobs,” Amadi said. “That’s a 25% growth rate for UPS unions.”
UPS also hired 29,000 employees in the second quarter of 2020 to meet customer demand, Amadi said.
Representatives from Starbucks, Amazon, Republic Services and Kroger did not immediately respond to CNBC requests for comment.
Mullin was not the only committee member to point to incidents of harassment by union organizers. Senator Bill Cassidy, R-La., asked the witnesses about video dated April 20 showing a worker striking outside a building Amazon Warehouse calling a female employee names including “Gutter B-tch”.
“This suggests there is a legitimate concern about harassment of employees who try not to organize,” Cassidy said.