EGG HARBOR CITY - Teamsters Local 331 dedicated its new headquarters Wednesday with a promise of providing better-paying jobs for many of southern New Jersey's unemployed workers.
As union members chanted his famous surname, Teamsters International President James P. Hoffa said the local union has come a long way in the three years since it was overseen by appointed trustees and was threatened with dissolution in 2007.
"We're just getting started here. I'm excited about the future," Hoffa said. "There is such a thing as Teamsters' dignity. Don't you feel the pride?"
Local 331 moved to a building on Philadelphia Avenue in Egg Harbor City in July after spending 20 years in Pleasantville.
Local President Marcus King said its membership of about 2,000 workers is growing, despite the weak economy.
The union invited companies with which it has labor contracts to participate in the ceremonial opening Wednesday. U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, and his Democratic opponent, Gary Stein, also attended the ceremony.
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson recalled the days he drove a union truck as a young man, and welcomed Hoffa with a compliment, calling him "royalty."
"You have another Republican who belonged to a union," Levinson said, promising to negotiate with labor unions in good faith in Atlantic County.
State Sen. James Whelan, D-Atlantic, said he would oppose state measures aimed at eliminating collective bargaining agreements.
"We know these are difficult times. But we're not going to get there on the backs of the working people," Whelan said.
Still, union officials said they have to work with companies and local governments to find compromises during the recession.
"We have to forge a different type of relationship to build back up a stronger economy for our children," King said. "We have to be proactive. A decline in jobs means a decline in the middle class."
The union also represents many public workers, he said, adding that taxpayers and towns are unfairly scapegoating the employees for the municipalities' current economic misfortunes.
"The reality is we don't represent the high end of the private sector," King said. "We represent the guys in Public Works who start out at $19,900 per year. And he's being asked to contribute more to his medical insurance. How does that guy survive?"
Tom Willett, the union's recording secretary, said the tough economy is pitting union employees against each other over pay and benefits.
"Too many people are saying, ‘I don't get that benefit. Why should you?' That will just lower the standard and the pay scale. We'll never climb out of it," he said.
The Teamsters union represents both white-collar and blue-collar workers, including soda and beer delivery drivers.
"The union is probably more relevant now than it was 10 years ago because of the economy," Willett said. "If there was every a cry for a union, now is the time. Before, the complaint was about working conditions. Now the complaint is too much part-time work or no work."
King said labor unions are looking at diversifying into new industries, such as the nascent offshore wind industry that is coming together in New Jersey.
"We have to do a better job looking at the global economy and New Jersey's place in it to give it a spark," he said.