Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) and Teamsters General President Sean O’Brien got into a heated verbal exchange Wednesday in a Senate committee hearing focused on the right of workers to organize unions.
Sanders has been hoping to rally bipartisan support for the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, his bill that passed the House in 2021 but does not have the 60 votes it would need to pass the Senate. At the beginning of the hearing, Sanders argued that the bill was necessary in “a very strange and unfair economy” in which more than 60 percent of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.
O’Brien, as well as some of the others on the panel, repeatedly argued that corporations were making record profits while workers — many of whom have risked their lives to provide essential goods and services during the coronavirus pandemic — were not enjoying the same payouts. And when workers tried to unionize to fight for better working conditions, the union leaders said, they faced illegal intimidation from their employers.
About halfway through the hearing, Mullin spoke up. He first urged the panel not to make the assumption that he was anti-union.
“I’m not against unions. I’m not at all,” said Mullin, who owns a plumbing company. “Some of my very good friends work for unions. They work hard, and they do a good job.”
Mullin said he wanted to “set the record straight.” His concern was about “the intimidation” union leaders used when trying to unionize, he said, citing what had happened at his plumbing business as an example.
“I started with nothing — absolutely nothing,” Mullin said. “In fact, I started below nothing. And I started growing this little plumbing company with six employees to now we have over 300 employees. And back in 2009. you guys tried to unionize me.”
Mullin claimed that union pipe fitters would show up at his house, leaning up against his trucks. When that didn’t work, he said, they would picket him, chanting: “Shame on Mullin! Shame on Mullin!”
“I’m not afraid of a physical confrontation. In fact, sometimes I look forward to it. That’s not my problem. But when you’re doing that to my employees?” Mullin said, adding, “For what? For what? Because we were paying higher wages? Because we had better benefits and we wasn’t requiring them to pay your guys’ exorbitant salaries?”
Mullin then asked about O’Brien’s salary, before cutting him off and reading off numbers from a piece of paper comparing what he said O’Brien made in 2019 with what the average UPS feeder driver made.
“That’s inaccurate. That’s inaccurate. State facts. State facts,” O’Brien said about the numbers, adding, “I know them, because I negotiate the contract.”
Mullin, undeterred, pressed on.
“I say one thing to you: What do you bring for that salary?” Mullin said. “… What job have you created? One job.”
Here, the exchange devolved into angry crosstalk. Mullin accused O’Brien of “sucking” money out of people’s paychecks and “forcing them to pay dues.”
O’Brien tried to interject to say Teamsters did not force members to pay dues, before declaring, “You’re out of line.”
Thrusting his finger at the witness panel, Mullin told O’Brien to shut his mouth because he didn’t know what he was talking about, which prompted O’Brien to mock Mullin for his “tough guy” act. In the background, Sanders repeatedly banged his chairman’s gavel in vain.
After some order had been restored, O’Brien proceeded to answer the question about his salary. The peace didn’t last long.
“I bet you I work more hours than you do,” O’Brien said. “Twice as many hours.”
“Sir, you don’t know what hard work is,” Mullin snapped back. “You want to follow my schedule?”
“I’d do it in a minute,” O’Brien said.
The two then argued over the average salary of a UPS feeder truck driver before Mullin returned to his accusation that O’Brien had never created a job.
“We create opportunity because we hold — we hold greedy CEOs like yourself accountable,” O’Brien said.
“You calling me a greedy CEO?” Mullin asked.
“Oh yeah, you are,” O’Brien replied. “You want to attack my salary, I’ll attack yours. … What did you make when you owned your company?”
“When I made my company? I kept my salary down at about $50,000 a year because I invested every penny into it,” Mullin said, nodding.
“Okay, all right,” O’Brien said. He paused. “You mean you hid money?” he added.
An exasperated Mullin stopped and pointed at O’Brien again. “Hold on a second.”
“All right, we’re even. We’re even,” said O’Brien, who grinned slightly.
“You think you’re smart? You think you’re funny?” Mullin said.
Ultimately Mullin said O’Brien’s behavior at the hearing showed how union leaders tried to intimidate employees when unionizing a business.
“The issue is, if you’re really for the employee, then why are you against right to work? Why are you against private ballots?” Mullin said, adding, “I’m not anti-union, but when you don’t want to have a private ballot, that’s not intimidating?”
Mullin ran out of time shortly afterward, but the spat continued even after the hearing concluded, with O’Brien tweeting a link to a Tulsa World article that said Mullin’s reported assets had jumped from a range of $7.3 million to $29.9 million at the end of 2020 to a range of $31.6 million to $75.6 million a year later.
“A reminder to Senator Mullin (whose net worth, by the way, is over $30 million) and to all the greedy CEOs and their mouthpieces in Congress: You come after labor, we come after you,” the Teamsters account tweeted soon after that.
In a post-hearing tweet of his own, Mullin reiterated his belief that workers should be allowed to decide whether to join a union through private ballots. Along with the tweet was a video clip from the hearing that excluded his verbal sparring with O’Brien.
Mullin, who had served in the House since 2013, was elected in November to the Senate. In 2014, a congressional watchdog found that Mullin had violated House ethics rules by personally advertising for his family’s Oklahoma plumbing businesses and serving on their boards. The watchdog report also found that Mullin had earned more outside his House income than was allowed.
In 2021, after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Mullin made headlines for attempting to enter Afghanistan and reportedly threatening staffers at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan when they would not allow Mullin to skirt the country’s laws to do so.