BY STEVE EARLY
NOVEMBER 15, 1998
Long tainted by the absence of democracy,
the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has had a big dose
of it lately.
Leadership selection in the IBT used to be
as secretive and ceremonial as the College of Cardinals' closed-door
system of picking a pope. Now, after 10 years of court-supervised
changes, Teamster elections are more like a nonstop circus - fractious
and freewheeling to the point of voter fatigue.
Earlier this month, the union's 1.4 million
members received ballots in the mail inviting them to participate
in their third presidential vote in the last seven years, a frequency
rate unparalleled in contemporary labor history. The results will
be tallied and announced early next month.
This year's media-anointed front-runner,
James P. Hoffa, 57, a Detroit lawyer and son of the Teamsters'
most famous past president, declared his candidacy in 1995. Backed
by most of the union's 5,000 officials, he's been running ever
since. Hoffa's main opponent, IBT warehouse workers leader Tom
Leedham, 47, is the new choice of Teamster reformers, who have
been trying to regroup ever since the downfall of the union's
first member-elected president, Ron Carey.
If Hoffa wins this time, the once triumphant;
now stalled reform drive associated with Carey will be ditched.
Hoffa promises to purge any remaining ""left-wing outsiders"
from Teamster headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to revive
the union's past ties to the Republican Party. Under his plan
to restore "local autonomy," regional Teamster barons
will be free once again to cut deals with big employers, without
interference from the national office.
If, on the other hand, Leedham's "rank
and file power" slate pulls off an upset victory like Carey
did when he first bucked the union establishment in 1991, Teamster
reformers will get another chance to shake up the bureaucracy.-
from above and below. Leedham pledges to use the union's top job
to keep the membership informed and involved in militant contract
fights like last year's successful strike against United Parcel
The competing campaigns of Leedham and Hoffa
- one appealing to the ranks and the other catering to the Teamster
officer corps - highlight the continuing divisions within the
union over how it should be run. This internal debate also mirrors
the tensions in other AFL-CIO unions where, to varying degrees,
activists are demanding change and traditionalists are resisting
The results of the Teamster vote could, in
fact, alter the current balance of power within the AFL-CIO because
a Hoffa victory will add a vocal conservative and friend of congressional
Republicans to the federation's executive council.
For Teamster reformers, it's been a rough
14 months since the undisputed high point of Carey's presidency
- the August 1997 walkout at UPS. That 15-day strike by 185,000
drivers and package handlers was hailed by AFL-CIO President John
Sweeney as a victory for the entire labor movement.
Within days of the company's surrender, however,
Carey's 1996 election was nullified and a new vote ordered. As
court appointed overseers and a federal prosecutor expanded their
investigation, it became clear that the reformer's own team had
run afoul of the law. A greedy cabal of Teamster vendors and political
operatives converted more than $700,000 in dues money into Carey
campaign revenue through a contribution-swap scheme.
As a result, Carey was first barred from
running again and then, last July, was expelled from the union.
Five of his backers have pleaded guilty to various felonies. A
sixth is awaiting trial. Carey and others connected to the scandal
remain under grand jury scrutiny.
For the Hoffa forces, "Teamster donorgate"
was a gift from heaven. The scandal diverted attention from their
own campaign funding violations, embarrassed the reformers, and
revived public cynicism about the possibility of ever "cleaning
up" the Teamsters.
After Carey stepped down, the coalition that
backed him two years ago splintered and tragedy turned into farce
at Teamster headquarters. Carey's temporary successor, Secretary-Treasurer
Tom Sever, proved to be weak and directionless. Membership programs
suffered and Teamster employers were quick to take advantage of
the leadership vacuum. By the first anniversary of the strike,
UPS was openly reneging on its promise to create more fulltime
jobs - a key part of the settlement.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, an important
Hoffa ally, US Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from
Michigan, used hearings by his House Education and Workforce Committee
to harass what remained of Carey's Washington brain trust, a once
energetic, now demoralized group.
A fierce critic of protective labor laws
like the one that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration
and the Fair Labor Standards Act, Hoekstra is a conservative with
no real interest in workers rights. Nevertheless, his staff and
Hoffa's have worked closely together, an alliance that reflects
the-political right turn that will be a big part of any Hoffa
"Getting into bed with union-bashing
politicians is nothing new," observes Ken Paff, the leader
of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, or TDU, who became a truck
driver in 1973. "Hoffa's father did it when he endorsed Richard
Nixon, and later, Teamster crooks were the main labor backers
of Reagan and Bush. Is it any surprise that Hoffa Junior now wants
to 'build bridges' to House Republicans?"
Leedham has been a sharp critic of Hoffa's
Hoekstra connection, while at the same time distancing himself
from Carey's inside-the-beltway fund-raising fiasco. In a real
break with business as usual, his platform seeks to end direct
Teamster financing of Democrats or Republicans.
"We're going to stop writing blank checks
to politicians who stab us in the back," Leedham told a group
of Boston Teamsters earlier this month. "We can have far
greater impact if we put union money into our own get-out-the-vote
campaigns, rallies, and phone banks, and use rank-and-file action
to put heat on all public officials."
When the votes are counted next month, however,
it will be Teamster workplace issues - and turnout - that affect
the outcome, not the candidates' political views. Leedham believes
that agitation, education, and national coordination of membership
activity are necessary to make bargaining gains at big companies.
This approach runs counter to the interests of Hoffa's core constituency.
Much of the local officialdom wants, above all, to protect its
own power, perks, and turf - not to rally workers against corporate
Traitorously refusing to accept more than
one Teamster paycheck himself, Leedham has - like Carey before
him - enraged his peers with attacks on their multiple salaries
and extra benefits. Last year, he notes, more than 130 Teamster
officers were paid between $100,000 and $470,000, giving them
a "country club life" far removed moved from the concerns
of most members.
Indeed, Leedham's modest background and thoughtful
personal manner stand in sharp contrast to the old Teamster stereo
types so admired by Hoffa, a wealthy man whose own barnstorming
style has become more bravado-filled and blustery over time.
The Hoffa slate (with the exception of his
main Boston booster, John Murphy) lacks the youth, energy, idealism,
racial or gender diversity of Leedham's running mates. Most revealing
of all, the $650,000 "Legal and Accounting Fund" for
Hoffa's current campaign - which is outspending Leedham's 4 to
1- has become a magnet for contributions from corporate law firms,
Republican businessmen, and other non-labor entities seeking patronage
If Leedham's low-budget, largely volunteer
effort fails to catch Hoffa in the homestretch, there is one consolation
prize. The winner only gets to serve the remainder of Carey's
second term, which expires in three years. Some dogged reformers
- 400 of whom gathered in Milwaukee last weekend for their 22nd
annual convention - are already planning that far ahead.
In the new, more democratic Teamsters, the
next election is not far away.
Steve Early is a labor journalist and
lawyer involved with the Teamster reform movement since 1977.