By Jim Larkin
The last time I saw James P. Hoffa, the man who promises to "restore Teamster power" was having trouble flexing his muscles in his own backyard. The Detroit labor attorney had just declared his candidacy for Teamster president, a position then occupied by Ron Carey, who'd been elected in 1991 with help from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Hoffa and his entourage were making a noisy entrance at a Labor Notes conference, one of the largest gatherings of union reformers in the country. Among Hoffa's top advisors--then and now--are two former acolytes of Lyndon Larouche who apparently thought it would be a good publicity stunt to crash the conference session run by TDU. If the TDUers, led by feisty Teamster V-P Diana Kilmury, barred Hoffa from their midst, then he could denounce them as undemocratic.
Hoffa was turned away by the Teamsters in
attendance, but not before getting into a shouting match with
several female strikers from Diamond Walnut. This performance
left the distinct impression that Jimmy Hoffa's son was bush
league, blustery, and not very bright--an "empty suit"
propped up by his handlers. Nevertheless, endowed with
his father's famous name and instant media attention, he was the
ideal front for "old guard" Teamster officials trying
to regain control of union headquarters. Their well-financed
efforts failed narrowly against Carey two years ago. Last month,
they finally succeeded when "Junior" won the Teamster
presidency in a court-ordered re-run of the 1996 vote.
The success of Hoffa's "Lion King"-like
quest for his father's former throne is a setback for Teamster
reform and efforts to revitalize labor generally. It does not
bode well for the union's rank-and-file. Fortunately, enough Teamsters
realized this to keep the last phase of Hoffa's four-year, $6
million presidential campaign from becoming a coronation. In the
wake of the disastrous fundraising scandal that forced Carey out
a year ago and left the national union seriously adrift, Hoffa
backers confidently predicted he'd win by a landslide. (Endorsed by 90% of all Teamster
officials, he ended up with only 55% of the vote.) He refused
to debate his main opponent, TDU-backed Tom Leedham, telling
reporters that the Teamster warehouse division leader was "unknown"
and not his "equal." By election time, however, Leedham
was clearly gaining on Hoffa and couldn't be ignored any longer.
When all the votes were counted, he'd overcome major disadvantages
in the area of name recognition, funding, and length of time spent
on the stump. Leedham's low-budget, grassroots drive won the support
of 140,000 members --39% of the ballots counted. Another 6% backed
a second anti-Hoffa slate that included Carey's Secretary-Treasurer
Leedham's solid performance as the head of
the "Rank-and-File Power" slate sets the stage for a
possible re-match only three-years from now. His running-mates,
a diverse group which include some of the best young reform leaders
in the union, also gained valuable campaign experience and national
exposure. The election results should put to rest speculation
that TDU suffered lasting damage from the melt-down of the Carey
Administration. At the grassroots, Teamster reform activists have
clearly recovered from the demoralization and divisions that delayed
the launch of Leedham's campaign earlier this year. TDU's "Stop
Hoffa" drive may not have succeeded but TDUers themselves
have been re-energized. Deprived now of its influence at Teamster
headquarters, on the union's executive board and among its field
staff, the 22-year old reform group will return to its pre-1992
role as full-time rank-and-file watchdog.
TDU will have plenty of old guard shenanigans
to expose and issues to mobilize around once Hoffa takes office.
The new Teamster chief faces accumulated problems with management
that would be daunting even if he had a coherent plan for dealing
with them. As a candidate, he promised to unify the union, make it more powerful, and "restore
local autonomy." As president, he'll fulfill the third pledge--making
it impossible to achieve the other two goals. Taking a "hands
off" approach to the affairs of 541 local unions will satisfy
the needs of his core constituency--the officialdom--but only
at the expense of the Teamsters' ability to win fights with big
employers by keeping members informed and involved.
Among Teamster officials, "local autonomy"
is code for being left alone to run your local union like any
other small business. More than a few locals actually operate
as family businesses, with officer jobs being handed down from
father to son. "A good day for them," says TDU National
Organizer Ken Paff," is when the International doesn't call
and they don't have to call the International." As the first
democratically-elected President, Ron Carey deeply offended the
Teamster officer class in a number of ways. First, he declared that, in the matter of perks, junkets,
and lax ethical practices, "the party is over." (It's
about to begin again). Second, he put more than 70 of the worst
locals under trusteeship (not always successfully). Third and
most importantly, his administration repeatedly by-passed local
officers and appealed directly to the rank-and-file whenever it
was necessary to rally workers in company- or industry-wide bargaining
units that spanned many different job sites and local unions.
The best example of this was the reformers'
systematic preparation for the union's 1997 showdown with United
Parcel Service (UPS) over part-timing. The company's 185,000 drivers
and package handlers belong to 206 Teamster locals, only a small minority of which shared Carey's
adversarial stance toward management. Carey's headquarters and
field staff initially tried to get all the UPS local officers
and business agents on board their proposed contract campaign.
But, where that failed, they reached out to members directly,
with a particular focus on uniting full time and part-time workers.
The International sent bargaining updates to every UPSer's home
and educational videos to all stewards to share with their co-workers.
Hundreds of activists were recruited to be part of "member-to-member"
communication networks within UPS job sites.
Some rank-and-filers were added to the national
UPS bargaining committee and others were taken off the job so
they could organize workplace and community protests around the
country. Members, not just union officials, acted as media spokespeople.
They helped turn their struggle into a cause that won widespread
public support. In the course of the campaign, more than 100,000
UPS workers signed petitions announcing their intention to "Fight
For More Full-Time Jobs." In August, 1997, they proceeded
to do just that in a successful 15-day strike immediately hailed
as victory for all of labor.
Despite the strike's clear vindication of
rank-and-file education and agitation, member empowerment is still
anathema to the Hoffa crowd. (In a post strike interview, Hoffa
claimed that the whole confrontation could have been avoided if
he, rather than Carey, had been in charge.). Campaigning among
their fellow officials, even Hoffa running-mates with progressive
reputations--like Bay Area Joint Council President Chuck Mack
or Boston's John Murphy--complained bitterly about Carey's flouting
of Teamster bargaining protocol. Mack promised a return to the
International's traditional servicing role, which never involved
raising worker expectations or doing end-runs around local officials.
According to Mack, whenever local officers are having a problem
convincing members to settle with an employer, they should be
able to get an international rep come in and sell the contract,
not stir things up.
In the past, of course, this has meant wearing
members down by making them vote on a deal--any kind of deal--
until it was approved. Reverting to such methods won't help Teamsters
with unresolved contract disputes or upcoming negotiations (like
the talks next spring covering 12,000 car haulers). Already, a
freight industry negotiating committee, dominated by Hoffa supporters,
downplayed membership activity during its 1998 negotiations. The
result was a lackluster settlement that noticeably reduced Hoffa's
freight vote and led to the defeat of chief negotiator Richard
Nelson in his own local union. At Anheuser-Busch, 8,000 brewery workers
are now laboring under a management-imposed "final offer"
that includes many take ways. After they rejected these several
times, a bargaining committee composed of other Hoffa backers pulled the plug on what had been
an active anti-concessions campaign.
Hoffa's election likewise jeopardizes the
progress made so far in the union's first successful recruitment
drive at Overnite Transportation. The Teamsters have been trying
to extend their national trucking contract to this big non- union
carrier for the last forty years. Several thousand Overnite workers
finally voted to unionize after the reformers launched a coordinated,
multi-state, member-based campaign. However, management's continued
resistance to the union will never be overcome if Hoffa lets individual
freight locals handle further dealings with the company.
In the airline industry, 10,000 Northwest
flight attendants have been in bargaining for 24 months since
their last contract expired. Getting a good settlement will require
stepped-up workplace activity based on the UPS model Meanwhile,
back at UPS, Hoffa faces the formidable challenge of getting
management to live up to last year's strike settlement. On the
first anniversary of the strike, UPS took advantage of the leadership
vacuum left by Carey's removal to announce that it wasn't going
to create all the additional full time jobs it agreed to. Last
summer, many members were ready to take the company on again over
this major contract violation. Now, they're likely to be told,
"Let Jim handle it."
How will Hoffa relate to his new colleagues
at the AFL-CIO while he's solving all these workplace problems?
A rapprochement is already underway in Washington, D.C. that reflects
both a shift in his position and that of federation officials
who helped raise money to defeat him just two years ago. Ever
since the 1996 election, Hoffa has criticized Sweeney Administration
figures like Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka and AFSCME President
Gerry McEntee for meddling in Teamster affairs. He expressed sharp
disagreement with Sweeney, as well as Carey, over their tilt toward
the Democratic Party. In a Playboy interview last Fall, Hoffa
also objected to various encroachments on Teamster turf by other
AFL-CIO affiliates--raising the specter of renewed raiding and
jurisdictional conflicts if he became president. (In the same
article, Michigan Joint Council leader Larry Brennan--Hoffa's
chief booster, mentor, and boss for the last five years--dismissed
Sweeney's whole crew as a bunch of socialists!)
An AP interviewer found the candidate in
a more conciliatory mood just before the latest vote. "We're
willing to forgive and forget their helping Carey," Hoffa
announced. "We're willing to move ahead with a new agenda
and proactive stance at the AFL-CIO." With $7 million a year
in Teamster per capita dues at stake, the new AFLers have been
very pro-active themselves since Hoffa won. Sweeney welcomed him
into the club right away, citing his "potential to be a great
leader." McEntee told The N.Y. Times on Dec. 7 that Hoffa's
approach and the AFL-CIO's "aren't all that different. Our
union and the federation are not captive to the Democratic Party.
This year we supported more Republicans than ever before."
When Hoffa held a press conference that same day and expressed
interest in organizing public employees, McEntee, their leader,
was even more magnanimous; according to The Wall Street Journal,
he "said there were enough nonunion workers for everyone,
and hinted that the two unions might even work together on some
It remains to be seen whether McEntee's embrace
of Republicans will extend to Hoffa favorites like Senator Orrin
Hatch, the union-basher from Utah, or right-wing Michigan Congressman
Peter Hoekstra. Since last Spring, Hoekstra has used hearings
by his House Education and Workforce Committee to harass both
the Sweeney Administration and Carey's remaining headquarters
appointees. Hoekstra is a major critic of protective labor laws
like OSHA and the Fair Labor Standards Act, who has no real interest
in workers rights in the Teamsters or any other union. Nevertheless,
his staff and key Hoffa operatives, like former Larouchies Richard
Leebove and George Geller, have collaborated closely. Hoffa's
alliance with Hoekstra pre-figures the right turn that will be
a big part of the new president's political program.
Another irony of Hoffa's reconciliation with
the Sweeney team lies in their shared legal difficulties arising
from the last Teamster vote. These problems have not gone away.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White is still probing the Teamster
payments to Citizen Action--directly and through the AFL-CIO--that
were later transformed into Carey campaign revenue in 1996. Ex-Teamster
legislative director Bill Hamilton, a one time AFSCME lobbyist,
is awaiting trial for allegedly arranging union donations to the
Democratic Party and allied groups like Citizen Action in return
for their donors' support for Carey. Five Carey backers, including
two Clinton-Gore campaign consultants, have pleaded guilty to
various"donorgate" felonies. Even McEntee has admitted
putting the arm on an AFSCME printer for an improper Carey contribution.
Carey, Trumka, and others connected to the scandal remain under
grand jury scrutiny.
Hoffa's own 1996 election rap sheet added
another entry in December when the Teamsters court-appointed Independent
Review Board (IRB) lowered the boom on vice-presidential candidate
Thomas O'Donnell. The IRB is charging the Long Island Teamster
official with fraudulently concealing the Hoffa campaign's 1996
hiring of a convicted felon. If proven, the accusation could result
in O'Donnell, like Carey, being removed from office (including
his new executive board post) and barred from the union. Of greater
concern to Hoffa, however, is the fact that the O'Donnell case
re-opens the larger controversy about his personal campaign financing
and record-keeping two years ago. Last April, Teamster election
officer Michael Cherkasky found that Hoffa himself was guilty
of falsifying election reports in the O'Donnell matter and covering
up more than $165,000 worth of illegal donations. Cherkasky fined
the candidate nearly $200,000 but refused to disqualify him. Instead,
he referred evidence to the IRB, which is still reviewing it.
With O'Donnell in trouble, newly-elected
Teamster board member James Santangelo also facing IRB charges,
and Hoffa's closest crony, Brennan, under IRB investigation for
funneling dues money into his local election, Hoffa is not going
to get very far with his post-election call for reduced court-oversight
of the union. Since 1995, five Hoffa running-mates have been suspended
or expelled from the Teamsters, removed from local office, or
disqualified as candidates because of financial misconduct. Now
that the "old guard" has its hand in the big cookie
jar again--the international union treasury--the list of his associates
who've succumbed to temptation may get longer.
Any backward steps, under Hoffa, toward corruption
or conservatism are not irreversible. History shows that setbacks
like his election can be overcome. In the United Mine Workers,
the only other AFL-CIO affiliate where members have been able
to use direct election of top officers to overthrow a dictatorship,
it took ten years--from 1972 to 1982--to consolidate that initial
victory. During this period, which was rocky indeed, the original
rank-and-file team fielded by Miners for Democracy made some
progress, only to flounder and then splinter. By the late 1970s,
the UMW was on its way back to the era of Tony Boyle, who was
ousted in 1972. Fortunately, the structural reforms introduced
by the MFD saved the day. Miners were able to use their hard-won
democratic rights to clean house a second time--putting the union
back on course, in the early 1980s, under second generation reform
Because Teamster reformers, like the miners,
have the right to vote, plus an on-going grassroots organization,
they should be even better positioned for a come-back when Hoffa
faces re-election. "Right now, the most known name in the
Teamsters is still Hoffa," says Dan Campbell, a 20-year TDU veteran from Michigan." But probably
the second best known name is Leedham. Not a bad start for 2001.
The challenge will be to build TDU and preserve a fair election
This round of balloting showed exactly where
the reform movement is strong and where it needs to grow. In parts
of the country or Teamster bargaining units with an active TDU
presence, members took their lead from the reformers, not pro-Hoffa
officials. That's why Leedham got the most votes in seven southern
states, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, New Mexico,
Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, most of Ohio, and northern New England.
Leedham also led in the overall returns from locals that have significant numbers of either UPS, freight, or car haul Teamsters--which represent over half of all those voting. He beat Hoffa in these "truck driver" constituencies covered by national contracts because they have the most contact with the International union and awareness of its improved performance under Carey. With no UPS background as a worker or negotiator, Leedham ran ahead in almost every UPS local based on his program for continued membership mobilization.
Few UPSers were familiar with him personally,
like they were with Carey. So, as one strike organizer says, "they
voted for the new type of unionism they experienced, particularly
in 1997. They didn't want to see it go away." Another TDU
activist, who has barnstormed with both Carey and Leedham believes
that the latter "did a much better job spreading understanding
of what union reform really means, which is building power from
the bottom up, not waiting for someone at the top to solve your
problems for you."
Carey's first run for office took two years. Leedham's campaign, in contrast, lasted just five months. That left him with little time to make inroads in the many units where Teamsters work under local contracts in specialized craft jurisdictions or miscellaneous warehouses, factories, and delivery operations. Their only contact with the union, for better or worse, is through local business agents overwhelmingly in the Hoffa camp. Few workers in these small-shop locals even knew there was an alternative to Hoffa.
However, among Teamster women--particularly
Latinas who've begun to assert themselves in cannery locals and
food processing plants--Leedham did very well. The female-led
flight attendant local at Northwest chose him over Hoffa by a margin of 3,222 to 300.
"We had a good base going into the campaign and now we must expand it," says TDU's Paff. "We're going to concentrate on building a strong diversified local leadership, educating and involving members in the life of more locals ." TDU has, of course, been doing this under every Teamster administration, friendly or unfriendly, since 1976. It pioneered many of the tactics and strategies that were finally adopted officially at UPS two years ago. There's no group more effective at putting rank-and-file pressure on union negotiators who'd prefer to leave members out of the loop. If Hoffa responds with an attempted crack-down on his critics, he won't be the first Teamster president to try that and fail. His room to maneuver may also be limited by continued judicial oversight of the union and the higher standards of accountability established over the past decade. "The genie of democracy is out of the bottle," says TDU's Kilmury. "and it's not going to be put back in." The bottom line for the election winner, says Leedham campaign manager Steve Trossman," is that the reform movement was left for dead six months ago. Now, it has come roaring back in this campaign and it will be breathing down Hoffa's neck for the next three years."
(Jim Larkin is the pen name of a longtime
Teamster watcher. He has been involved in union organizing or
reform activity since 1972.)