Hoffa's Election

What It Means For Teamsters And Teamster Reform

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 Tom Sever.

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 campaigns."

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 leadership.

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 process."

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.)

Return to

(c) All original work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved..