Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #29 October 9, 2001

Hoffa Ducks Debate with Leedham;
TDU’s Influence Tested in Election

By Harry Kelber

If the delegates to last June’s Teamsters convention had had their way, James P. Hoffa would have been re-elected general president by a landslide. His only opponent, Tom Leedham, barely managed to get the 5% of the nominations he needed at the convention to put him on the ballot in this year’s election.

But it isn’t the delegates who decide whether Hoffa or Leedham becomes the next president. It’s the 1.4 million members who do, and that causes some nervousness in the Hoffa camp. Ballots were mailed Oct. 9 and are to be counted Nov. 13-16. And the front-runner Hoffa may have hurt his cause when he refused to appear in Washington for a Sept. 19 debate with Leedham.

Hoffa was displeased when the court-appointed election administrator, William A. Wertheimer Jr., ordered the debate. He complained that it would result in a “windfall of publicity” for Leedham. He was particularly upset that the debate was to be videotaped and that each candidate would get 200,000 tapes to distribute.

Hoffa’s stand-in was Chuck Mack, vice president for the IBT’s Western Region. He explained Hoffa’s absence by saying “Jim Hoffa very much wanted to be here,” but had to go to Oklahoma instead to campaign against a “right-to-work” measure on the ballot. (The unions lost that battle.)

Mack and Leedham disagreed about whether it’s appropriate for Teamster officers to receive multiple salaries. Leedham promised to do away with the practice, noting that some officers earn more than $500,000 a year. Mack acknowledged that he earns one salary from his local and another from a joint council. “I work hard. I earn the money. I represent the membership,” he said.

Mack defended the union’s $75 per diem food allowance for international staffers, while Leedham pointed out that thousands of Teamsters are getting only $55 a week in strike benefits.

The debaters also clashed on several other issues, including the viability of the two-year-old Overnite trucking strike; preparations for next year’s negotiations with United Parcel Service; the quality of recently negotiated contracts, and the extent of criminal influence within the union.

While Hoffa is clearly the favorite, his re-election is far from a sure thing. Leedham, secretary-treasurer of IBT Local 206 in Portland, Ore., opposed Hoffa in the 1998 election and received 39% of the vote in a three-way contest. He thinks he can do better this time, given the incumbent’s spotty record on contract negotiations and organizing,

Hoffa, meanwhile, is counting on an army of local union officers to give him the edge — the same loyalists who raised most of the $2 million his “Unity Slate” expects to spend on the campaign. Leedham’s “Rank and File Power Slate” is heavily dependent on the grassroots organizing skills of thousands of Teamsters for a Democratic Union supporters throughout the union. Some 300 TDU activists met in Pittsburgh Sept. 21-23 to intensify their get-out-the-vote campaign for Leedham’s slate.

The 25-year-old insurgent group helped Ron Carey win the presidency in 1991, even though he got only about 15% of the votes of convention delegates, and helped him win again in 1996. But a money-laundering scandal led to Carey’s ouster in 1998.

The democratic features that are mandated in the Teamster election process are quite unusual within the labor movement. Even the most progressive AFL-CIO unions have nothing to match the procedures spelled out in the consent decree that Teamster officials and the Justice Dept. signed in 1989. Federal supervision over union affairs was deemed necessary in order to root out criminal behavior that has long tainted the nation’s largest private-sector union.

Thus, by Wertheimer’s administrative order, the Hoffa and Leedham slates were allotted equal space in three monthly pre-election issues of The Teamster magazine. Both sides could present their arguments in exhaustive detail so that members would be able to cast an informed vote.

Leedham’s supporters say their man easily won the debate with Hoffa’s stand-in, and the 200,000 videotapes will make great campaign material. Hoffa’s camp doesn’t plan to hand out any of its 200,000 copies.

In the last three Teamster national elections, voter participation hovered around 30%. It won’t be much higher this year, according to Ken Paff, TDU’s national organizer. “This is going to be a sprint to the finish line,” he said.

“Inside the AFL-CIO” can be viewed every Tuesday at Our “LaborTalk” column appears every Monday.

HomePublications Inside the AFL-CIOContact us