Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #37 December 4, 2001

If Hoffa Can Make a Deal with Bush,
Why Not an Understanding with TDU?

By Harry Kelber

Are George W. Bush and James P. Hoffa, the sons of two famous fathers, planning to make a deal in which the U.S. President would put an end to the 12-year federal oversight of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in exchange for the union president’s enthusiastic support in the 2004 election?

Rumors to that effect are more rampant since “Junior” Hoffa won a five-year term as president of the 1.4 million-member IBT last month. He defeated Tom Leedham, standard bearer of the union’s reform wing, by a convincing 2-to-1 margin, although only 22% of the members returned their mail-in ballots.

The final tally, announced by Election Administrator William Wertheimer on Nov. 16, gave Hoffa 200,168 votes (64.8%) to 108,389 (35.1%) for Leedham, secretary-treasurer of a Portland, Ore. local.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the principal supporters of the Leedham-led Rank and File Power Slate, found some solace in the results. Leedham won by decisive majorities in four key constituencies for which Hoffa’s staff negotiated contracts during his two years in office: car haulers, Northwest Airlines flight attendants, Iowa Beef production workers and Anheuser-Busch brewery workers.

TDU remains an important and respected force within the union, despite Hoffa’s hopes that an overwhelming election victory would enable him to crush the reformers. But even the combination of his $3 million-plus expenditures, his overwhelming support among local union officials and his campaign appeals for “unity” and against “negativity” didn’t turn the trick.

Hoffa now has two major objectives: freeing the union from the Justice Dept. supervision that began in 1989 and increasing the Teamsters’ economic and political clout.

Talk of a Bush-Hoffa alliance increased after a Labor Day picnic in Detroit this year at which President Bush pointedly praised Hoffa. “You’ve got a good man running the Teamsters in Jimmy Hoffa,” Bush said. “Let me tell you another thing about Jimmy Hoffa: he’s running a good union and in an above-board way. And make no mistake about it, people are beginning to notice, particularly in Washington, D.C.”

The Teamsters have supported a few Republicans in the past, most notably Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In 1999, the union’s powerful Michigan Joint Council endorsed GOP Rep. Peter Hoekstra, known for having one of the worst voting records in Congress on labor and economic issues during the previous eight years. Hoekstra became a Hoffa favorite after he started lobbying to eliminate the consent decree under which national IBT officials and the Justice Dept. agreed to root out racketeers and organized crime elements within the union.

Some in the Justice Dept. apparently believe it’s still too early to end the government’s oversight role. Pockets of corruption still persist, they say, and the self-policing process that Hoffa is proposing sounds a lot like an open invitation to the chicken coop for a delegation of foxes. TDU is worried that once the government withdraws, Hoffa will launch a vendetta against union reformers. Federal supervision should be maintained at least until the next union convention, TDU suggests.

Hoffa has become a formidable presence on the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, where some colleagues regard him as stubborn, independent and somewhat unpredictable. Rumor has it that the Teamsters are considering joining with the Carpenters and the building trades to form a separate labor federation if no agreement is reached to allow the Carpenters to return to the “House of Labor,” from which they bolted in March.

Hoffa displayed his political muscle in August when he and other union officials, mostly from the building trades and maritime unions, helped President Bush to win a crucial House vote to permit oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain (see LaborTalk column, 11/19/01). The Teamsters also succeeded in getting Congress to limit entry of Mexican trucks into the United States, overcoming opposition by the White House.

As a contract negotiator for his members, Hoffa has been less convincing. Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines are still furious at how he tried to undercut them, and some are talking about quitting the Teamsters and joining the Assn. of Flight Attendants. An estimated 68% of the workers at Anheuser-Busch breweries who voted this year chose Leedham, although they had voted overwhelmingly for Hoffa in 1998. In fact, Hoffa can claim no bragging rights for any contract his people have negotiated since he took office.

One Hoffa headache that probably feels like a hangover by now is the stalemated strike at Overnite Transportation, which began in July 1998. The strategy of striking only 43 of Overnite’s 166 truck terminals hasn’t brought the company to the bargaining table. The union has filed more than 1,000 unfair labor practice charges, but the continuous legal wrangling hasn’t brought the parties any closer to a settlement. Meanwhile, Leedham made a campaign issue of the fact that many Teamster officials are “double-dipping” (receiving multiple salaries) while Overnite strikers get woefully inadequate strike benefits of about $50 a week.

Hoffa will face another big test next year when his team negotiates on behalf of United Parcel Service’s 185,000 drivers and sorters. He has a hard act to follow, because the 1997 UPS contract was one of the spectacular achievements of his predecessor, Ron Carey. In addition to providing substantial gains in wages and pensions, it called for the creation of 10,000 new, full-time jobs for the company’s huge part-time work force. Surprisingly, the 15-day strike generated enormous public sympathy despite the inconvenience it caused.

So far, there are no signs that Hoffa will — or can — mobilize the kind of rank-and-file involvement that made such an outstanding contract possible. A former lawyer, he prefers a top-down leadership style with a minimal role for union members. On the other hand, TDU is determined to organize UPS employees for an active role at every stage of the contract negotiations, as it did so effectively in 1997.

Perhaps the smartest move Hoffa could make would be to work out an arrangement with TDU leaders. He needs their savvy and grassroots mobilizing skills to win an agreement that the UPS members can cheer about, and he can have the unity he claims to be seeking if he gives his rivals a meaningful role in the coming contract struggle at UPS.

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