Hoffa Triumphant, His Opponents Defiant  

by Charles Walker


From June 25 to June 29, the Twenty-Sixth Teamsters Convention was convened in a huge auditorium located below a fake Eiffel Tower that rises 50 stories above a glitzy Las Vegas casino. Barely out of earshot of whirling slots and bouncing dice, the mostly enthusiastic 2,400 delegates and alternates were joined by nearly 5,000 working and retired Teamsters and spouses.

Although the delegates made changes to the union’s constitution, and passed numerous resolutions — supposedly to guide the union’s top administrators during the next five years — the main purpose of the convention was to nominate candidates for the union's highest offices, to be elected in November.

Two rival slates were nominated, one headed by Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, the other by Tom Leedham, who also opposed Hoffa in the last election, winning 39 percent of the vote. Hoffa had the support of 90 percent of the delegates, who repeatedly and loudly ridiculed and jeered the small opposition delegation that backed Leedham, a local union officer who was a former international union leader during the Ron Carey administration. Among the Hoffa delegates and backers were one-time Ron Carey supporters, including former members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), local union officers, and former candidates on Carey's 1991 and 1996 slates.

The boisterous catcalling and insults by the Hoffa-led delegates seemed more likely to turn off interested rank and file union members, than inspire them. For example, how many rank and filers are likely to respect the Hoffa-led officials who successfully organized a boycott by delegates and guests of Tom Leedham’s 20-minute acceptance speech?  After delivering his own acceptance speech, Hoffa left the stage and on cue his followers poured out of the hall. Barely 500 Teamsters heard Leedham’s appeal for a stronger union to meet the bosses’ challenges, by mobilizing the entire membership along the lines that won the Carey-led UPS strike in 1997.

Although the few Leedham delegates were elected by perhaps a hundred thousand or so Teamsters out of 1.4 million dues-paying members, the Hoffa delegates were organized by the union's upper crust in a blatant display of arrogance and contempt. Surprisingly and ironically then, on Friday, minutes before the convention adjourned, Hoffa introduced a singer who led the assembled delegates and guests in singing “Solidarity Forever,” the anthem of the Wobblies, formally the International Workers of the World (IWW), a part-Marxist, part-anarchist revolutionary labor group once prominent in the U.S.

Unlike two years ago, the Leedham forces were unable to field a full slate, so 6 of the 27 Hoffa slate members do not have to stand for election, since the union does not count write-in votes.

Leedham charged that Hoffa heads up “an administration of broken promises.” Leedham reminded his listeners that Hoffa broke his promise to cut and cap salaries, ban multiple salaries, and eliminate perks that the ranks never enjoy. In fact Hoffa has not limited his own pay to $150,000, as promised, and now yearly collects $225,000. Hoffa’s supporters frequently justify their own privileged remuneration as necessary to attract effective union leaders. So far during Hoffa’s reign, Leedham said, the number of officers receiving multiple salaries has soared to the greatest number ever paid “in the history of this union.”

Leedham said that Hoffa promised five years ago — when Hoffa unsuccessfully ran against Ron Carey—that he would “raise strike benefits to as much as $250 a week without a dues increase.” Hoffa’s broken promise “undermines every Teamster fight to win a strong contract.” Leedham faulted Hoffa for lying about the union’s “decline in organizing.” Hoffa boasts in speeches that the union has 1.5 million members, but in documents filed with the Labor Department, the Hoffa administration admits to a net loss of 11,000 members since Hoffa took office. Leedham promised to reverse the union’s decline by “training 1,000 Teamsters as organizers. If the Carpenters Union, a much smaller union, can train 600 member organizers, we can surely exceed that number.”

Leedham reported that Hoffa has turned a blind eye to corruption, though Hoffa promised to stand up against the corrupt elements that have profited at the ranks’ expense for many decades. Leedham cited Hoffa’s aides and allies who have been charged recently by court-appointed agents with conspiring to line their pockets by way of a “sweetheart contract that would destroy the wages and benefits of 1,400 Teamsters in this very city [Las Vegas]...”

Leedham said that Hoffa removed the honest local union leaders who opposed the deal, and at the same time paid $60,000 for a Hoffa’s aide’s meal and travel expenses while the aide “brokered this sweetheart deal.”

The unproven charges will be heard by the court-appointed Independent Review Board, which recently refused to penalize a longtime Hoffa backer, although the evidence of his using union funds to promote his slate’s election in a local union race seems far more substantial than the technicalities cited by the same board (which includes a former director of the FBI and the CIA) to justify ousting Carey from the union shortly after he famously led 180,000 UPS strikers and won the support of workers everywhere. (The board argued that Carey violated his “fiduciary duty,” because he supposedly should have known what was deliberately kept from him.)

Hoffa ignored Leedham’s charges of “Promises Made, Promises Broken,” and made new promises to the ranks that he would get them “the best UPS and freight contracts in Teamsters history.” He also promised to defeat Overnite, the giant trucking subsidiary owned by the megacorporation, Union Pacific, though the two-year strike against Overnite has faltered. Hoffa likewise proclaimed, “I’ll end government control of the Teamsters Union.” All of Hoffa’s promises were received with standing ovations by his delegates.

As he has for several years, Hoffa strongly implied that he is both the heir and the guardian of his father’s legacy. However, it seems unlikely that the gutsy elder Hoffa would have refused to go toe to toe with Leedham and debate him, especially in the presence of his most committed supporters. The son, sometimes inaccurately referred to as “Junior Hoffa,” turned down the election officer’s invitation to debate Leedham, although Leedham was willing to debate Hoffa.

Hoffa frequently claims that he joined the union when he was 18 and implies that he learned how to lead union members while still at his father’s knee, but he is silent about what he was doing during the civil rights movement, or any of the great grassroots movements that pushed to end the Vietnam War, championed women’s liberation, or promoted the protection of the environment from the deprivations of profiteers. Still, Hoffa can be found nowadays at the head of marches and demonstrations that are dear to a broad array of progressives. No doubt those same progressives will be pleased to hear that in a convention speech Hoffa favorably quoted the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, the assassinated civil rights champion.

Hoffa as much as told his convention backers to mind their Ps and Qs, so as not to give the government a reason to refuse his bid to get the union and its bureaucracy from under the government’s thumb. Perhaps his appearances at progressive functions have, in part at least, the same aim. That is, to win liberal support for “getting the feds out of the Teamsters Union.” If so, Hoffa made a wrong turn, but not a decisive blunder, when he threw the union’s support to the oil companies and President Bush, who want to open up more of Alaska’s territory to drillers’ rigs and oil pipelines, no matter the inevitable horrendous environmental consequences. As has been noted elsewhere, the Teamsters-Turtles alliance seems to be failing.

Hoffa presented several constitutional amendments that he called a Democracy Package. They were all adopted, so now the union (not just the government) requires rank and file elections for both international union officers and convention delegates from the local unions. However, the Hoffa-led delegates voted down amendments from the Leedham delegation to provide for elected shop stewards in all local unions, allow all local unions to elect business agents (a local autonomy issue), eliminate multiple salaries, and provide for an impartial election officer for international union elections. However, the Hoffa delegates did pass a Hoffa amendment that allows the union's top officers to change the present election rules. For example, they could increase the number of delegates required to be nominated. The present requirement is 5 percent. By doubling or tripling the requirement they could keep a future Ron Carey off the ballot.

Frequently, Hoffa people called on Leedham to withdraw from the race and “save” the union $11 million to $20 million. The estimates varied with the speakers.  

Hoffa Uses Money-Laundering Scandal against Carey and Leedham

Even higher on Hoffa’s list than ending government intervention is to be reelected president — this time for five years. Hoffa acts as though the biggest weapon he has to turn back the Leedham forces — who are endorsed by TDU, an internal union caucus that the bureaucracy has come to hate in knee-jerk fashion (a frequent chant heard in and out of the convention hall was, “TDU sucks!”) — is the money-laundering scandal that was used to oust Ron Carey from the union in 1997.

Hoffa and company since 1997 haven’t missed many opportunities to charge that Ron Carey is a thief who robbed or wasted anywhere from $1 million to $430 million, depending on the accuser or perhaps the accuser’s mercurial state of mind. Many times during the convention, accusations against Carey brought the Hoffa partisans to their feet in rousing condemnations of Carey. The uproar was no less deafening at those times when Leedham and some of his slate members were accused of being beneficiaries of the money-laundering scheme laid at Carey’s door.

One TDU confidant told this writer that he expects the Hoffa campaigners to rebuff every Leedham proposal for enlarging the ranks’ place in the union, with cries that the Leedham forces are no better than Ron Carey, who they claim stole members’ dues money for his own aggrandizement, emptied a multimillion dollar treasury, wiped out the strike fund, and opened the union to attack by freight and UPS bosses when he conducted a “seven-year terrorist campaign” against the officialdom. One Hoffa follower told the convention that now that the Carey-inspired “civil war” has been ended (and won) by Hoffa, the ranks may not need a strike fund. He asserted that the freight and UPS bosses will now think twice about challenging the reunified union, skippered by Hoffa.

While Leedham and the TDU leadership cannot stop the Hoffa forces from falsely accusing Ron Carey and some members of Leedham’s slate of thievery, they could have reduced the effectiveness of this Big Lie technique if, starting in 1997, they had organized an effort in the ranks to get out the truth about how Carey was betrayed by trusted aides, then judged and ousted from the Teamsters by corporate lawyers. Neither Leedham nor the TDU leaders have told the ranks their evaluation of Carey’s guilt or innocence. Since silence is often taken for assent, perhaps some rank and filers for that reason alone believe the charges against Carey and Leedham that Hoffa is using in his third campaign for the union’s top job. With only four months until the voting, it’s probably too late for Leedham to counter Hoffa’s charges that Carey is a crook and that Leedham benefited too.

Hoffa’s support of the well-entrenched bureaucracy ensures that he will receive millions of dollars in campaign donations. His famous name alone ensures that Hoffa will receive far more public press coverage than Leedham. More than that, he has received (and for good reason) several tributes from bosses (UPS, for example) who seem to be looking forward to negotiating their next contract with Hoffa, instead of with Ron Carey. Clearly, the Leedham-led forces face an uphill battle. So did Ron Carey in 1991, when he won the first-ever rank and file election of Teamsters top officials.