On Eve of Teamsters Convention

Teamster Big Shot Goes Scot-Free, TDU Silent on Feds’ Responsibility

by Charles Walker

Back in 1997, a longtime Detroit Teamsters chieftain was charged by a federal court-appointed Independent Review Board (IRB) with granting bonuses and raises to some local union officers, so that they would have $30,000 to finance his slate’s local union reelection campaign.

Now four years later the IRB has dropped its charges against the accused, Larry Brennan, president of Detroit Local 337 and Joint Council 43. The Independent Review Board now says that the evidence “falls short of the convincing quality we would want before finding that it should be held as implicating Brennan and other respondents in all aspects of the scheme shown.” If Brennan had been found guilty, all the relevant IRB precedents would dictate that Brennan be removed from the Teamsters union for life.

The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), an internal union reform caucus, has a long history of opposition to Brennan, who in nepotistic fashion followed his father into the powerful offices he now holds down. When Brennan was charged, TDU publicized Brennan’s scam, obviously (and justifiably) believing that the charges were unquestionably true. Despite the IRB’s findings a recent TDU statement indicates no less obviously that TDU still believes (justifiably) that Brennan is guilty as charged.

However, the official TDU response to the IRB’s findings fails to say what conclusions the ordinary rank and file Teamster should draw from the IRB’s disputed verdict, which leaves Brennan’s pricey privileges and potent power intact. To some it might seem out of character that the outspoken TDU caucus would fail to explicitly criticize the IRB for concluding that the issue of Brennan’s guilt was too close to call.

Clearly, TDU has a responsibility as a champion of rank and file power to take the IRB to task for letting Brennan get away with a serious violation of union democracy. TDU could point out that the identical three-person IRB in 1997 ousted former Teamsters President Ron Carey, not on the basis of stronger evidence, but merely on the basis that Carey should have known about a money-laundering scheme that was carried out behind Carey’s back by trusted aides who violated that trust—and therefore Carey was wrongly judged guilty of violating his fiduciary responsibility.

However at the time, TDU failed to say much to the union’s rank and file about the IRB’s ouster of Carey — shortly after he led the widely popular strike against the mega-giant United Parcel Service (UPS). Since then Carey has been mentioned only infrequently in TDU’s publications. Though some TDUers have pressed the caucus’s leadership to attack the IRB’s ouster of Carey and take the issue to the union’s ranks, they have been told that the ranks are not interested in what happened to Carey, and that it was not fruitful to “rehash” the Carey ouster.

Unlike TDU, the Hoffa administration’s strategy is to keep the spurious charges against Carey fresh, as though Carey were still a candidate that Hoffa needed to beat.

History of Federal Trusteeship

In 1989, TDU opposed the threatened federal trusteeship of the Teamsters. TDU argued that the union’s well-documented corruption could be eliminated by giving the ranks the right to directly elect their top officers. The government forced the union’s chief officials to agree to give the membership the vote. However, the feds also forced the union heads to agree to accept the feds’ presence inside the union for an indefinite time, even after the members elected a new leadership. Ron Carey spoke out against the feds’ intervention, both before and after he was elected. TDU never opposed Carey’s stand. However, neither Carey nor TDU attempted to organize the ranks to put pressure on the government to withdraw.

In 1998, the IRB could have expelled Hoffa, after he was caught red-handed seriously violating the feds’ election rules. Instead, the IRB fined Hoffa — merely a slap on the wrist. The IRB’s partiality to Hoffa was demonstrated by the same judges who okayed Carey’s ouster, despite their knowing that the forces who historically have opposed the ranks’ democratic right to run the union would therefore be returned to power.

Since then, Hoffa has set about reuniting the union’s bureaucracy, split since the 1991 election. Hoffa has been successful; no challenger has emerged to take on Hoffa, except Tom Leedham, a close ally of TDU. More than just reuniting the officialdom, Hoffa has attracted to his side some union activists who once stood with Carey and TDU. In part, Hoffa’s progress is due to the demoralization that followed when Carey and TDU failed to take Carey’s case to the ranks for their judgment. In any event the government’s record since its intervention into the union has confirmed the judgment of those militants who say that only the ranks can and will create a Teamsters union in the image of the membership.

Hopefully, TDU will not make the same mistake again. Hopefully, TDU will not let the IRB get away with its flagrantly rubbery standards of justice, its clear violation of its declared mission to free the ranks from Teamsters misleaders’ corruption. But that remains to be seen.

However, should TDU seriously act to expose the IRB’s violations of the ranks’ right to a corruption-free leadership, at the same time TDU should also remind the ranks that in 1997 the court-appointed overseers violated the ranks’ right to elect any Teamster in good standing to any Teamsters office — when they barred Carey from the rerun ballot. TDU (and Carey) failed to try to organize the union’s rank and file in opposition to the court appointees’ undemocratic decrees.

If they had, perhaps Brennan wouldn’t be laughing up his sleeve today, as he makes his way to the June Teamsters Convention, where his protégé, James P. Hoffa will once again be nominated to head up the Teamsters, potentially the country’s pivotal union.