In November 2001 — for the second time in thirty-six months — James P. Hoffa, the son of storied Teamster leader James R. (Jimmy) Hoffa, was elected president of the Teamsters union. Hoffa’s new term is for five years. Winning by just under a two-to-one margin (Hoffa, 200,168; Leedham, 108,389), Hoffa scored a landside victory over Tom Leedham, the candidate backed by the union’s reform forces, principally the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the union’s only organized rank-and-file political caucus.
Hoffa won easily, but not cheaply. Incomplete financial reports filed with the election administrator indicate that Hoffa spent more than $3,000,000. Leedham reported spending $300,000.
Just like the rest of organized labor, the Teamster ranks are, at present, profoundly demobilized. Almost 1.1 million of the claimed 1.4 million Teamsters did not return their mail ballots. Balloting at the union halls would have meant an even lower vote total.
Before the vote counting was over, an ebullient Hoffa told the press that he wanted to get a good settlement in 2002 from United Parcel Service (UPS). “It’s our largest contract. It’s over 210,000 people. We feel we’re very fortunate to deal with a company that’s financially sound and can reward our members for their hard work,” he told the New York Times (Nov. 16).
In 1997, under the leadership of Ron Carey, the union called its first national strike against UPS. The UPS strike set a new standard for union militancy in the period after president Ronald Reagan crushed the air-controllers union. The 1997 strike was provoked by UPS’s tight-fisted intransigence, despite an expanding economy.
Can Hoffa fulfill his promises to the UPS ranks despite the emerging recession? Will he, too, call a national strike, if UPS, the nation’s largest trucking firm, cries poor-mouth at the bargaining table? Of course the UPS ranks want Hoffa to get tough with UPS, but his record speaks against that happening.
For example, brewery workers who voted heavily for Hoffa in 1998, voted heavily for Leedham this time. Why the dramatic turnaround in a short time? The most obvious answer is that Hoffa failed to meet the brewery workers’ expectations. In 1998, the brewery ranks were under intense pressure from Anheuser-Busch, the world’s largest brewer, to take a concessionary contract. Hoffa told the brewery workers, before the 1998 election, that he would battle for them. But that didn’t happen. Instead, after his election Hoffa sent in his representatives to squeeze the brewery workers to accept terms that they had rejected before. Hoffa told them that if they voted to strike, they might lose their jobs. In other words, the brewery workers couldn’t count on the union’s full backing.
The concessionary outcome for the brewery workers hasn’t stopped Hoffa from claiming a victory over Anheuser-Busch. But as the vote starkly shows, the brewery workers aren’t buying Hoffa’s line. Their vote swung to Leedham. Hoffa also got settlements with Northwest Airlines (Leedham 2,874, Hoffa, 359) and two major Detroit newspapers, but maneuvered those workers into a no-win choice. Still, he claims to have done the workers proud. During the campaign, Leedham time and time again accused Hoffa of talking tough, settling short, and declaring victory.
The vote results show that UPS workers have at least a healthy skepticism about Hoffa’s leadership. The company’s mammoth air center in Louisville voted for Leedham, 1,784–1,415; Ron Carey’s one-time local union voted for Leedham, 1,360–797, even though the local’s officers have made their peace with Hoffa; a major New Jersey UPS local, voted for Leedham, 1,235–948. In some mixed locals UPS workers gave Leedham a near majority. Though UPS workers may be leery of Hoffa, UPS management said last year: “Jim Hoffa understands business…We are in a period of mutual understanding and cooperation.”
Hoffa’s single, most notable accomplishment to date is reuniting the officialdom. During the Carey years, the officialdom was divided over strikes, officers’ multiple salaries, pensions and benefits, members’ rights and officers’ responsibilities, and much more.
For example, Carey called a one-day safety strike against UPS (in 1994), and most officers ordered their members to work. That same year, Carey struck the freight bosses, but many Teamster officials, some arriving in black limousines, paraded their opposition to Carey in front of the union’s Washington, D.C., offices.
Carey disbanded regional union bodies that provided Tammany Hall-like patronage of extra pay, expense-paid entertainment, and travel; many officers were enraged with Carey for that. It’s been estimated that Hoffa now has the support of 95 percent of the officialdom. The number of officers with multiple salaries is once again on the rise. Nearly 200 officers draw down at least $100,000 a year, not counting perks. One officer’s recent yearly pay was $329,045, as reported to the Labor Department. As for Hoffa, he draws down $228,713 yearly — even though he once swore he wouldn’t take a dime more than $150,000.
The officialdom’s near unanimous support and Hoffa’s swollen campaign chest were absolutely necessary for Hoffa to win. But Hoffa had more than that going for him. In a prepared statement TDU’s most influential leaders indicated that Hoffa benefited by “the cynicism that came out of the 1996 campaign scandal and subsequent charges. While the long-overdue Carey verdict helps, the Hoffa administration has used the IBT’s public relations resources to demonize the Carey administration ([charging that] they bankrupted the union, divided the union, ran a corrupt campaign, etc.). Hoffa’s goal was to demonize the reform movement and feed ‘commonsense’ cynicism among the members that ‘they’re all the same, politicians, crooks, after my dues, etc.’…Membership cynicism is part of why the turnout in this election is running around 24 percent…and it will be more of a challenge after the election…”
It’s true the 2001 vote fell to 311,718 from 399, 390 in 1998, which in turn was lower than the 1996 vote of 486,300. The Teamsters union has lost 11,000 members since Hoffa’s 1998 election, but the falloff in votes is far greater than that loss. It’s curious that TDU would now explain the election results as partly due to members’ cynicism that expanded after court-appointed union overseers ousted Carey on charges that a New York jury found groundless. The jury declared Carey innocent of all criminal charges just days before the votes were counted. TDU’s explanation is curious because the Teamster ranks never heard from TDU Carey’s refutation of the phony charges that led to his ouster.
Carey was and still is forbidden contact with Teamsters during his lifetime ban from the union. The jury’s verdict could not nullify the feds’ restrictions on Carey. The members’ information about Carey’s ouster came from the corporate press, and Hoffa’s public relations effort “demonizing” Carey. As noted, TDU, the only organized rank-and-file opposition to the long-entrenched bureaucracy, never made the slightest effort to inform the ranks of Carey’s side of the charges.
Not that some TDUers didn’t urge the TDU leadership to go to the Teamster membership with the truth and mobilize the membership to fight to keep their elected leadership. From the first the TDU leaders were told that Hoffa’s propaganda machine would victimize the Teamster ranks if TDU didn’t organize to counter it.
No one was more insistent on this point than Bill Slater, a prominent TDU leader who tried without success to convince a majority of the other leaders to go to the ranks. From 1997 to the present Slater insisted that Carey was being framed up. There’s a certain irony about the part of TDU’s statement that says, “Hoffa’s goal was to demonize the reform movement and feed ‘commonsense’ cynicism among the members that ‘they’re all the same, politicians, crooks, after my dues, etc.’” That point has been repeatedly stated in various ways by Slater since 1997.
Up to now, the official TDU position has been that the members were interested in their contracts and their grievances, not in what was happening to Carey. It may sound cynical to say that it took a New York jury’s verdict, not a clear look at the evidence, to force TDU to “rehabilitate” Carey. But that appears to be the case.
The cynicism that the TDU statement cites has been on the rise since TDU’s 1997 convention. There it was made clear that TDU was not going to back Carey in his fight to stay in the union. Since then good activists have dropped away, reducing the Leedham campaign’s resources. Even worse, some demoralized activists went over to Hoffa. At this summer’s Teamsters convention, it was not unusual to see former TDUers (some of them one-time members of TDU’s highest leadership body) championing Hoffa’s candidacy.
The jury’s verdict should convince all TDUers that a terrible policy was adopted in 1997, when it was decided not to militantly oppose the government’s ouster of Carey (an attack on the ranks’ right to choose their own leaders). No one can say that that policy tipped the scales in Hoffa’s favor in the current election; but no one can credibly deny that TDU’s policy weakened the reform movement’s resources, and permitted cynicism to flourish unchecked.
TDU is absolutely right at last to single out cynicism as an enemy of the Teamsters ranks. But it should not be enough for TDU to merely identify the problem. After all, TDU prides itself as an organization of activists, not a talkshop. Still it’s not clear that steps will be taken now to get out the facts about Carey’s undemocratic ouster, and the jury’s verdict.
One conclusion to be drawn from the New York’s jury’s verdict is that the Teamster ranks had an incorruptible leader in Ron Carey. All militant and democratic unionists would benefit if TDU did its best to ensure that this message gets out to all Teamsters.
No Teamster should remain needlessly and wrongly convinced that Carey was corrupt or guilty in the vote-swapping scam.
November 17, 2001