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Reforming the Teamsters | The Nation

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Reforming the Teamsters

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Even shrunken from its high point, the Teamsters union is a major force
in the American labor movement--for both good and ill. On the plus side,
building on its celebrated UPS strike of 1997, the union just negotiated
respectable wage increases for full-time workers, though as
BusinessWeek concluded, the agreement "doesn't deliver for
part-timers." On the downside, Teamsters' failures to organize
effectively hold back organized labor's drive to grow. In any case, much
of the credit for the rise from its nadir under mob control goes to a
1989 consent decree with the Justice Department, which has removed
hundreds of mob-influenced or otherwise corrupt leaders and given
members the right to elect major officers directly. Now Teamsters
president James Hoffa Jr. has made ending the consent decree and its
institutions--like the Independent Review Board (IRB), which
investigates and punishes corruption--his top priority.

That would be a bad move. It would risk undoing the good that pressure
from federal oversight has wrought, including gains in formal democracy
that surpass those at many other unions, such as last year's revision of
the constitution to mandate direct elections by members. But neither the
IRB nor internal union efforts at reform have yet succeeded in
establishing "a culture of democracy within the union," which the judge
overseeing the Teamsters identified as one of the two main goals of the
consent decree. Hoffa's internal structure to investigate and punish
corruption, RISE (Respect, Integrity, Strength and Ethics), so far has
only codified rules and done historical research, and Hoffa plans to put
it in action only after government oversight ends. Union democracy
experts, like professors Clyde Summers of the University of Pennsylvania
Law School and Michael Goldberg of Widener Law School, as well as the
Association for Union Democracy, argue that RISE is not sufficiently
independent to do the job and that top Teamsters brass could easily
override it. The Teamsters are certainly not the only union lacking a
robust democratic culture, but the Teamsters' unique history makes it
crucial that reforms are solidly secured.

The risks of backsliding are not just theoretical. In May the IRB
permanently barred from the union two of Hoffa's closest associates,
William Hogan Jr., president of Chicago's Joint Council 25, and Dane
Passo, Hoffa's former Midwest campaign manager and special assistant.
They were disciplined for trying for two years to force the Las Vegas
local to permit a mob-linked labor broker (of which Hogan's brother was
vice president) to provide low-wage, nonunion workers for convention
setup work, thus threatening to undermine the Teamsters contract and
displace union members.

Although the IRB did not reprimand Hoffa, he was distressingly close to
the corrupt deal-making. He knew the character of Hogan, who was Hoffa's
initial pick as running mate until the IRB charged Hogan with nepotism
and corruption. Passo had a history of physically attacking dissidents.
Hoffa also admitted receiving a "general overview" of the proposed deal
in a Chicago lunch meeting with Hogan and the broker's president. He
agreed to Passo's requests to put the local into trusteeship and later
to fire the assistant trustee and then the trustee when they resisted
the deal. But in March 2001 Hoffa rebuffed Hogan's bid to negotiate the
Teamsters' convention-industry contract in Las Vegas "because of the
background of all the things that have happened with the IRB," he told
investigators. Attorney Matt Lydon, who is appealing Hogan's expulsion,
said, "I don't know of anything that was kept secret from Hoffa or
anyone else about what [Hogan] was doing."

Union spokesman Brian Rainville argues that the initial aim of the
consent decree has been accomplished, and that continuing it simply
costs too much. But much of the expense would have occurred under any
regime that conducted democratic elections and investigated internal
wrongdoing. The Teamsters must demonstrate that RISE can do the job and
establish a final review board independent of Teamsters officialdom
before the IRB can be eliminated. "Of course, the Teamsters should
become a union like other unions," said Teamsters for a Democratic Union
organizer Ken Paff. "Rather than just complain about the IRB, prove you
can do it. Clean up your own house."

IRB decisions have not been beyond criticism. Supporters of former
president Ron Carey, for example, say that Carey's acquittal last
October on federal charges that he committed perjury in denying that he
knew about the scheme to embezzle union funds for his election raises
questions about the IRB's decision to expel him from the union. But
without some independent outside force, there would have been less
progress in reforming the Teamsters.

Ultimately, democracy should make the Teamsters and the labor movement
stronger. The union's desperate focus on ending the consent decree is
doing the opposite. It has partly driven their courtship of Republicans,
from their full-throated but failed support for Bush's plan to drill in
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Hoffa's recent vote against
funding the AFL-CIO's successful political mobilization, because he
wants to give 30 percent of his support to the GOP. Also, unlike unions
such as the letter carriers and utility workers, Hoffa supports Bush's
controversial Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), which
would try to turn UPS workers into government informers. Although a new
dues increase will boost funds for organizing and strike pay, members
have more reason to worry about proliferating multiple salaries for
officers and about the decline in organizing victories and expenditures
than about the costs of federal oversight. Ending the consent decree
wouldn't have salvaged a failed organizing strike against the ruthlessly
antiunion Overnite, but it might have let a sweetheart deal undermine
Las Vegas Teamsters. Democracy, including ferreting out corruption, is
worth the price, and democracy in the Teamsters still needs outside
help.

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