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Where's Hoffa Driving the Teamsters? | The Nation

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Where's Hoffa Driving the Teamsters?

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Inside Politics: Whose Union?

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Inside the Teamsters union itself, opinion on Hoffa is, naturally, much more divided. And it's there, ultimately, that he will prove his critics right or wrong. Among his successes to date: Flight attendants at Northwest Airlines recently ratified a new contract with a 68 percent approval vote. Hoffa's leadership also won a ruling forcing UPS to make good on its promise to create 10,000 new jobs. Under direct Teamsters pressure, the Clinton Administration has kept Mexican trucks from doing business inside the United States, despite a NAFTA provision to the contrary. Moreover, some former Carey allies, like Randy Cammack of the powerful Local 63 in Southern California, have come on board.

Other former Carey allies, however, keep their distance. In fact, many of those turtle-friendly Teamsters in last year's anti-WTO protests were affiliated with Seattle Local 174, whose secretary-treasurer, Bob Hasegawa, remains a Hoffa critic. "I haven't seen as much real leadership as I have seen slick politicking," says Hasegawa, the first Asian-American to run for International VP when he stood with Tom Leedham against Hoffa. And for its part, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the two-decades-old reform caucus that counts about 10,000 members nationally, remains implacably opposed. At the heart of the TDU opposition is a concern that Hoffa is jettisoning the model of intensive membership mobilization and community outreach that produced the resoundingly successful UPS strike in 1997. But there is a personal element as well.

"Ask me what Hoffa's like? He's mostly nothing. He's a boring golfer. A boring lawyer," says TDU leader Ken Paff. (Unlike his father, who left school at age 14 and was running his first strike three years later, Hoffa Jr. had a comfortable middle-class childhood, graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, took an unsuccessful run at state office--as a liberal Democrat--and built a labor career not as a frontline organizer but as an office-anchored lawyer.) "He's a yuppie," snorts Paff. "Even the power barons who put him in office laugh at him. They don't respect him." Leedham, who was endorsed by TDU in his 1998 race against Hoffa on the Rank and File Power slate, argues that Hoffa is dismantling recent gains. "What's going on inside the union isn't good," he says. "We are weaker. The new posture is to talk tough but to settle short. The only thing Hoffa does well is PR."

Critics of Hoffa point to what they call inadequate contracts in the settlements with Northwest Airlines and Anheuser-Busch. And they are livid over a messy strike last year at an IBP meatpacking plant in Wallula, Washington. When IBP management imposed a speedup during contract talks, angry workers spontaneously walked off the job. A few days later a formal strike vote was passed. "That strike lasted six weeks, and the Teamsters Local was basically absent during the whole affair," says TDU activist David Levin, who spent a lot of time working on the strike. As Levin recalls it, "Another TDU activist, Maria Martinez, was elected as chief shop steward and basically led the strike. After a settlement was reached with the company, Martinez was set to run--and perhaps win--the presidency of the Local. Boom. Hoffa placed the Local in trusteeship. He locked in the do-nothing leadership and headed off Maria's election. Next, she was removed as chief steward." A court ruling, however, recently restored Martinez to her position. And now rank-and-filers are in court trying to lift the imposed trusteeship.

"It's just not true that we trusteed that Local for political reasons," says Hoffa spokesman Brett Caldwell. "The strike had emptied the Local treasury. It couldn't operate any longer on its own and asked the International to come in and bail it out. That's all that happened." Caldwell's rationale for taking over the Local seems thin. But while an unwarranted "trusteeship" should never be shrugged off, such actions unfortunately happen every day in the labor movement. The real question is whether what happened with this Local will remain an isolated incident or become standard practice for the Hoffa administration.

Jawing With Jimmy

Inside the Washington, DC, headquarters of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters--the so-called "Marble Palace"--Jimmy Hoffa's physical bulk and outsize personality seem to fill his cavernous paneled and carpeted office. Above his massive desk hangs an oil painting of his father, who, after assuming the presidency in 1957, spent fourteen turbulent years building the Teamsters into the most powerful union in the country--and one of the dirtiest.

Hoffa's son may be criticized for how he's running the union, but no one can deny the zeal and energy with which he has assumed his new role or the inspiration he derives from the notion of building a union every bit as powerful as his father's--a union, he argues, that was divided against itself during the Carey period. "It's just amazing what's happening in this union today," he says during a wide-ranging interview. "It's now united like never before. Everyone knows we are now working toward a common goal." And that goal, says Hoffa, is not only to win better contracts and better conditions for Teamsters members but also to position the union as a sort of motor force for an alternative political coalition. "I would say I'm a progressive populist," Hoffa says, adding, "We want to be on the cutting edge of the important issues of the twenty-first century."

It's this willingness to go out front on certain issues that wins Hoffa his highest kudos from admirers. "Ron Carey was an inspiration but he just didn't have what it took personally or politically," says Linda Kaboolian, a longtime researcher on Teamsters affairs and a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "There's just too much evidence that Carey lacked serious follow-through." Hoffa's current political director, Chuck Harple, who served as Carey's legislative representative, says that whereas "Carey would just not let us build these sorts of coalitions," Hoffa "comes in and says, 'Let's work with everyone we can.'"

This notion of coalition politics seems to be Hoffa's favorite topic. "I think we're onto something here, expanding our influence," he says. "We want to keep the union strong, to keep the AFL-CIO strong, and by reaching out to environmentalists, to the religious community, we're even stronger." He adds, "We can lobby on Capitol Hill and then transfer that power to more street demonstrations, to running candidates for office, to running people for Congress. We can get the endorsements of all the labor people in labor-intensive states; maybe we can even run a candidate for President."

But to accomplish any of that, Hoffa says, he's going to have to stay in office beyond his current term (federal overseers are letting him serve out the last part of Carey's tenure). "I have to run again next year," says Hoffa. "So let me make an announcement right here. I'm announcing it officially. I'm running again next year."

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