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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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Coverup or Cleanup?

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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.

At the beginning of this year Hoffa's Teamsters implemented the Respect, Integrity, Strength and Ethics program, known by its acronym RISE. Hoffa describes RISE as the "logical successor" to the consent decree that the union entered into with the government more than a decade ago. In other words, Hoffa wants RISE to be a self-policing, anticorruption unit successful enough that the US Attorney in Manhattan will agree to end federal oversight of the union.

Edwin Stier, a former federal prosecutor who served for eleven years as the court-appointed trustee of notorious Local 560 in New Jersey and who heads RISE, says, "So long as the government is still in, there is a cloud over the union, a stigma. Tell someone you're a Teamster and they look at you strangely. It will be a tremendous psychological lift when the intervention is lifted." A board of advisers appointed by Stier that will review the work of RISE includes the law professor who is the author of the RICO statute (the 1970 antiracketeering law that has been used against many corrupt union leaders), a former Labor Department inspector general and the former FBI agent who supervised the investigation into the disappearance of the senior Hoffa.

Some observers see Hoffa's desire to get rid of the federal oversight as natural, considering that the union has spent $82 million over ten years on the program and has been forced to accept the government as co-governor. Others, however, see it as the first step in something redolent of a grand conspiracy: If the Feds are pulled out, Hoffa will begin building a personal empire and bring back the mob. Speaking for those in the middle is a reform-minded labor lawyer who represents a Midwestern Teamsters Local. "Eventually the Feds have to get out of the union," he says. "But not yet. Hoffa is turning out better than some people thought because the internal culture of the Teamsters has changed so much. He has to deal with a totally different internal world than his father did. The Teamsters, fortunately, can never go back to where they were. But we should be in no hurry to end the oversight."

TDU's Paff openly scoffs at RISE and at Stier. "Ed Stier? As far as I can tell, he's a guy who talks a lot," Paff says. Another TDU official writes Stier off as "in the bag for Hoffa." In contrast, Herman Benson of the Association for Union Democracy--hardly a Hoffa stronghold--says, "As overseer of Local 560, Ed Stier did a great job, really great." Still, he cautions, "but there he was armed with the full power of the courts and had the FBI behind him. What power will he have now?"

How much power is a good question. Stier's staff at RISE hardly comes off as a claque of Hoffa-picked toadies, as his critics charge. An organized-crime study of the union now under way is supervised by a former top FBI investigator of the New York Mafia, and working with him are a dozen other former FBI racketeering experts. Separate from the crime study, a task force comprising twenty-two Teamsters is developing a code of conduct and an enforcement mechanism. One of the non-Hoffa-aligned members of the task force, Wayne Fernicola of New Jersey Local 177, says, "I was the staunchest anti-Hoffa person in New Jersey. My Local went 86 percent for Leedham against him. But working with Ed Stier and RISE has turned my head around. I don't know a more honest man than Ed Stier. And I like the changes I'm seeing around the Teamsters."

The RISE critics point to a recently circulated draft code of ethics that would allow the continuation of multiple salaries and other perks that have been anathema to reformers. But Stier says what has been published is only a draft and that certain issues--like multiple salaries--are internal constitutional questions that cannot be expunged by fiat.

Even TDU's one champion on the RISE task force, Ron Teninty, disagrees with those who shrug off the anticorruption drive. While uncomfortable in some ways with the composition of the force, he says, "I have no questions about the integrity of the RISE process; the people are honest, and there is no pre-cooked conspiracy to stage a dog-and-pony show." As to the draft code of ethics, Teninty says it doesn't go nearly as far as he would like. "But it's going to be good, it's going to be beneficial, it's going to educate the members about their rights. And it's going to create an internal tribunal process that will be about as neutral and apolitical as one could make it."

Professor Kaboolian, who has sat in on most of the RISE task force meetings, says, "There's a lot of challenging and questioning that goes on in those meetings, and the people not identified with Hoffa are much more influential than TDU's characterization of them." Why, then, such unremitting hostility toward RISE from groups like TDU, who should be the most committed to serious cleanup efforts? "I think some of TDU's agenda is strictly political," is Stier's answer. And it's a plausible one. With Teamsters elections barely a year off, it's not only Hoffa who is politicking but also his opposition, one bent on denying him any credit.

The first acid test for the new machinery created by RISE will be its still unproven willingness to take on Hoffa allies directly. That chance may be coming soon. Recently, the federal oversight board that monitors the Teamsters recommended that Larry Brennan, a close Hoffa mentor, be charged with breach of fiduciary duties.

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