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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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Playing With Pat, Nuzzling Nader

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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.

Before his election, there was speculation that Hoffa could emerge as a pole around which labor conservatives would rally in opposition to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. But the fault lines that have appeared inside the federation are not so much left/right as they are industrial sector/service sector--with the former taking the hardest line against Clinton Administration trade policy (Sweeney is a former head of the largest service union in the country).

That's why the Teamsters and the UAW were the two major holdouts at last October's AFL-CIO convention, refusing to join the early endorsement of Al Gore. If anything, Hoffa's influence inside the federation seems to be causing Sweeney to take ever-clearer stands on issues of globalization. And Sweeney has seemingly gone out of his way to appease Hoffa and keep him as a top ally--a neat trick, given the enmity between Hoffa and Sweeney's top lieutenant, federation secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka. Trumka was closely involved in Carey's muddied election campaign and still might be facing legal jeopardy for his role. There was even some speculation that Hoffa might help the Feds out if they bring a case against Trumka, but till now, Hoffa has kept mum on that possibility.

In a clear peace offering, Sweeney gave the Teamsters $500,000 in federation backing to support their ongoing strike against the Overnite Transportation Company. "Hoffa puts the fucking fear of God into Sweeney," says a close labor observer. "Hoffa's got 1.4 million per caps. If he takes a walk, it's shit city for the AFL. And Hoffa's no wussy. He doesn't care about rocking the boat. He actually enjoys it."

If that's the case, then Hoffa has been immersed in fun since late May, when the House of Representatives--including a full third of the Democratic caucus--defied organized labor and voted to approve permanent normal trade relations with China. As that vote came down, the enigmatic leader of the UAW, Stephen Yokich, issued an angry statement alleging betrayal by the Democrats and Al Gore and openly suggesting that his union might wind up supporting Ralph Nader.

Hoffa, who has forged a close personal alliance with Yokich, made it a duet when on June 22 he invited Nader to address his general executive board. After the meeting, Hoffa heaped verbal bouquets on Nader and called for him and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan to be allowed into the official presidential debates. Hoffa, who earlier had played a round of political footsie with Pitchfork Pat when he invited Buchanan to the trade-bill rally in Washington, also partially allayed some progressive concerns when he said that Nader was much closer to labor's overall positions than Buchanan. Hoffa political director Harple says it's absurd to think that his boss was ever considering a Buchanan endorsement. "When Jim became president he said he wanted to open the union to people who do not support labor to see if there were other common areas, like trade," says Harple. "That doesn't mean we are going to endorse them for President."

Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of abandoning or supporting Gore, a continued withholding of support for the Democratic nominee by the Teamsters and the UAW would mark a giant step forward from what is mostly the lip service labor currently pays to the notion of building an independent politics. Harple says that from now on Democrats "are not going to get [our support] as easily as they once did." And just as the Democrats are gearing up to win back the House, Hoffa is exacting his revenge by beginning to cut off cash to a number of Democrats who voted against labor on the China vote. The Teamsters have revoked their endorsement and financial support of Representative Lois Capps of Santa Barbara, California, and Michael Case, a California Democratic challenger. The union has also cut off funding for Kansas Democrat Dennis Moore, who is locked in a tight re-election race, as well as for Democrats Diana DeGette of Colorado and Tom Sawyer of Ohio. "I believe in accountability," says Harple.

One thing that is disconcerting, however, is the recent decision of the Michigan Teamsters, seconded by the International, to endorse conservative GOP Representative Pete Hoekstra. Hoekstra has a staunch antilabor record, but apparently what's more important to the Teamsters is that he sits on the Congressional committee overseeing union activities. (Then again, the Hoffa-led Teamsters may simply be returning a favor: It was Hoekstra who enthusiastically took up Hoffa's cries of fraud and led the Congressional investigation into Carey's campaign finances.)

White Hats, Black Hats--and Shades of Gray

Hoffa's ultimate success or failure will be determined not by his stands on presidential candidates or on trade--no matter how unconventional or militant--but rather by his ability to deliver better contracts, higher wages, bigger pensions and new members to his union. His current big gamble is the strike that broke out last October against freight giant Overnite--a unit of the powerful Union Pacific Corporation. The union predicted a quick surrender by the company, but the battle is becoming a grinding, protracted fight to the finish that is bleeding the union at the rate of several hundred thousand dollars per month in strike benefits.

A decisive and clear-cut victory would vindicate Hoffa's style of leadership and give him a boost going into next year's re-election campaign. So far his approach to the conflict has been much more in the tradition of his father's Great Man style--his most dramatic move was to challenge an Overnite executive to a one-on-one debate, a bid that proved unsuccessful--than in the social movement/mobilization mode. In solidarity with an ongoing strike, most internal criticism of the Overnite struggle is muted. Spero Rockas, the principal officer of Seattle Local 741, much of whose membership is involved in the strike, says, "The International has been great, supporting us 100 percent." But a number of other Teamsters leaders on the West Coast expressed dissatisfaction over the lagging level of grassroots mobilization. "What strike?" asked another Washington State Teamster.

Exactly what might emerge from this strike is a clearer notion of what Hoffa's union model will be. Will he show that he has discarded the sort of intense member involvement and social-movement organizing that made Ron Carey's leadership of the 1997 UPS strike so electrifying to the rest of the labor movement? Will he win a big victory relying on his father's personalized model of leadership: the fist on the table, the hearty handshake, the skillful brokering of power? Or will Hoffa be able to find some middle ground, one that melds his personal, charismatic style with the grassroots energy and membership mobilizing power of the sort that TDU has brought so effectively to bear over the past twenty years? And will he show that he believes in a union that allows for an active and respected internal opposition?

Harvard's Linda Kaboolian thinks that much of the internal culture of the Teamsters is so resistant to change that only what she calls "an incrementalist" like Hoffa who doesn't frighten the encrusted bureaucracy, as opposed to a "revolutionary" like Ron Carey, can actually move the union forward. "You can't move this union along and stay completely out of the old power centers," Kaboolian says. "Carey tried it and failed. Now it's Hoffa's turn. Don't look for white hats and black hats in this movie, because there aren't any. Look for who can get the job done."

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