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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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There was a time when the very word "Teamsters" evoked some pretty dark images: a bloated and notoriously corrupt union president, carried into the Teamsters convention on a gilded sedan chair by men dressed as gladiators; another mob-tied president disappearing to God-knows-where; millions in pension-fund dollars being used to build Vegas casinos and hotels; hired thugs roaming the California grape fields, beating up UFW strikers and signing sweetheart deals with the growers.

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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.

But that was then. This is now: Teamsters and turtles together, confronting corporate globalization in Seattle; Teamsters helping to lead the human rights fight against permanent normal trade relations with China and putting 5,000 members on the Capitol steps during the week of the A16 demos to prove they mean it; Teamsters, along with auto workers, refusing to join the rest of labor in an early endorsement of Al Gore and instead conducting an intricate minuet with Green presidential candidate Ralph Nader. The Teamsters, in short, making a bid to become key partners and allies in that progressive blue/green coalition that began to gel out of the gaseous clouds of the WTO protests.

Without question, the roots of this transformation of America's largest industrial union, with 1.4 million members, can be traced to an overall reactivation of labor, as well as to the Teamsters' own internal reform administrations of the past decade and, of course, to federal intervention and semi-tutelage of the union that began in 1989 as part of a massive cleanup campaign. But the transformation also shows the effect of 59-year-old James P. Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters for the past year. Some predicted an unmitigated disaster when Hoffa was elected: After all, "Junior," as Hoffa was disparagingly called by his critics, was the son of tainted Jimmy Sr.--the fabled Teamsters boss who was immortalized on the screen by Jack Nicholson and whose body, after his kidnapping, has never been found. So when Jimmy Jr. ran against reformist-backed incumbent Ron Carey, he was seen strictly as the preferred candidate of the Teamsters "barons," the comfy bureaucrats reviled by reformers.

To many, the choice at the time seemed stark and simple: Either Carey and continued reform or "Junior" Hoffa and a return to the Bad Old Days. But Carey, after becoming ensnared in a money-laundering scheme in which $750,000 in union funds washed through some Democratic-linked advocacy groups and then back into his union campaign coffers, was removed from the Teamsters presidency by a federal oversight panel and disqualified from standing for re-election. (Carey claimed he didn't know of the scheme; he was never indicted or legally sanctioned.) Hoffa's fundraising practices were also investigated; although he was fined, the violations were not deemed sufficient to disqualify him. He overcame a hastily staged campaign by reform-slate candidate Tom Leedham and won the 1998 election, formally taking office in March 1999.

In the year since then, by anyone's measure the world hasn't collapsed. "The moral in this story is that life goes on," quips Elaine Bernard, a progressive labor-studies expert at Harvard. She adds, "It's still too early to make any definitive judgment on Hoffa." But given the sort of hostility that his name evoked on the left, and given the predictions of a royalist restoration should Hoffa actually be elected, even that kind of equivocal evaluation must come as music to Hoffa's ears.

Meanwhile, numerous progressive activists, politicians and campaigners wax downright effusive. "Working with Jimmy Hoffa has been an experience of seeing someone open up--and care about the details," says Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch. "He has won our respect and admiration and has become an important ally in the fight against globalization." Progressive Representative Dennis Kucinich agrees. "I've stood with Jimmy maybe a half-dozen times now, and he's always ready to do the right thing, always ready to go out front personally, and that's important," Kucinich says. "His support for human rights and workers' rights and his outreach to others to make new coalitions is crucial." Says fellow progressive Representative Bernie Sanders, "I'm always delighted to work side by side with Jimmy Hoffa." And reliably pro-labor Congressman John Conyers, whose father was a UAW representative and who has worked closely with the Teamsters for years in their shared Detroit-area base, says, "I sense an improvement in the Teamsters. I'm getting good vibes from them. Jimmy is a talented young man capable of making a big mark in the labor movement."

Hoffa's Teamsters, of course, hardly hold a monopoly on taking progressive stands on trade and globalization. Other labor leaders like George Becker of the Steelworkers have been quicker to understand the importance of coalition-building on these issues as well as the relationship between workers' rights in the United States and such things as the need for debt relief abroad. And moves like Hoffa's decision to invite Pat Buchanan to the DC rally against the China trade bill leave some progressive activists cold. But the fact is that in his first year on the job, Hoffa has surprised many by showing himself to be a potentially powerful and reliable ally--rather than a roadblock--in the fight for a progressive national politics.

Inside Politics: Whose Union?

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."

Coverup or Cleanup?

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.

Playing With Pat, Nuzzling Nader

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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