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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.

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