It’s election time in Teamsterland. This month, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) will hold its fourth nationwide vote in ten years, sending mail ballots to nearly 1.4 million workers so they can directly elect top leaders of their union. Most other AFL-CIO affiliates removed this decision-making power from the rank and file decades ago, placing it instead in the hands of more easily controlled convention delegates. Thanks to twenty-five years of hard work by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and court-imposed changes finally ratified at the IBT convention in June, the labor organization long regarded as America’s most undemocratic is once again giving its members the final say.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that incumbent president James Hoffa, no friend of real Teamsters reform, may win the balloting that begins October 9. If his performance so far is any guide, Hoffa’s re-election will propel his own union–and others–further down the path of accommodation with the Bush Administration, while leading to rank-and-file demobilization at firms like United Parcel Service (UPS), whose national contract with the Teamsters expires next summer.
Standing in Hoffa’s way, as usual, is TDU, the Detroit-based network of Teamsters dissidents and its candidate, Tom Leedham, a feisty local officer from Portland, Oregon, who won 39 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 1998. The first Hoffa-Leedham contest was held in the wake of a union election fundraising scandal that derailed the Teamsters presidency of Ron Carey, who defeated Hoffa in 1996. Carey was removed from office and later indicted for perjury in a case that went to trial in New York City in August. Depending on the verdict, “Teamsters donorgate”–for which Hoffa tries to blame TDU and Leedham as well as Carey–could figure prominently in the first-ever debate between the candidates, scheduled for September 21 in Washington, DC.
Since his victory three years ago, 60-year-old Hoffa has used the powers of incumbency to reward friends and punish enemies within the union. He’s already raised close to $2 million for his re-election drive. He has burnished his media image and broadened his base among local union officials, who dominated the IBT’s June convention in Las Vegas and fund most of his campaign. Despite membership losses, a major strike defeat at Overnite Transportation, weak support for other contract fights, corruption charges involving close associates and his restoration of costly perks for favored staffers, Hoffa is still being depicted, inside and outside the union, as a unifying force–the IBT’s savior from fiscal problems and internal strife associated with Carey.
In the political arena, meanwhile, the Teamsters president has positioned himself as both a high-profile opponent of free trade–in the ongoing fight against cross-border trucking from Mexico–and a savvy political pragmatist, able to work with the White House and Congressional Republicans on a host of other issues. In this latter role, Hoffa has spearheaded labor lobbying in the Senate on behalf of President Bush’s energy plan and arranged his visit to a Teamsters barbecue in Detroit on Labor Day. There, according to the New York Times Bush pronounced Hoffa to be “a good man” who’s “running a good union and in an aboveboard way,” giving a clear nod to Hoffa’s desire to end federal oversight of the union: “And make no mistake about it, people are beginning to notice, particularly in Washington, DC.”
Prior to last year’s US presidential race, some observers on the left thought Hoffa might be an ally in the fight for a progressive national politics. Once Bush defeated Gore, however, Hoffa was quick to embrace the winner. While the AFL-CIO was organizing last winter to kill the White House nomination of right-winger Linda Chavez as Secretary of Labor, Chavez named two top Teamsters officials to her short-lived transition team. In May Hoffa figured prominently in the meeting between building trades leaders and Vice President Dick Cheney that lined up support for more power plants, fuel pipeline development and drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). A day later Hoffa praised the Administration’s energy plan–including its inflated job-creation estimates–and disclosed that the IBT was working to “find common ground” with Bush and Cheney.