The Discreet Charm of Hoffa Jr.

The Discreet Charm of Hoffa Jr.

Marc Cooper’s July 24/31 “Where’s Hoffa Driving the Teamsters?” provoked a storm of controversy from Honolulu to Brooklyn.


Marc Cooper’s July 24/31 “Where’s Hoffa Driving the Teamsters?” provoked a storm of controversy from Honolulu to Brooklyn. Readers were “flabbergasted” and “appalled” by our “fictional” “puff piece” on Hoffa, “a man who represents the most reactionary element in the American labor movement,” and suggested that The Nation had been seduced by Hoffa’s “charm offensive.” But some thought Cooper had done a “good job” of portraying the Teamsters leader and that the article was “a welcome respite from the usual Hoffa-bashing from the left.” A sampling follows.

New York City

In response to your cover question, this is where Hoffa is taking the Teamsters: back to the Republicans. Hoffa not only attended the Republican convention, he was honored there at a reception thrown by GOP chairman Jim Nicholson. ‘Nuff said.


New York City

I want to commend Marc Cooper for his objective analysis of the tenure of James Hoffa as president of the Teamsters union. As someone who has worked closely with Hoffa over the years, I always found it difficult to hear the trite stereotypes used by those who were bent on maintaining their power under a veneer of progressivism. It turned out that those who were so concerned about the “threat” that Hoffa posed were the ones who either stole money from Teamster members and trampled on their democratic rights or supported those who did so.

It was not hard for Hoffa to surprise people, because the bar was set so low by those who concocted the crass caricatures to undermine his election. Indeed, it was the heavy marketing of those caricatures that allowed them to ensnare otherwise honest people in their corrupt schemes. Many had had a good dose of Alexander Cockburn’s and Jim Larkin’s Nation pieces over the years that said that a Hoffa election would send the labor movement back to the stone age as the mob regained its foothold. It is therefore understandable why wealthy liberals who have taken it upon themselves to save the working class from itself would break the law and get involved with a huge money-laundering scheme. So I also commend The Nation for its ability to change course and allow a writer to see Hoffa for who he really is.

Labor Research Association

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Apparently Marc Cooper has been so mesmerized by his preoccupation with compiling additives to the list of Hoffa Jr.’s putative virtues that he has misrepresented the crux of his lengthy interview with me. Yes, it is true that Ed Stier (whose earlier achievements at Local 560 I do respect), the man retained by Hoffa to suggest a Teamsters self-reform program, lacks power. But the fundamental fact is that his reform program is fatally flawed. Despite its hope chest of good intentions and its endorsement of a motherhood code of morality, the program depends for enforcement on the Hoffa machine itself. Hoffa and his general executive board exercise veto power over the selection of all enforcement personnel, who can only advise and propose while Hoffa disposes; for he and his board retain the authority to ignore the findings and recommendations of the very trial bodies they have dominated. It is like a program for monitoring police activities that would proclaim that its aim is to advance the cause of racial justice and humanity and then would depend on the police department itself to enforce those noble proclamations.

Still, it might be better than nothing–if there were nothing else. But there is already in place an effective court-imposed monitoring program with teeth, a program that has eliminated scores of racketeers, has protected the rights of dissidents and has overseen the integrity of International elections–and continues to do so. These successes were achieved only because the power of the union’s own bureaucracy was curtailed by the power of the federal government.

Having achieved office precisely because his rights were assured by government oversight, Hoffa explicitly aims to get rid of that oversight, which would mean that his potential rivals would be deprived of the very protection that he enjoyed on his road to power. Toward that end, he has devised an extensive public relations program to convince the nation that it’s time to get the government off his back and give him unrestricted power to deal with his union and his critics as he sees fit. His so-called RISE program serves that objective. It would cancel the existing tested government oversight and substitute a Potemkin village, a simulacrum of reform. He may retain the clerical services of all those former prosecutors and FBI agents who so impress your writer without altering this basic reality.

Admittedly, it has been a brilliant performance. Reading from right and perhaps to left, he has ingratiated himself with Peter Hoekstra, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Greg Tarpinian, John Sweeney, Ralph Nader and now–to prove how brilliant–he has enlisted even a Nation reporter.

Association for Union Democracy

Springfield, Ore.

Marc Cooper quotes me accurately in his segment on RISE, but doesn’t give the reader any other comments I made, painting an incomplete picture of my impressions and concerns. The RISE process will produce a code of ethics. The code will inform members of their rights provided by law, by court decisions and by our union constitution. But almost none of the concerns of the progressive caucuses within our union will be addressed. The culture of our union will not change as a result of the code.

Almost all of the code, thus far, existed in one form or another prior to government intervention. The will to act or enforce did not. Almost all of the actions to clean up our organization following government supervision have been initiated and pursued by non-Teamsters and delivered to the union for internal prosecution. Often in the Ron Carey term and currently under Hoffa, the decisions rendered by the internal process failed to meet the standards of the Independent Review Board (IRB).

The majority of the task-force members rejected proposals to include rules related to use of members’ money for excessive and multiple salaries, pensions and perks. The same for nepotism, elected stewards, elected bargaining committees and secret-ballot votes on mergers of local unions. Ditto on public disclosure of campaign contributions, conducting all officer elections by mail by independent outside entities and providing members with advance copies of proposed contracts prior to voting. The compliance and enforcement mechanism may provide the will to act and replace the IRB if these Teamster investigators and Teamster-appointed tribunals can function outside the ongoing pervasive and destructive internal politics.

In my opinion the purpose of RISE is geared more toward getting the government out of our union than it is toward changing its culture and integrity to what should be the foundation of a trade union operating from solid trade union principles.

Teamsters Local 206

Cedar, Minn.

I can’t believe it. A magazine that has stood up for union democracy is embracing Jimmy Hoffa Jr., who epitomizes just the opposite. When flight attendants at Northwest Airlines vote to turn down a concessionary contract, Hoffa Jr. shuts down the nationwide campaign to mobilize the rank and file. Marc Cooper shrugs it off. When workers in a beef-processing plant go out on strike in the largest Teamster walkout since UPS, Hoffa Jr. sabotages it and tries to block the election of officers friendly to Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Yet Cooper suggests that the jury on Hoffa is still out. When Hoffa Jr. and his cronies go around promising to drive TDU out of the union, Cooper ignores it. When Hoffa Jr. fails to take action against his closest friend in the Teamsters, Larry Brennan, after he is accused of embezzlement, Cooper takes a wait-and-see attitude. When Hoffa Jr. raises his own salary to $200,000 and pads the Teamsters payroll with multiple salaries, Cooper hails his so-called anticorruption program. We don’t have a Teamsters reformer here. Hoffa Jr. is a reincarnation of the same sinister forces that once controlled the union.

Teamsters Local 638


“Shades of gray” is a comfortable position to take on a subject you don’t know much about. So most readers, not experts on the Teamsters, may feel reassured by Marc Cooper’s valentine to James Hoffa. By making a nod or two to Hoffa’s critics, Cooper obscures what’s most important about the differences between Hoffa and his opponents in the union: They have two incompatible strategies for the labor movement.

Hoffa got his job because of his old man. He had never been a Teamster but convinced members that employers would quake at the Hoffa name: the “personalized model of leadership” Cooper refers to. Several concessionary or miserly contracts later, Cooper continues the fantasy: He says Hoffa might win the Overnite strike singlehandedly, with a “fist on the table.”

Those good old days never existed, but even the mirage was smashed in the early eighties, when employers realized they could get concessions just for the asking. No owner signs a contract just because his opposite number has a big ego. Teamsters for a Democratic Union has always organized members around the more difficult proposition that they can win only as much as they are willing to fight for themselves. That’s how they spearheaded the 1997 UPS contract campaign and strike and the contract fight among Northwest Airlines flight attendants–by organizing ordinary members.

Cooper says, correctly, that Hoffa’s measure will not be his grandstanding but his performance vis-à-vis employers. And yet he ignores the record Hoffa has already established, of coziness with employers and browbeating members who disagree. Ask the Anheuser-Busch Teamsters who voted for Hoffa in big numbers in 1998, seeing him as their salvation, only to be forced to vote three times on the same concessions without Hoffa even launching a PR talk-tough campaign, let alone mobilizing the ranks to fight for a fair agreement.

Cooper makes Hoffa’s opponents sound like carpers. Instead, they’re people with the only possible winning strategy, one that Hoffa is determined to crush.



Marc Cooper counts the contract at Northwest Airlines among Hoffa’s great successes. I am one of those 11,000 flight attendants and the elected union representative for our contingent. Hoffa’s administration tried hard to sell the company’s first offer, and rank-and-file flight attendants organized and rejected his deal by more than 2 to 1. The IBT’s reaction? Hoffa disbanded our Contract Action Team and our membership information and mobilization structure. He orchestrated the removal from the bargaining committee of an outspoken leader who didn’t go along with him, then he put our local union under his “monitor.”

Our membership mobilization program, initially designed with the help of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, was so effective that in May 1999 we got a 99 percent strike vote, with 94 percent participation. Our members were ready to unite, fight and win. We mobilized public support, and thousands of Teamsters across the United States and Canada were energized by our fight.

The Hoffa administration’s goal was not to use our power to win against NWA management but to use his power to disorganize us. The Hoffa administration sent six (!) mailings to each flight attendant saying how great management’s first offer was. Our rank-and-file organization overcame that barrage, along with management’s. Over months Hoffa did all he could to break us. But he could not. Flight attendants got a better contract in spite of Hoffa, not because of Hoffa.

That story, over and over, is what’s happening in the Teamsters union. The good news is that the fight is still there, the reform movement is still there and growing, and the TDU movement has brought a new culture of democracy and progressive unionism to a good portion of this union.

Teamsters Local 2000

Washington, D.C.

It is one thing to approach difficult times with optimism, as we continue on the long path to social justice. It is quite different, and dangerous, to project our aspirations onto others, to ascribe to them principles and qualities they lack–and, indeed, oppose–in order to feel better about setbacks. I am surprised and regretful that The Nation has chosen the cheerleader’s course in its assessment of developments in the Teamsters.

Even more regrettable than Marc Cooper’s fawning at the feet of James Hoffa are his failures to seriously engage, or even substantially present, the criticisms raised by Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Attacks on dissent and PR gestures that provide cover to a go-along, get-along approach to employers are not incidental to Hoffa’s approach. They are integral to it.

TDU’s brave rank-and-file reformers cracked the IBT monolith and helped do the same with the AFL-CIO and continue to generate the pressure that compels Hoffa to take the very measures that Cooper applauds: criticize the WTO and China trade deal and establish the RISE “anticorruption” program. Even if these actions represent more style than substance, they are proof that Teamster democracy and rank-and-file activism powered by TDU can set limits on even the most dubious of union leaders.

As an activist in the labor movement for more than half a century, I am quite familiar with the challenge of identifying leaders who can “get the job done.” The TDU activists have been doing that for twenty-four years with deeds, not gestures.



Los Angeles

Sorry, but I did not appoint or anoint Hoffa as president of the Teamsters. He was democratically elected to that post in 1999 by a majority of the voting rank and file, who cast their ballots in a hotly contested and turbulent election closely monitored by the government. This would indicate, at a minimum, that the concerns and issues raised by my letter-writing critics were not persuasive enough to convince the union rank and file, which they all purport to represent (!), that Hoffa should not lead them. Perhaps my critics should dissolve the Teamsters electorate and find a new rank and file that more willingly approves their leadership preferences.

I did not endorse or “fawn” over Hoffa. I merely reported what I found. I acknowledged quite clearly that there are troubling questions to be raised over recent strike settlements, over the course of the Overnite strike and over the general drift taken by the union. Not only are these the identical concerns raised by my antagonists, but the overwhelming number of sources and voices quoted in my piece come from Hoffa’s internal and external opposition.

What has angered my critics, I believe, is my refusal to take a black/white, manichean view of Teamsters internal politics. Unfortunately, many of them have. How else can one explain their failure to mention the 900-pound gorilla sitting right in the middle of this debate: the debacle of Hoffa’s predecessor, Ron Carey. Every one of my respondents–with the possible exception of Greg Tarpinian–was a vocal, public supporter of the Carey administration.

But not one faces up to the uncomfortable fact that it was Carey’s team, not Hoffa’s, that embezzled $800,000 in membership funds and laundered them back into his election campaign. The same federal monitors that my critics demand stay in place are the ones who removed and disqualified Carey. It was Carey’s aide who was properly indicted, convicted and sent to the slammer for ripping off union funds.

Y’think this little episode might just have had something to do with Hoffa getting elected in the first place? Until Hoffa’s critics openly and honestly come to terms with this bit of ugliness, their criticism of his administration will ring hollow and remain ineffective. They may have the abstract solutions to the Teamsters’ problems in the palm of their hands, but the palms of their heroes were greased with membership silver.

I have not praised Hoffa. I have only noted that because of the hard work of groups like the TDU over the years, the internal culture of the union has shifted enough that any administration must now be attentive to the pressures of reform. I also noted that while it was the TDU that fought hardest over the years for internal cleanup, circumstances are such that the Hoffa administration is now pursuing a wholly credible RISE program run by federal prosecutors–not by mafia thugs. Although Victor Reuther finds ways to disagree with me, I agree with him when he says that historical pressure from reform forces compels Hoffa to take many of the measures he now champions. This makes it tough for groups like the TDU. What do they do when crucial parts of their agenda are now picked up by historic rivals like Hoffa? Do they work to further reform, regardless of who’s in power? Or do they act like an internal faction interested in power for themselves? Some specific responses.

To Jane Slaughter: A bracing whiff of arrogance manifests itself as she opines that yours truly and “most readers” are “not experts” enough to have the deep understanding of the Teamsters that she, apparently, has. Slaughter has been a brazen propagandist for the TDU faction of the Teamsters, which opposed, and will next year again oppose, Hoffa in internal elections. I carefully reviewed her In These Times piece on Hoffa as part of my research and found it so full of basic factual inaccuracies as to be useless as background. She accuses me of making Hoffa’s critics sound like carpers. A good point. It’s the same point raised by my editors when I submitted my first draft. Unfortunately, as I explained to them, too many of the critics I interviewed indeed preferred to carp–choosing to revile Hoffa personally rather than to engage more substantively.

To Fred Berg: It’s not “’nuff said” that Hoffa was feted at the GOP convention. It is a gross simplification and vilification. AFL-CIO conventions recently gave Republican senators like Arlen Specter prime speaking spots. This hardly means the federation has gone native. Hoffa, a former Jerry Brown delegate, was at the Democratic convention a week after the Republicans gave him a reception. He was there as a delegate. By the end of this month the Teamsters will have made their presidential endorsement and it will not be for the Republicans. ‘Nuff said?

To Ron Teninty and Herman Benson: Both raise questions as to whether the anticorruption mechanisms within the IBT will be effective. Another good question. And one that I raise at the end of my piece as still unanswered. We don’t know yet if they’ll be effective. Teninty and Benson suggest they will not be, though they offer no evidence for such a conclusion. Teninty further suggests that the real motivation behind Hoffa’s anticorruption program is to get the government out of the union. But Benson argues that at all costs the government intervention must remain.

Teninty is correct. And Hoffa is the first to tell you that he wants the government out of the union. Isn’t that the whole point of an anticorruption drive? To get clean enough to jettison Big Brother? As to Benson, who heads the Association for Union Democracy: Is this the position the trade union left wants to adopt–permanent federal intervention in the country’s largest industrial union?

All progressives, reformers and union democrats should want both a clean and a government-free Teamsters. Whatever Hoffa’s personal motivations, the current RISE program is a credible mechanism to move the union toward those goals. Independent of internal political partisanship, such efforts merit support until proven ineffective. That is not yet the case.


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