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.

At the Teamsters convention in June, Hoffa introduced a political action resolution calling, as its first priority, for ANWR drilling. Before the measure passed, by a 9-to-1 margin, several TDU delegates braved boos and catcalls to question the wisdom of allying with Texaco rather than turtle lovers. “We need to stand in solidarity with the environmentalists,” insisted Bob Hasegawa, a Seattle TDU leader, Leedham running mate and key organizer of Teamsters participation in protests against the WTO two years ago. “When they draw a line, just like we expect them to support us when we draw a line, we need to respect their decision.”

“I cannot be the only hunter, the only fisherman, the only person in this auditorium who takes his family camping,” pleaded Tim Buban, from Local 200 in Milwaukee. “If we can drill in a wilderness area in Alaska, then tomorrow they can drill in Yellowstone…[or] a stone’s throw from here at the Grand Canyon.”

Throughout the summer, Hoffa swayed opinion on the ANWR elsewhere in the “house of labor,” as well as on Capitol Hill. Just before the House vote in favor of Alaska drilling–and against tougher fuel-efficiency standards for cars–John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO suddenly notified Congress about the existence of an old pro-drilling policy statement–adopted under Lane Kirkland in 1993–that “remains in effect.” Thus, with no opportunity for renewed debate now between pro- and anti-drilling unions (like the Communications Workers or Service Employees), Sweeney’s administration fell in line behind Hoffa to avoid offending him, as well as the recently departed Carpenters and other unions involved in the May love-in with Cheney.

As the Wall Street Journal reported August 3, a “pivotal moment” in the drive for pro-drilling votes in the House occurred when senior Cheney aide Mary Matalin personally escorted Hoffa to lawmakers’ offices. “I love Hoffa. I love the Teamsters,” Matalin gushed afterward. “They did everything on the ANWR vote…. I wish there were a lot more issues we could work together on–and we’re trying to make that happen.”

The Teamsters aren’t the only major union demonstrating so-called political independence by embracing fewer Democrats and instead forming “issue oriented” alliances with equally unworthy Republicans (or close working relationships with Republican Party operatives like Matalin). The AFL-CIO affiliate widely regarded as its most progressive–the Service Employees–now employs, as a consultant, former Republican National Committee chairman Richard Bond to open doors to GOP elected officials. (Bond also works for the Carpenters, who, like the Teamsters, hosted a fawning membership photo-op for Bush on Labor Day.) At the AFL-CIO itself, political director Steve Rosenthal has unveiled a scheme to endorse as many as seventy-five Republicans in Congressional races next year, as part of the “much more pragmatic approach we’re developing.” In line with this approach, the Teamsters–while continuing to give mainly to Democrats–donated more than $150,000 to Republican candidates in 1998, plus $10,000 to their National Congressional Committee last year. According to the Capitol Hill newsletter Roll Call, the IBT has begun talks “early this [election] cycle over which GOP lawmakers the union could support in 2002.”

Unlike the AFL-CIO’s questionable new strategy, Hoffa’s cozying up to the GOP has its own suspect subtext and is part of a long, inglorious history of close ties between the IBT and every Republican administration in the past thirty years. All his recent predecessors (with the exception of Carey) embraced GOP presidential candidates–no matter how anti-union they were–because the Teamsters leadership was chiefly concerned with gaining access to the White House to influence Justice Department decisions regarding pardons and corruption probes.

Until recently, Hoffa’s own version of Jackie Presser’s sordid romance with Ronald Reagan had been conducted with a lower-level Republican surrogate from Michigan, Congressman Peter Hoekstra. A devoted servant of UPS, the Business Roundtable, the American Trucking Associations and the US Chamber of Commerce, Hoekstra was zero for nine on key labor issues in 1999–as rated by the Teamsters’ own legislative department. Nevertheless, the IBT endorsed Hoekstra’s re-election bid last fall because of the role he promised to play–and has played since–in lobbying Bush and fellow members of Congress for an end to federal court supervision of the Teamsters. If this right-wing, antiworker politician succeeds in helping Hoffa achieve his most important objective, will Bush be the beneficiary of the traditional Teamsters quid pro quo in 2004? Hoekstra certainly expects so. As he told the New York Times on September 9, “My guess is at the end of the day, Jim will support those who have supported getting the federal government out of their union.”

Continued judicial oversight of the Teamsters–now twelve years old–has indeed cramped the style of the Hoffa crowd. However, his opponents, including Leedham, view it as a necessary safeguard of membership rights until the union, under new leadership, improves its capacity for self-policing. To understand why, consider Hoffa’s recent jousting–over corruption findings and election rules–with the IBT’s three-member Independent Review Board (IRB) and William Wertheimer, the court-appointed Teamsters election supervisor.

In a series of cases, the IRB has chided the Hoffa administration for refusing to punish serious wrongdoing uncovered by its investigator Charles Carberry and for imposing only mild penalties on the offenders. In the most embarrassing and politically explosive matter currently awaiting an IRB hearing, Hoffa’s special assistant, Dane Passo, and a key ally, Billy Hogan Jr., head of the union’s Chicago joint council, have been charged with engineering a sweetheart deal involving a Las Vegas trade-show contractor that employs Hogan’s brother as a top executive. This arrangement would have cut wages and benefits for Teamsters employed in the city’s convention industry by 50 percent. According to the IRB, Hoffa ignored repeated warnings about the scheme,while putting the Las Vegas local involved under the control of a trustee who has since been charged with obstructing the IRB’s probe.

Hoffa wants to avoid future investigations like that as well as the expulsion of longtime supporters like Mike Bane (a Michigan Teamsters official barred from the union in July for lying about his ties to organized crime). The IBT is therefore seeking a postelection deal with the Bush Administration that would replace IRB investigations, hearings and sanctions with disciplinary proceedings conducted by the union’s own general executive board, which Hoffa controls. As political cover for this move, he has created an in-house “anticorruption project” called Project RISE–“Respect, Integrity, Strength and Ethics.” After spending more than a year developing a new “code of conduct” for Teamsters officials, RISE has yet to take action against anyone accused of violating the code.

Meanwhile, Hoffa has been battling Wertheimer over campaign issues. The election supervisor has ordered Hoffa to return more than $40,000 in donations from hotels, banks, printers and computer firms that do business with the union, and has penalized Teamsters consultant Richard Leebove, who solicited the money. (Leebove was barred from the last Hoffa campaign for making a $167,000 “employer contribution” of his own, in the form of services from his firm.) In a move vigorously opposed by Hoffa’s lawyers, Wertheimer has also scheduled a face-to-face candidates’ forum on September 21 at the National Press Club–an event that will be taped so that each campaign can receive 200,000 video copies for distribution to Teamsters members.

Democratic election requirements like the debate and court-ordered “battle pages” in the Teamsters magazine, which provide space for both Hoffa and Leedham literature, are deeply resented by the incumbent. As a matter of political necessity, the Hoffa-controlled IBT convention in June voted to incorporate into the Teamsters constitution the “one member/one vote” election procedures that have been used in the past three presidential votes under the terms of a federal court order. However, the Hoffa forces then turned around and attacked Leedham for weakening the IBT by making this year’s race a contested one. “His campaign is a joke,” Hoffa declared in Las Vegas. “If he is truly concerned about the union, he would drop out. He is going to cost the union $10 million [to run the election].” (The actual post-convention expense will be about $6 million.) Said IBT bakery division director Richard Volpe, “Leedham’s running helps employers by showing we’re a divided union.”

Teamsters employers see the Hoffa-Leedham rematch differently. Industry publications–often quoting company sources–have frequently praised Hoffa for his contributions to what UPS executive Thomas Weidermeyer calls “a period of understanding and mutual cooperation.” By contrast, Traffic World warns shippers and freight carriers that a Leedham administration “would be much more aggressive in organizing non-union trucking companies, thereby conceivably driving up the cost of freight by forcing carriers to pay higher wages and benefits.”

A former director of the IBT’s warehouse division who also served as a Teamsters vice president under Carey, Leedham has made “organizing the unorganized” a central focus of his low-budget campaign. If elected, he pledges to train and deploy hundreds of rank-and-file recruiters and to re-establish a Teamsters organizing department with the capacity to run coordinated, industry-wide campaigns. Leedham points out that under Hoffa, the union’s organizing budget has shrunk by two-thirds. Representation-election victories dropped from 403 in 1998 to 228 in 2000, contributing to a net loss of 11,000 members during the same period.

“For the first time in over three decades,” Leedham says, “Teamsters membership has slipped below 1.4 million. Our union has mounted only token opposition to the encroachment of nonunion carriers in the car-haul industry–traditionally, an almost 100 percent unionized sector. Similarly, little has been done to stop UPS’s continued use of subcontractors, despite strong contract language won in our 1997 strike.”

Leedham’s diverse, twenty-one-member slate is drawing support from disgruntled UPSers–alarmed by the apparent lack of preparation for their national bargaining next year–and from other Teamsters militants who blame Hoffa for undermining contract campaigns at Northwest Airlines, Anheuser-Busch and IBP, a multinational meatpacker. Among their biggest beefs is Hoffa’s failure to live up to his 1996 campaign pledge to quadruple the IBT’s paltry $55-a-week strike benefits. Unfortunately, lavish spending on the Teamsters officialdom has come first. Since 1998, when Hoffa took over, the international union has added 141 people to its payroll who are already collecting one or two full-time paychecks from local or regional Teamsters bodies.

The return of multiple salaries–a financial abuse curbed by Carey and forbidden in most unions–costs the IBT $4.3 million a year. Not surprisingly, Teamsters officials who receive multiple salaries had, as of last January, donated $216,000 to their benefactor’s re-election campaign–an amount that will be much greater by November. At the June convention, Hoffa delegates defeated TDU attempts to reduce IBT salaries and use the savings to raise strike benefits. The strike benefit question was referred instead to a study commission. The convention did find time (and money) to boost the meal allowance for Hoffa appointees to $75 a day–more than many striking Teamsters receive from the union in an entire week!

As Leedham barnstorms around the country with his “Rank-and-File Power” slate, he’s also pointing out the grim lessons of the Overnite strike–a walkout that’s not going to end the way the Teamsters’ 1997 victory at UPS did. If the latter showcased what was best about the Carey administration, Hoffa’s handling of Overnite demonstrates the limits of militant rhetoric–when there’s no political will or organizational capacity to back it up. Officially, the fight against the nation’s largest nonunion trucker is alive and well, after two years. The reality is that it’s dead and buried–except for continued legal wrangling over massive labor-law violations by management, which have indeed affected the outcome. However, as Leedham observes, it was Hoffa’s own miscalculations that enabled Overnite to win the latest round in its thirty-year war with the IBT.

Under Carey, the Teamsters made unprecedented progress at Overnite through a coordinated recruitment drive that was well financed, carefully planned and grassroots oriented. Yet, by 1998 the union had won bargaining rights for only 45 percent of the work force. Teamsters supporters were still struggling, at nearly forty Overnite terminals, to build a network strong enough to negotiate a decent companywide contract. After his election, Hoffa immediately slashed the budget for the campaign. He eliminated almost all its national organizing staff and returned to the union’s old decentralized approach of using Teamsters freight locals to aid any nearby Overnite workers. Then, in the fall of 1999–with great media fanfare but against the advice of AFL-CIO strategists who feared a debacle in the making–he launched a nationwide “unfair labor practice” strike. Picket lines went up, but the walkout never involved more than 2,000 of Overnite’s 8,200 workers.

The AFL-CIO kicked in $500,000 and tried, through its field staff and city labor councils, to put pressure on key Overnite customers like Home Depot. Some headway was made in places like Atlanta, Cleveland and Los Angeles. Before long, however, Teamsters locals were not only no-shows at many strike-support events but failed to sustain effective mobile picketing of Overnite trucks. “It’s like no one’s home at the Teamsters,” says one dismayed AFL-CIO staffer. “From the very beginning, it was a quasi strike–a virtual walkout, with no strategy behind it other than taking the workers out…. The union clearly has no national program to tackle the problems of their core sector–trucking–and they’re no longer building the kind of organizing infrastructure that enabled them to get as far as they did within Overnite, before the strike.”

TDU national organizer Ken Paff, active in the union since the mid-1970s, offers his own post-mortem: “Hoffa has delivered in the area of patronage, perks and PR. But you can’t create union power in freight or any other industry if you’re not willing to mobilize the ranks. Hoffa never does that because too many local officers feel threatened by this approach. For them, ‘business as usual’ is safer, easier and a lot more lucrative.”

Teamsters consultant Greg Tarpinian–the left wing of Hoffa’s brain trust–scoffs at such criticism. He believes Leedham and his TDU-backed slate are running far behind Hoffa this year because, as he told The American Prospect , “they just keep talking about mobilizing the membership, and frankly, the membership doesn’t give a fuck about being mobilized.” That’s definitely not the experience of TDU activists in the workplace struggles they’ve helped organize since 1975, including the strike against UPS four years ago. Yet Tarpinian’s refrain is a familiar one–and a self-fulfilling prophecy–among the many Teamsters officials more adept at sowing apathy than inspiring action.

The rematch between Hoffa and Leedham thus offers–in both style and substance–a choice between competing union cultures and philosophies. On Hoffa’s side, reform rhetoric is but a fig leaf for organizational behavior that’s cynical and traditional, top-down and conformist, management-friendly and focused, above all, on the stability of the officialdom. Hoffa’s TDU challengers, on the other hand, continue to project a unionism that’s militant and democratic, idealistic and free-spirited, based on building a different kind of unity–where it counts the most–among workers themselves on the shop floor. If Hoffa prevails–as he did three years ago–it won’t be the end of the argument.