Even shrunken from its high point, the Teamsters union is a major force in the American labor movement–for both good and ill. On the plus side, building on its celebrated UPS strike of 1997, the union just negotiated respectable wage increases for full-time workers, though as BusinessWeek concluded, the agreement “doesn’t deliver for part-timers.” On the downside, Teamsters’ failures to organize effectively hold back organized labor’s drive to grow. In any case, much of the credit for the rise from its nadir under mob control goes to a 1989 consent decree with the Justice Department, which has removed hundreds of mob-influenced or otherwise corrupt leaders and given members the right to elect major officers directly. Now Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr. has made ending the consent decree and its institutions–like the Independent Review Board (IRB), which investigates and punishes corruption–his top priority.
That would be a bad move. It would risk undoing the good that pressure from federal oversight has wrought, including gains in formal democracy that surpass those at many other unions, such as last year’s revision of the constitution to mandate direct elections by members. But neither the IRB nor internal union efforts at reform have yet succeeded in establishing “a culture of democracy within the union,” which the judge overseeing the Teamsters identified as one of the two main goals of the consent decree. Hoffa’s internal structure to investigate and punish corruption, RISE (Respect, Integrity, Strength and Ethics), so far has only codified rules and done historical research, and Hoffa plans to put it in action only after government oversight ends. Union democracy experts, like professors Clyde Summers of the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Michael Goldberg of Widener Law School, as well as the Association for Union Democracy, argue that RISE is not sufficiently independent to do the job and that top Teamsters brass could easily override it. The Teamsters are certainly not the only union lacking a robust democratic culture, but the Teamsters’ unique history makes it crucial that reforms are solidly secured.
The risks of backsliding are not just theoretical. In May the IRB permanently barred from the union two of Hoffa’s closest associates, William Hogan Jr., president of Chicago’s Joint Council 25, and Dane Passo, Hoffa’s former Midwest campaign manager and special assistant. They were disciplined for trying for two years to force the Las Vegas local to permit a mob-linked labor broker (of which Hogan’s brother was vice president) to provide low-wage, nonunion workers for convention setup work, thus threatening to undermine the Teamsters contract and displace union members.
Although the IRB did not reprimand Hoffa, he was distressingly close to the corrupt deal-making. He knew the character of Hogan, who was Hoffa’s initial pick as running mate until the IRB charged Hogan with nepotism and corruption. Passo had a history of physically attacking dissidents. Hoffa also admitted receiving a “general overview” of the proposed deal in a Chicago lunch meeting with Hogan and the broker’s president. He agreed to Passo’s requests to put the local into trusteeship and later to fire the assistant trustee and then the trustee when they resisted the deal. But in March 2001 Hoffa rebuffed Hogan’s bid to negotiate the Teamsters’ convention-industry contract in Las Vegas “because of the background of all the things that have happened with the IRB,” he told investigators. Attorney Matt Lydon, who is appealing Hogan’s expulsion, said, “I don’t know of anything that was kept secret from Hoffa or anyone else about what [Hogan] was doing.”
Union spokesman Brian Rainville argues that the initial aim of the consent decree has been accomplished, and that continuing it simply costs too much. But much of the expense would have occurred under any regime that conducted democratic elections and investigated internal wrongdoing. The Teamsters must demonstrate that RISE can do the job and establish a final review board independent of Teamsters officialdom before the IRB can be eliminated. “Of course, the Teamsters should become a union like other unions,” said Teamsters for a Democratic Union organizer Ken Paff. “Rather than just complain about the IRB, prove you can do it. Clean up your own house.”
IRB decisions have not been beyond criticism. Supporters of former president Ron Carey, for example, say that Carey’s acquittal last October on federal charges that he committed perjury in denying that he knew about the scheme to embezzle union funds for his election raises questions about the IRB’s decision to expel him from the union. But without some independent outside force, there would have been less progress in reforming the Teamsters.
Ultimately, democracy should make the Teamsters and the labor movement stronger. The union’s desperate focus on ending the consent decree is doing the opposite. It has partly driven their courtship of Republicans, from their full-throated but failed support for Bush’s plan to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Hoffa’s recent vote against funding the AFL-CIO’s successful political mobilization, because he wants to give 30 percent of his support to the GOP. Also, unlike unions such as the letter carriers and utility workers, Hoffa supports Bush’s controversial Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), which would try to turn UPS workers into government informers. Although a new dues increase will boost funds for organizing and strike pay, members have more reason to worry about proliferating multiple salaries for officers and about the decline in organizing victories and expenditures than about the costs of federal oversight. Ending the consent decree wouldn’t have salvaged a failed organizing strike against the ruthlessly antiunion Overnite, but it might have let a sweetheart deal undermine Las Vegas Teamsters. Democracy, including ferreting out corruption, is worth the price, and democracy in the Teamsters still needs outside help.