Associated Press

Leedham An Underdog for Teamsters

By Kevin Galvin

Associated Press Writer

Sunday, September 6, 1998

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- It's 5:25 a.m., and Tom Leedham is ironing his blue Teamsters jersey in the dining room of a couple who support his underdog bid for the union presidency.

Leedham's shoestring campaign has been borne along the trail by the good will of rank-and-file members, who organize events in their areas, bring him to greet workers at plant gates, then drive him on to the home of the next supporter.

``I'm not spending any money, and I'm talking to thousands of Teamsters,'' Leedham said.

Despite his late entry into the race, Leedham's spirits have been buoyed by what he claims is a growing backlash among Teamsters members against front-runner James P. Hoffa.

``A month ago it was, `We're not voting for Hoffa, but who are you?''' Leedham says. ``Now it's, `We're not voting for Hoffa. Aren't you that guy from Oregon?' Hey, it's progress.''

These are uncertain times for the 1.4 million-member union. The election Leedham is conducting his cross-country campaign for hasn't even been scheduled yet, because the federal government and the union have been haggling over who should pay for it.

The union began holding direct elections for top offices in 1991 under a consent decree signed with the Justice Department. With only a handful of local union leaders on his side, Ron Carey won that contest by promising to fight corruption.

But Carey's narrow re-election over Hoffa in 1996 was overturned after discovery of a scheme in which more than $800,000 in union funds were used for the Carey campaign. Carey was expelled from the union.

In the aftermath, scores of union officials who moved to Carey's side during his administration switched to Hoffa. Those who remain opposed to the son of the union's midcentury president, Jimmy Hoffa, are split. A grass-roots reform group backs Leedham, and a small band of influential union officers support St. Louis Teamsters leader John Metz, whose campaign has yet to get under way.

Hoffa, with superior financing and name recognition established during two years of campaigning, tends to avoid mentioning Leedham's name, saying his opponents are virtually ``unknown.''

Leedham, 47, has chosen to wear his lack of local officer support as a badge of honor, saying the Teamsters must focus on their rank and file. A former warehouse worker in his hometown of Portland, Ore., Leedham was elected chief of his local five times before taking over the Teamsters' international warehouse division in 1992.

On a good day of campaigning, Leedham says, he shakes hands with more than 1,000 Teamsters at the freight barns and warehouses where they work.

Today is not starting out like one of those days.

After rushing to Ashland Chemical Corp. at 6 a.m., he finds the lot strangely quiet. Sleepy workers who begin shuffling into the break room a half-hour later don't show much interest in the amiable fellow in the crisp blue jersey passing out fliers. Leaving the lot, a ``Vote Hoffa '98'' sign bids him adieu from a utility pole.

Next comes a United Parcel Service hub, where sorters and drivers stop to chat with Leedham before punching in.

``Good morning. Name's Tom Leedham,'' he says, taking time to inquire how long the part-timers have been working at the same site. ``I'm asking for your vote. It's an important election.''

But they refuse to rally as a group before their shift, citing dissatisfaction with their pension plan. No matter that its substandard benefits are the fault of local trustees, not the international union.

Asked about the same pension fund elsewhere, Leedham returns to his central theme: More grass-roots involvement is the panacea for the Teamsters' woes.

He promises to include rank-and-file members on national bargaining committees and boards that oversee pensions and to urge local union leaders to do the same. He has included working members on his slate.

Leedham would cut off the millions of dollars of political donations the union gives to candidates and political parties and instead convert its powerful DRIVE PAC into a fund for grass-roots mobilization.

As this day wears on, it starts to take on the appearance of the campaign tours Leedham has been bragging about. He's warmly received by groups of workers at a plumbing supply house and a freight dock. On the way to Hookup Inc., a distribution point for new Mack trucks, he learns that the men who work there have long felt slighted by the national car-haul contract.

Drivers who cross the country are crucial to his word-of-mouth campaign, and Leedham's host calls ahead to make sure they don't pull out early.

The workplace is a solitary garage surrounded by gleaming trucks. A dozen men in blue jump suits wait for him, smoking cigarettes as they lounge about a picnic table strewn with copies of ``Car&Driver'' and ``Penthouse.''

Leedham tells them that he's got two carhaulers on his slate -- two of their own -- and they're all ears. He tells the drivers he's been out on the road, too.

``I was in Phoenix the day before yesterday, Los Angeles the day before that,'' he says, sensing that he's finally found an attentive audience today. ``That's how we're going to win -- and we are going to win.''

© Copyright 1998 The Associated Press

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