Battle For The Soul Of A Union

Teamsters search their souls


NOVEMBER 15, 1998

Long tainted by the absence of democracy, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has had a big dose of it lately.

Leadership selection in the IBT used to be as secretive and ceremonial as the College of Cardinals' closed-door system of picking a pope. Now, after 10 years of court-supervised changes, Teamster elections are more like a nonstop circus - fractious and freewheeling to the point of voter fatigue.

Earlier this month, the union's 1.4 million members received ballots in the mail inviting them to participate in their third presidential vote in the last seven years, a frequency rate unparalleled in contemporary labor history. The results will be tallied and announced early next month.

This year's media-anointed front-runner, James P. Hoffa, 57, a Detroit lawyer and son of the Teamsters' most famous past president, declared his candidacy in 1995. Backed by most of the union's 5,000 officials, he's been running ever since. Hoffa's main opponent, IBT warehouse workers leader Tom Leedham, 47, is the new choice of Teamster reformers, who have been trying to regroup ever since the downfall of the union's first member-elected president, Ron Carey.

If Hoffa wins this time, the once triumphant; now stalled reform drive associated with Carey will be ditched. Hoffa promises to purge any remaining ""left-wing outsiders" from Teamster headquarters in Washington, D.C., and to revive the union's past ties to the Republican Party. Under his plan to restore "local autonomy," regional Teamster barons will be free once again to cut deals with big employers, without interference from the national office.

If, on the other hand, Leedham's "rank and file power" slate pulls off an upset victory like Carey did when he first bucked the union establishment in 1991, Teamster reformers will get another chance to shake up the bureaucracy.- from above and below. Leedham pledges to use the union's top job to keep the membership informed and involved in militant contract fights like last year's successful strike against United Parcel Service.

The competing campaigns of Leedham and Hoffa - one appealing to the ranks and the other catering to the Teamster officer corps - highlight the continuing divisions within the union over how it should be run. This internal debate also mirrors the tensions in other AFL-CIO unions where, to varying degrees, activists are demanding change and traditionalists are resisting it.

The results of the Teamster vote could, in fact, alter the current balance of power within the AFL-CIO because a Hoffa victory will add a vocal conservative and friend of congressional Republicans to the federation's executive council.

For Teamster reformers, it's been a rough 14 months since the undisputed high point of Carey's presidency - the August 1997 walkout at UPS. That 15-day strike by 185,000 drivers and package handlers was hailed by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney as a victory for the entire labor movement.

Within days of the company's surrender, however, Carey's 1996 election was nullified and a new vote ordered. As court appointed overseers and a federal prosecutor expanded their investigation, it became clear that the reformer's own team had run afoul of the law. A greedy cabal of Teamster vendors and political operatives converted more than $700,000 in dues money into Carey campaign revenue through a contribution-swap scheme.

As a result, Carey was first barred from running again and then, last July, was expelled from the union. Five of his backers have pleaded guilty to various felonies. A sixth is awaiting trial. Carey and others connected to the scandal remain under grand jury scrutiny.

For the Hoffa forces, "Teamster donorgate" was a gift from heaven. The scandal diverted attention from their own campaign funding violations, embarrassed the reformers, and revived public cynicism about the possibility of ever "cleaning up" the Teamsters.

After Carey stepped down, the coalition that backed him two years ago splintered and tragedy turned into farce at Teamster headquarters. Carey's temporary successor, Secretary-Treasurer Tom Sever, proved to be weak and directionless. Membership programs suffered and Teamster employers were quick to take advantage of the leadership vacuum. By the first anniversary of the strike, UPS was openly reneging on its promise to create more fulltime jobs - a key part of the settlement.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, an important Hoffa ally, US Representative Peter Hoekstra, a Republican from Michigan, used hearings by his House Education and Workforce Committee to harass what remained of Carey's Washington brain trust, a once energetic, now demoralized group.

A fierce critic of protective labor laws like the one that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Fair Labor Standards Act, Hoekstra is a conservative with no real interest in workers rights. Nevertheless, his staff and Hoffa's have worked closely together, an alliance that reflects the-political right turn that will be a big part of any Hoffa administration.

"Getting into bed with union-bashing politicians is nothing new," observes Ken Paff, the leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, or TDU, who became a truck driver in 1973. "Hoffa's father did it when he endorsed Richard Nixon, and later, Teamster crooks were the main labor backers of Reagan and Bush. Is it any surprise that Hoffa Junior now wants to 'build bridges' to House Republicans?"

Leedham has been a sharp critic of Hoffa's Hoekstra connection, while at the same time distancing himself from Carey's inside-the-beltway fund-raising fiasco. In a real break with business as usual, his platform seeks to end direct Teamster financing of Democrats or Republicans.

"We're going to stop writing blank checks to politicians who stab us in the back," Leedham told a group of Boston Teamsters earlier this month. "We can have far greater impact if we put union money into our own get-out-the-vote campaigns, rallies, and phone banks, and use rank-and-file action to put heat on all public officials."

When the votes are counted next month, however, it will be Teamster workplace issues - and turnout - that affect the outcome, not the candidates' political views. Leedham believes that agitation, education, and national coordination of membership activity are necessary to make bargaining gains at big companies. This approach runs counter to the interests of Hoffa's core constituency. Much of the local officialdom wants, above all, to protect its own power, perks, and turf - not to rally workers against corporate America.

Traitorously refusing to accept more than one Teamster paycheck himself, Leedham has - like Carey before him - enraged his peers with attacks on their multiple salaries and extra benefits. Last year, he notes, more than 130 Teamster officers were paid between $100,000 and $470,000, giving them a "country club life" far removed moved from the concerns of most members.

Indeed, Leedham's modest background and thoughtful personal manner stand in sharp contrast to the old Teamster stereo types so admired by Hoffa, a wealthy man whose own barnstorming style has become more bravado-filled and blustery over time.

The Hoffa slate (with the exception of his main Boston booster, John Murphy) lacks the youth, energy, idealism, racial or gender diversity of Leedham's running mates. Most revealing of all, the $650,000 "Legal and Accounting Fund" for Hoffa's current campaign - which is outspending Leedham's 4 to 1- has become a magnet for contributions from corporate law firms, Republican businessmen, and other non-labor entities seeking patronage or favors.

If Leedham's low-budget, largely volunteer effort fails to catch Hoffa in the homestretch, there is one consolation prize. The winner only gets to serve the remainder of Carey's second term, which expires in three years. Some dogged reformers - 400 of whom gathered in Milwaukee last weekend for their 22nd annual convention - are already planning that far ahead.

In the new, more democratic Teamsters, the next election is not far away.

Steve Early is a labor journalist and lawyer involved with the Teamster reform movement since 1977.

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