By Diane E. Lewis, Boston Globe Staff
In the 12 years since he joined the Teamsters, Bob Bonsignore
has seen his union split in two and watched its national leadership
unravel. Now, the 44-year-old UPS driver is banking on a reform
candidate to make it whole.
"I'm tired of the old way of running
things," he said, minutes before pulling his United Parcel
Service truck out of a garage here. "I don't want to go back
there. So, I'm for Leedham."
Five months after launching a campaign for
president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters against
James P. Hoffa, 47-year-old Thomas Leedham has emerged in the
final lap of the race as a viable candidate, causing some experts
to wonder whether the union's reform arm, Teamsters for a Democratic
Union (TDU), just might catapult the Oregon labor leader into
the top job.
After noting that an upset once seemed unlikely,
at least one observer pointed to former Teamsters President Ron
Carey's unexpected victory over R.V. Durham in the 1991-1992 race
as an indication that another reformer could win.
"You have to remember that when Carey
first ran he had people on his slate who had never held a union
elective office, but they were truckers, and they had the TDU
behind them," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian
at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The Teamsters
are volatile. We were surprised in 1991 when Carey won. We could
be surprised again in 1998."
Added Rick Hurd, a labor professor at Cornell
University, "Anything could happen in a mail-in election
where only 30 percent of the members vote and where one candidate
is relying on his father's past reputation and the other is building
on a grass-roots network."
With union mail ballot counting scheduled
to begin Thursday, Hoffa, 58, of Detroit, and Leedham, of Portland,
Ore., are in the home stretch of an election that will determine
the future of the nation's biggest private-sector union. Leedham
heads the union's 400,000-member warehouse division. Hoffa, the
son of the late Teamsters president, James Riddle Hoffa, is a
A third candidate, John Metz, 59, of St.
Louis, has done little national campaigning and is widely regarded
by union observers as a long shot in the race.
Whoever wins will have to shore up a near-bankrupt
union treasury, and prepare to go toe-to-toe with United Parcel
Service, which has yet to honor its promise to make 10,000 part-time
workers full-time employees. UPS said below-average volume stemming
from last year's 15-day Teamsters strike made it impossible to
honor the contract. The Teamsters said UPS was simply taking advantage
of a union in disarray.
With only a week left before the counting
begins, Hoffa and Leedham are making a final effort to capture
the seat vacated by Carey, who was barred from running and expelled
from the union after aides embezzled more than $750,000 from the
As son of the late James R. Hoffa, who was
jailed for embezzling money from the union's pension fund, Hoffa
has gained national media attention and the support of union officials
in the Midwest, New York, and San Francisco. He has promised to
increase the union treasury, but says he won't reveal how until
he's elected. He has also said he would work to heal deep political
divisions in the union's ranks.
Hoffa has never held a union office or an
ongoing full-time job as a Teamsters member, but he said his work
as a legal adviser to union officials and members gave him experience.
"I've worked closely with members over the years," he
said in a recent interview. "I've helped them win their grievances,
and I've been there for them when they needed help."
"Unquestionably, Hoffa has garnered
support from leaders, but the reformers have real strength, too,"
said Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California
at Berkeley. "If the question is, `Is Hoffa the front-runner?'
I would say, `Yes.' He has the money, and he has a strong infrastructure.
At the same time, there is real discontent among members and that
could be a problem."
Leedham, who used to load pallets for a living,
was behind union lobbying efforts to persuade the Occupational
Safety and Health Administration to develop an ergonomics standard
to prevent injuries brought on by sorting packages, loading trucks,
typing, and other repetitive motions.
Regarded as a close friend of the 20-year-old
reform movement, Leedham is the only candidate from the West Coast.
An international vice president since 1992, he is an official
at Local 206 in Portland, Ore.
Leedham's slate, called "Rank &
File Power," lists several women, including trucker Diana
Kilmury, an international vice president from Canada and co-chairwoman
of the TDU. The Teamsters now boast some 300,000 female members,
but they are scattered throughout the union and have not organized
a political voting bloc. Still, Leedham is counting on votes from
women, minorities, and rank-and-file members.
"Our campaign platform excites people,"
he said during a last-minute trip through New England last month.
"It calls for putting rank-and-file members on all national
negotiating committees and grievance panels. It also calls for
rank-and file committees to watchdog Teamsters union pension funds."
Meanwhile, Leedham's backers pointed to a
rash of local Teamsters elections as an indication that members
were backing the reform candidates. Earlier this year, for example,
Dane Passo, the 45-year-old leader of Hoffa's campaign in Chicago,
lost control of Local 705 to a reformer. The local, a powerhouse
with 18,000 members, boasts a pension fund with just under $1
Last year, another reformer won control of
an 11,000-member flight attendants' local in California, displacing
a longtime Hoffa supporter.
"Several weeks ago, Richard Nelson,
head of the Teamsters freight division, ran for re-election to
the presidency of his local in Oklahoma City and lost 2-1 after
Hoffa wrote a letter of endorsement," maintained Kenneth
Paff, a founder of TDU in Detroit.
In September, the Hoffa Now! campaign polled
union members, but did not release the results, prompting opponents
to question whether Hoffa had rallied sufficient membership support
to win the presidency.
Anticipating a low turnout, both sides have
been manning telephone banks in a last-minute push to get the
vote out. Only 33 percent of the union's members voted in 1996.
This year, the two campaigns are hoping last-minute telephone
calls will prompt more members to participate.
At the UPS site in Watertown, union drivers
stood near idled trucks and contemplated the election. "Most
of the people out here and at UPS sites around the state are pretty
much backing Leedham," said union steward Tim Madden. "Believe
me, the votes are here."
But if Leedham is believed to have garnered
most of the UPS vote as well as the votes of women and warehouse
workers, Hoffa is banking on support from both traditional and moderate Teamsters who oppose the reformers'
Will Hoffa win the election? "I don't
think anybody has the foggiest idea right now," said UMass
labor historian Thomas Juravich, author of the book "Commonwealth
"The Teamsters union has gone through more changes than most go through in a hundred years," Juravich said. "Given the current political climate, who knows who will win? I personally believe it is still an open race."
Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company.