Reform Candidate Strengthens as Vote Nears

Leedham emerges as viable rival for front-runner Hoffa

By Diane E. Lewis, Boston Globe Staff


ATERTOWN - 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 labor lawyer.

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 union treasury.

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 billion.

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' progressive ideas.

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 of Toil."

"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.

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