Los Angeles Times

The Struggle for a New Labor Movement--Again


Sunday, May 3, 1998

CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA.--Now that government investigators have cleared James P. Hoffa to make a new run for the Teamster presidency, his election to the top job in the nation's most powerful union would seem a shoo-in. His opponent is a relative unknown, Ken Hall, an aide to former Teamster President Ron Carey, who was disqualified in November after a federal election officer found that an elaborate money-laundering scheme, condoned by Carey, had tainted the 1996 union election. Trading on the most famous name in American labor, Hoffa confidently predicts that his family's "devotion to the Teamsters endures, continues and will only end in victory."

But before we install Hoffa behind his father's old desk, some perspective is in order. Hoffa's beefy persona has made him a media celebrity who seems to embody that old-time labor: tough, earthy, a meat-and-potatoes sort of unionism, now certified as clean enough by the Feds themselves. There is just one problem: Neither Hoffa nor his supporters seem able to convince working Teamsters that he deserves the union presidency.

Despite the hoopla, Hoffa has less support in the Teamsters today than 18 months ago, when he narrowly lost the presidency to Carey. His supporters have surrendered control of far more union locals than they have won, and the power and influence of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the grass-roots reform movement in the union, has grown stronger.

In the big Teamster locals headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, and Dallas, insurgent reformers have just thrown pro-Hoffa officials out of office. In the 1996 national elections, Hoffa won thousands of votes there, but Hall could well gain a majority this time. Similarly, pro-Hoffa officials were tossed out by a 3-1 margin among the 11,000 stewards and stewardesses that form the rank and file of Northwest Airlines Local 2000. The new leadership there is solidly TDU. In Detroit Local 299, where the late Jimmy Hoffa once ruled, his son campaigned hard for a slate of officers pledged to his candidacy, but lost decisively in local elections held last year.

An even more dramatic shift in the balance of power came in Pasco, Wash., where 1,200 Latino Teamsters work under horrifying conditions at Iowa Beef Packing. But these workers had no voice, in their local or in the national election contest, because a long-entrenched Anglo leadership made sure they were kept ignorant and powerless.

All this changed in April, when hundreds of rank and filers took over the local and won the right to elect their own shop stewards. Ken Paff, who heads TDU, predicts the Hoffa forces will be shut out of this local in the national Teamster election, now slated for early September.

These local union contests are important because they reflect far more than the usual scramble for the spoils of office. They are indicative of a struggle for the soul of American unionism.

For more than a hundred years, the U.S. trade-union movement has rebuilt itself each generation by the mobilization of millions of workers around a new set of ideas, strategies and leaders. Such transformations are never easy. Indeed, they

often generate a near-civil war in the ranks of the labor movement. Thus, in the 1880s, the modern trade-union movement emerged from a bitter conflict that racked the Knights of Labor, then the nation's largest labor federation. Would labor ally itself with the nation's broad, anti-capitalist reform tradition or, as American Federation of Labor founder Samuel Gompers urged, reject such radicalism and rely instead on a steadfast business unionism that could weather the political and economic storms generated by the ebb and flow of capitalism?

Many of these same issues were fought out in the 1930s, when John L. Lewis mobilized millions of immigrant workers during the union schism that gave birth to the insurgent Congress of Industrial Organizations, whose leadership took on the titans of U.S. industry. For a decade, American politics lurched left, until another set of bitter internal union struggles, this time over the place of communism within the labor movement, pushed unions into making their peace with postwar U.S. business.

In today's struggle over the meaning of trade unionism and the possibilities of its rebirth, Hoffa and his supporters stand for a kind of nostalgic authoritarianism that ignores everything that has transformed the United States during the last quarter-century. He wants to speak for a male, blue-collar, culturally conservative working class that is fading from the workaday landscape. Hoffa does touch the imagination of such workers, but his real support lies among hundreds of entrenched local union officials. "You want a union with a lot of money in the bank and a strong leader," he told his supporters last year. "That's what gets an employer's attention."

Hoffa's opponents represent a far more diverse set of reform forces inside the Teamsters and out. At the top, it is an open secret that John Sweeney's new leadership at the AFL-CIO hates the idea of a Hoffa victory. The "Sweeneyistas" know that Hoffa's band of stand-pat unionism spells disaster for their effort to remobilize and reorganize the middle layers of the union movement, where the great bulk of labor's financial power and organizing potential is found. A Hoffa victory will send a signal to every union bureaucrat that it's business as usual.

But the status quo is a nightmare for hundreds of thousands of working Teamsters. Indeed, the union victory in the United Parcel Service strike last August demonstrated the power of such discontent. The Teamsters won that strike, not because of Carey's effective sound-bites, but because a multiyear agitational campaign, pioneered by the TDU, ensured that the union could put thousands of informed, picket-line activists on the street when the showdown came. This is the kind of democratic power that opponents of Hoffa are banking on to help put Hall, who negotiated the UPS contract, over the top. It's a contest upon which labor and the nation have much at stake.

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Nelson Lichtenstein, a Historian at the University of Virginia, Is Author of "The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor."

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