Ilana DeBare, Chronicle Staff Writer
October 5, 1998
James P. Hoffa waved a hand over his head like a returning hero as he strode into the Oakland meeting hall of Teamsters' Local 70. He posed for Instamatic snapshots with union members. He signed photos of himself.
``This is my rank-and-file here,'' the son of the late Teamster leader said confidently as he hand-shook his way through the 200-person crowd. ``Leedham (my opponent) couldn't get 14 people together in a phone booth.''
Hoffa sailed through the Bay Area yesterday in a visit that seemed more like a post-victory lap around the field than a final-stretch campaign sprint.
Hoffa's opponents insist that their candidate, Tom Leedham, is gaining ground on the well-known front-runner.
But in an interview with The Chronicle, Hoffa gave hints of some of the big changes he would bring to the country's largest union --such as a return to a more decentralized union and a tilt away from the Democratic Party.
``You'll see a union that is sensitive to working with local unions rather than ordering them around,'' Hoffa said.
The 55,000 Teamsters in the Bay Area will join millions of others across the country next month in a re-run of the 1996 union election that Hoffa narrowly lost to incumbent President Ron Carey.
The stakes in the race go beyond the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. As the largest single union in the country, the Teamsters play a key role in determining the direction of the AFL-CIO and setting a public image for organized labor generally.
Since the 1996 Teamster vote, a lot has changed: The election was overturned because of campaign finance scandals by the Carey camp. Carey himself was thrown out of the union. The reform banner that he ran under is now being carried by Tom Leedham, a relatively unknown Teamster from Oregon.
And Hoffa and his supporters feel ready to claim the victory they wanted two years ago.
``We can see the end in sight,'' said Chuck Mack, a strong Hoffa supporter and head of Joint Council 7, which represents Bay Area Teamsters. ``I have no doubt that by December, the membership will have spoken very conclusively and Jim Hoffa and those on his slate will have been elected.''
Hoffa's speech to his supporters yesterday was vague on how exactly he plans to reinvigorate the union. But in an interview with The Chronicle, he gave some clues as to how he would change the union's direction:
-- Hoffa plans to reduce the role of the International and give more autonomy to local and regional union bodies returning to the decentralization that was a trademark of the Teamsters until the 1990s.
``The International built up a huge organizing department and would send people in from the outside to organize something here in Oakland,'' he said. `` I don't think that's the way to do it.''
-- As part of that organizational change, Hoffa promises to fire much of the national organizing staff hired by Carey. ``The payroll right now is loaded with Leedham (and Carey) cheerleaders -- operatives who perform no visible function and do not help the membership,'' he said.
-- Hoffa will move the Teamsters away from the traditionally union-friendly
Democratic Party and toward a more bipartisan political stance. ``We're not going to be blinded by party labels,'' he said. ``We won't walk in lockstep for Democrats, Republicans or anyone else.''
-- He will shift some resources from organizing new members into providing service to existing members. ``The union has spent enormous amounts of money on organizing, but no one knows what we have to show for it,'' he said. ``We're still going to emphasize organizing but in more traditional ways (than Carey).''
-- Hoffa will take a more confrontational stance with other AFL-CIO leaders on issues such as which unions have the right to organize particular groups of workers.
``We are willing to come into the AFL as an active player,'' Hoffa said. ``But there has to be a major understanding that the Teamsters will not be raided (by other unions seeking new members). That's got to be the understanding, or something is going to happen.''
Despite the confident tone of yesterday's Oakland Hoffa rally, the 57-year-old candidate continues to face sharp criticism from opponents such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the rank-and- file group that has long opposed union corruption.
Hoffa's critics claim that he will reopen the Teamsters' doors to corrupt ``old guard'' leaders who are more interested in drawing six-figure union salaries than organizing workers. They criticize his business relationship in the 1960s with organized crime figure Allan Dorfman.
``His father was a great man, but this man ain't no `Hoffa senior,' '' said Ken Mee, a Hoffa opponent from San Jose. ``If he was named Smith or Jones, we would never have heard about him.''
But Hoffa deflects such criticisms by turning the corruption issue around and pointing it at Carey camp members like Leedham.
``We've just gone through the darkest six years in the union's history,'' Hoffa said. ``The president (Carey) was kicked out of the union for stealing $1 million; the union is now bankrupt; the political action committee has been gutted. . . . It's really kind of pathetic to talk about things that happened 30 years ago (like Hoffa's relations with Dorfman) when Ron Carey was kicked out just six months ago.''
Hoffa is campaigning on a ``unity'' slate that includes some Teamster officials who formerly supported Carey -- a pitch that appeals to many rank-and-file members.
``There's been too much fighting inside the union for too many years, when we should all be working together for the best contracts,'' said Paul Nolan, a Union City warehouseman attending yesterday's event in a ``Hoffa Now'' hat that was autographed by the candidate himself. ``Jimmy can unite all the Teamsters together.''
Ballots will be mailed out to Teamsters across the country on November 2 and counted on December 3.
©1998 San Francisco Chronicle