Why Junior Won-and What Next?

Against the Current, No. 79, March/April 1999

Henry Phillips

WHAT DO YOU call a labor lawyer who has worked on management’s side of the table and never made a living as a rank-and-file union member?  In these sorry days, you call him Teamster General President.

Jimmy Hoffa Jr.’s ascendancy to the office held by his legendary father was once unthinkable.  In 1991, Hoffa Jr. was barred from running because he hadn’t been employed in a Teamster craft for the constitutionally required twenty-four months.  Back then, everyone but Junior was in on the joke: Just because your last name is Hoffa, that doesn’t make you a Teamster.

To remedy the situation, Michigan Teamster boss Larry Brennan, the son of Hoffa Sr. business partner Bert Brennan, gave Junior a no-show job as Brennan’s assistant.  Eight years later, still armed with little more than his last name, Hoffa Jr.’s dream-and the nightmare of Teamster rank-and-file reformers-is a reality.

How did we get here?  And what’s next for the Teamster reform movement?

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Indeed little about the Teamster’s wild ride toward reform during the last ten years could have been predicted by the Teamster militants who gathered in Cleveland, Ohio twenty-three years ago at the founding convention of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

Back then, the road to Teamster reform was imagined as a long march toward rank and file power.  TDU would:

  • build membership unity in the key jurisdictions covered by national contracts: freight, UPS, carhaul;
  • recruit union militants by taking on shop floor problems, fighting for better contracts, and running for local office;
  • organize local TDU chapters to bring reformers together to build their influence and contest for power in local elections; and
  • campaign for the rank and file’s right to directly elect their International Union officers.

TDU leaders wisely saw that there could be no quick fixes in a union so riddled by corruption that the mob selected the General President.  The painstaking work of building a reform base would be arduous, dangerous-top Teamster officials organized the BLAST goon squad to break up TDU meetings-and slow.

It took fourteen years for TDUers to take power in a major trucking local-Atlanta’s Local 728.

In 1988, the threat of a government takeover of the union sent the whole process into fast forward.  With the U.S. Justice Department pushing for a trusteeship of the International Union that would put all aspects of the union’s functioning under government control, including contract bargaining with the freight companies and UPS, the Teamster Old Guard launched a government-out-of-the-Teamsters campaign.  “And Justice for All-Even Teamsters” became the rallying cry for Teamster racketeers who shamelessly likened themselves to Solidarnosc, the independent union that battled government repression in martial law Poland.

TDU simultaneously took on the government’s designs for a draconian trusteeship and the Old Guard’s anti-government, protect-the-rights-of-racketeers campaign.  Reformers put forward a plan for a supervised, rank-and-file vote for International officers, which was ultimately incorporated as part of the settlement signed between the International Executive Board and the Justice Department.

Suddenly in 1989, rank-and-file Teamsters had won the right to vote. TDU teamed up with Ron Carey, the militant head of New York City’s UPS local, and other reform-minded independents.  The candidate and the TDU activists who made up the core of his campaign worked tirelessly for two years.

Carey’s grassroots, populist campaign captured the imagination of beleaguered Teamsters and sparked a brushfire of rank-and-file activity.  Carey’s shocking 1991 upset over an Old Guard divided into two slates again dramatically fast-forwarded the context in which Teamster rank-and-file reformers operated.

Once an isolated, red-baited opposition, TDU now found itself the junior partner in a coalition trying to run (and hold onto office in) the largest private sector international union in the country.

Carey spent his first two years in office distancing himself from TDU in an effort to build and broaden his base. This included trying to appease the 90% of local union officers who had opposed his candidacy.  TDU kept at it, creating space at the International for more militant, bottom-up programs by pressing for their adoption and providing the troops to make them viable once adopted.  At the same time, TDU organized to defend Carey from the aggressive attacks of the union’s entrenched Old Guard who launched a contra war against the reform administration from their base in the local union officialdom.

The results for Carey’s first term were overwhelmingly positive, but not utopian.  The balance sheet reflects the balance of forces in a highly decentralized union where the Old Guard still controlled the great majority of all local unions.

It wasn’t that the Queens militant who had defied the Old Guard officers who surrounded him for twenty years was really just a softy at heart.  Local officials control 75% of the union’s finances and negotiate the contracts covering 75% of the union’s 1.4 million members.  This is the material reality behind Carey’s attempts to appease the Old Guard.

At the same time, Carey’s own contradictions and weaknesses sometimes held back reform.  Most notably and disastrously, Carey appointed conservative officials to manage the great majority of the nearly seventy local unions the International put in trusteeship to root out corruption.  The top-down approach to trusteeships minimized rank-and-file involvement and left the Old Guard or conservative trustees positioned to take over these locals once they were released from trusteeship.

While many reformers were critical of the trusteeships, TDU was hard-pressed to provide the International with experienced leaders who could serve as effective trustees with a bottom-up approach.  Reformers would pay the price in future International elections in key areas like New York, New Jersey and Chicago where the trusteeships predominated and predominately failed.

But the positive changes implemented under Carey’s tenure far outpaced the negative.  The union cut millions of dollars that had subsidized officers’ corrupt lifestyle.  Money spent on the limousines, Teamster jets, outrageous multiple salaries and a pension fund exclusively for officers was redirected toward new organizing and contract campaigns.

Before Carey, the International employed only six organizers, most in name only, and most were relatives of top officials.  The bulk of the union’s fifty International reps were drawing a second, third or even fourth salary.  Under Carey the Organizing Department hired aggressive staff and implemented worker-to-worker organizing campaigns that reversed a fifteen-year decline in Teamster membership.

Most importantly, the union ended decades-long concessionary bargaining in key national jurisdictions-UPS, freight and carhaul-by involving the members in rank-and-file contract campaigns.  Rank-and-file activists-often TDU members-were temporarily taken off the job to mobilize the ranks as contract campaign coordinators.

In 1994, freight companies were stopped from shifting to low-wage part-time jobs, the way UPS had done under past Teamster leaders.  In 1992 and again in 1995, carhaul members stopped companies from shifting to nonunion subsidiaries like the freight companies did in the 1980s.  Most dramatically, in 1997 (in Carey’s second term), after winning U.S. labor’s most important strike of the 1990s, UPS members won a new contract that provided 10,000 new full-time jobs (by combining 20,000 part time jobs), a ban on subcontracting, up to 50% pension increases, and the largest pay increases ever.

The new approach to bargaining had legitimized mobilization and militancy, and created organizing opportunities for the rank-and-file movement.

By the time of the 1996 International Union election, the Carey forces had expanded into a broad coalition.  Each wing was represented on the 1996 Carey Slate that included everyone from TDU co-chair Diana Kilmury to Joseph Padellaro, Carey’s designated trustee for several top-down trusteeships.

This diverse coalition was held together by the singular binding element of Ron Carey.  For TDUers it was Carey the insurgent, the maverick who was upsetting apple carts and reinvigorating the union by opening up opportunities for rank and file mobilization.  For officers, it was Carey the popular incumbent: If the General President’s train was leaving the station, they wanted to make sure they were along for the ride. Besides, being on board was the best way to slow the reform train down.

The broad reform coalition was not one that could survive Carey’s subsequent disqualification.  In fact, in some ways it led to it. For a variety of reasons-the lack of spontaneous grassroots enthusiasm that came with the first-ever `91 election, health problems which made it difficult for Carey to hit the stump, and the conservatism of some of his coalition-Carey turned to glossy flyers and inside-the-beltway campaign consultants.

It was a campaign finance scheme cooked up by three of these consultants, to swap union political contributions for private contributions to Carey’s campaign, that resulted in the court-appointed election officer voiding Carey’s narrow re-election victory and ultimately in Carey’s disqualification from the rerun election.

With Carey’s disqualification, the broad reform coalition began to unravel.  As one Old Guard member of the coalition put it at the time, “It’s not surprising that we’re having a hard time agreeing on where to go from here. The only thing we ever agreed on before was Ron Carey.” If Teamster reform had been fast-forwarded by government intervention and Carey’s 1991 upset victory, Carey’s disqualification hit the pause button.

Coming off the UPS strike, the high mark of member mobilization in the reform era, the union went into a stall that lasted for months.  TDU’s efforts to promote rank- and-file mobilization were hampered by the lack of motion in the union.

The right wing of the Carey coalition was even more deeply disoriented.  Scared that Hoffa was unbeatable, they sat and hoped for Carey to miraculously revive himself through one legal appeal or another, or for Hoffa to be disqualified himself.  The right wingers knew they couldn’t win without TDU and feared they couldn’t win at all. They waited and waited and stalled and stalled.

Reluctantly, the Carey coalition came together behind Ken Hall, the head of the union’s Parcel and Small Package Division and co-chair of the UPS negotiations.

Hall was the compromise candidate between TDU’s preference, Tom Leedham, the head of the union’s Warehouse Division and a pioneer of Teamster member-to-member organizing, and the right-wing’s choice, Freight Division Director Richard Nelson, who had refused to run a UPS-style contract campaign during the `98 National Master Freight negotiations.  (During the `98 campaign, Nelson went on to endorse Hoffa Jr. and lose his own local election.)

The short-lived Hall campaign never got off the ground.  Instead of orienting to the rank and file, Hall was incapacitated by the paralysis of the officers around him, who were waiting for Hoffa to be disqualified on appeal (at best), or to go over to Hoffa when he wasn’t disqualified (at worst).  As the picture looked more and more bleak, Hall bailed out citing a medical problem.

Tom Leedham announced his candidacy in the last week of May, and TDU immediately endorsed his Rank-and-File Power Slate.

It is fair to ask: Why had TDU backed, indeed orchestrated, Hall’s still-born compromise campaign, especially since the Leedham campaign subsequently argued that it simply ran out of time before it could close the gap on Hoffa Jr., who campaigned for four years compared to Leedham’s six months?

Wasn’t the broad reform coalition dead with Carey’s disqualification?  Why didn’t TDU just say so and launch a Leedham campaign from the outset?

Indeed these issues had been considered and debated within TDU at the time. The movement’s steering committee wisely adopted a strategy that was in step with the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the TDU membership and the broader layer of pro-reform Teamster members.

Rank-and-file Teamsters, like local officers, were stunned and paralyzed by Carey’s disqualification.  They didn’t want to concede that Carey’s legal appeals were dead on arrival-a recognition of fact that, however grounded in common sense, felt like a betrayal.  Members also feared that busting up the Carey slate meant conceding the race to Hoffa before it began.

TDU had to try to hold the fraying Carey coalition together: first, to try to hold on to officers who would influence tens of thousands of votes in the election; and second, to emerge from any breakup of the coalition with maximum unity and morale within its own ranks by ensuring that any split could not be blamed on TDU.

With Hall’s withdrawal and the breakup of the Carey camp into the Leedham and John Metz slates, the Hoffa campaign publicly predicted a 100,000 vote victory and Hoffa Jr. refused to debate Leedham, whom he called an “unknown.” That characterization was true enough, especially when compared to the legendary Hoffa surname.

Leedham’s campaign faced even steeper odds than Carey’s had in 1991, odds that sent Teamster officials diving for cover by the dozens.  By the election’s end, Hoffa had campaigned for four years, spent $6 million and had earned the endorsement of 90% of the union’s officials.

But Leedham had a few weapons in his own arsenal.  The first was his Rank and File Power slate, a combination of rank-and-file activists and reform officers, including several TDU leaders and seven members of Carey’s `96 slate.  The Leedham slate’s members were activists and, unlike so much of the deadweight on the Carey `96 slate, prepared to hit the freight barns, UPS centers, and other Teamster shops in a grassroots campaign.

The campaign’s second weapon was an aggressive reform platform that activists and members could get behind whole-heartedly.  The Leedham Campaign issued a ten-point platform for rank-and-file power.  On the campaign trail, Leedham made the platform a centerpiece of his candidacy saying that the election was about principles not personality.

A third weapon was Leedham’s campaign “staff,” which included a number of full-time volunteers but only one paid staff member.  The Leedham campaign drew on the energies of the best of the Teamsters’ International staff, who brought skills honed in the union’s Education, Communication, and Organizing departments that strengthened the Leedham slate’s member-to-member, activist campaign.

And of course, the Leedham campaign had TDU. With less time to campaign, only a handful of local union officers turning out reform votes, and reduced involvement from independent rank-and-file Teamsters (inevitable, given the demoralization and cynicism in the Teamster’s ranks in the wake of the Carey donorgate scandal), TDU’s nationwide network of rank-and-file activists played a more critical role than in either the `91 or `96 elections.

This was borne out in the results: Leedham won where TDU had strong organization and lost where it didn’t.

Given the odds, Hoffa’s election victory was no surprise, despite the Leedham campaign’s many strengths and strong finish.  What is remarkable is that in just six months of campaigning and with only $250,000 to campaign with, TDU and Leedham’s Rank and File Power slate garnered 40% of the vote to Hoffa’s 55%.

It is striking that the Leedham slate won the majority of the combined vote from the two key national jurisdictions: UPS and freight.  Election tallies are tallied by locals, not by jurisdictions, but a TDU analysis shows that Leedham took a majority of the votes from locals that are predominantly UPS and freight workers.

Leedham’s slate likely won UPS by two to one, the same margin as UPS hero Ron Carey, and performed strongly in freight though probably falling short of a majority.  The most lopsided jurisdictional and local union vote was Local 2000’s Northwest Airline flight attendants, a strong TDU base of support, who voted 3,222-300 for Leedham.

In all, the Leedham slate took twenty states-overcoming the opposition of the local union officialdom-drawing a virtual map of where TDU is best or longest organized.  Women, minority, and rank-and-file candidates did well. Though the Hoffa slate swept all of the seats on the union’s executive board with the exception of the Canadian vice-presidential spots, Hoffa himself got 25,000 fewer votes than he did in 1996.

As the vote approached, Hoffa was forced to change his strategy, from refusing to mention Leedham’s name publicly to aggressively attacking him at every turn. Hoffa turned to campaigning as a reformer, even issuing a Rank-and-File Bill of Rights (a name stolen from TDU’s long-time platform).

All this shows that reform has sunk deep roots in the Teamsters and that’s good news. But there is bad news as well. For one, Leedham’s strong showing in the national jurisdictions was overwhelmed by Hoffa Jr.’s rout in the local agreements (called “white paper agreements” in the Teamsters).  In contrast to freight and UPS Teamsters, whose contracts are negotiated by the International Union and who experienced first-hand the rank-and-file contract mobilizations under the Carey administration, members who work under white paper agreements have little direct experience of reform.

The exception to this rule-white paper members who have contact with strong TDU chapters or belong to locals led by reform officers-proves the rule itself.  In the absence of lived experience of reform, members are most likely to vote for the Old Guard candidates promoted by the business agent or local officer who negotiates their contracts and handles their grievances-or not to vote at all.

This is an enormous obstacle in a highly decentralized union dominated by Old Guard local officials.  Looking ahead, this problem may be even more acute than it was in 1998, when a significant layer of local union officers fell into a camp that TDU labels the “soft switchers”-officers who had supported Carey in `96 and who stayed neutral in the 1998 race.

These officers had supported Carey too rigorously, and derided Hoffa too viciously, to be able to approach their rank and file with a straight face and urge a Hoffa vote. They will not carry this same burden when Hoffa Jr. runs for reelection as an incumbent in 2001.

Nor can reformers assume that the strong reform vote in national jurisdictions is “money in the bank” in 2001.  That vote was based on membership loyalty to an incumbent administration’s reform program and on TDU’s rank-and-file networks in the jurisdiction, and was inflated by soft switchers who are disproportionately found in UPS and freight locals.

With the change in International leadership and the likelihood of mass defections from the ranks of the soft switchers, TDU will have to strengthen its rank-and-file jurisdictional networks to hold the key UPS and freight vote for reform.

Simply put, TDU must grow. Carey’s disqualification, Hoffa’s ascendancy and the collapse into his camp of formerly pro-Carey officers once again place TDU at the uncontested center of the union’s reform opposition.

TDU will continue to reach out and build a political coalition around Leedham and the reform officers in his orbit.  (Leedham is not a TDU member though he is closer to TDU ideologically and far more comfortable working closely with the organization than Carey ever was.) But the key to this strategy will be TDU’s ability to grow by intensifying its grassroots organizing efforts.

At a spirited national planning meeting held in January, TDU leaders and activists gathered to set immediate goals and plans.  Key elements of TDU’s work in the coming period will include:

  • Increasing distribution of Convoy Dispatch and Adelante, TDU’s English language and bilingual newspapers.  The organization set a goal of increasing Convoy circulation this year by 50% to 100,000 issues per month.
  • Strengthening jurisdictional networks in UPS and freight.
  • Building jurisdictional networks in other industries.  Many Teamsters who work under white paper agreements are employed by national and international corporations like Pepsi, Coke, grocery chains, etc. TDU has had some initial successes building a network among the union’s 5,000 Frito Lay members.  The organization will look to replicate this model in other jurisdictions.
  • Running for local union office.  TDU members will challenge Old Guard officers in local races in hopes of broadening the reform base among local union officials.
  • Strengthening TDU Chapters and starting new ones. TDU Organizers and Steering Committee members will travel around the country and hold planning meetings with Chapter leaders about how to increase recruitment and integrate national goals into local organizing work.
  • Preparing to run in Convention delegate races in 200 locals so that TDU members will represent 20% of the delegates as the core of a broader reform block at the next International Convention in 2001.

TDU will have to generate organizing opportunities on its own steam in the coming period.  Gone will be the International’s contract campaigns and organizing drives through which TDUers linked up with other militant rank and filers.  Gone too are the resources of the International, the shop steward and membership trainings, the educational publications, the conferences for rank and file members that promoted the idea of building union power through membership involvement.

In their place, the Hoffa Jr. administration will implement an aggressive Old Guard propaganda machine coordinated by former Lyndon Larouche operative Richard Leebove.  Add to the mix anti-TDU employers and Old Guard officers who will be emboldened by Hoffa Jr.’s victory, and the obstacles are formidable.

Of course, Hoffa Jr. will have to contend with problems of his own, starting with the contradictions of the coalition that brought him to power.

Local officers supported Hoffa Jr. because they want an International Union that leaves them alone.  A battle cry of these officials has been “Respect local union autonomy”-meaning no nationally coordinated contract campaigns, organizing drives or political campaigns like the fight against NAFTA; no International Union educational programs for members; in short, the elimination of any and all initiatives that have revitalized the Teamsters by involving the ranks.

Carey infuriated local officers by bypassing them and appealing directly to the members.  Local officers turned out the vote for Hoffa Jr. to put an end to shenanigans like the year-long organization of UPS members in preparation for the 1997 contract fight.  “A good day for these old guard local officers is when the International doesn’t call and they don’t have to call the International,” says TDU National Organizer Ken Paff. Under Hoffa Jr., they hope that’s what they’ll get.

This is not the program, however, that motivated rank-and-file Hoffa voters who supported his promise to “Restore Teamster Power.” Local officials are in on the secret that this slogan meant restoring the power of top Teamster officials over the membership, but rank-and-file Hoffa supporters believed they were voting for a stronger union.

“If he’s half the man his father was, then he’s all right by me,” Teamster members told the press.  The rank-and-file vote forced Hoffa to posture as a populist, a reformer, but above all as a militant.  But how can Hoffa Jr. win the improvements that members expect while eschewing the rank-and-file mobilization that alienate his base in the union’s officialdom?

By all appearances, Junior believes his own rhetoric that the Hoffa name will put the fear of God into Corporate America.  He is in for a rude awakening.

Hoffa Jr. will inevitably blunder.  He is already taking office under a cloud with three of his Vice Presidents facing Independent Review Board (IRB, the government-appointed oversight body) charges and likely expulsion from the union.  And Hoffa’s associates never met a salary they didn’t like: Multiple salaries, a hot-button issue for the rank and file, are expected to spread among the ranks of Hoffa’s executive board.

Yet Hoffa Jr. will be no Jackie Presser, an aloof, overpaid buffoon who emerges from his executive suite only to denounce TDU or throw a lucrative bash for his officer pals. Direct election of International officers combined with an organized reform movement has erected new limits on any General President’s lack of accountability to the members.

Ironically, these limits may help Hoffa Jr., especially given how low expectations for his performance are in some quarters.  Hoffa will have to do something, and if he is making celebrity appearances on picket lines instead of building casinos for the mob with members’ stolen pension money, he may be perceived as not such a bad guy after all.

The fact that Hoffa only has one major contract to negotiate during his three-year term (the carhaul contract this May) also helps him in the expectations game.

Unable to deliver in the way of contract victories, Hoffa will likely woo member support by casting himself as the union’s real reformer.  During his campaign he consistently tried to tag Leedham and TDU with Carey’s donorgate scandal.  Once in office, with access to the books and the power to name anti-corruption commissions, Hoffa Jr. will surely ride this issue as far as it can take him.

But appearances aside, corruption is not the issue that coheres rank-and-file anger into rebellion-if it were, Hoffa could never have won the election in the first place.  Rather, the core issue is the employers’ decades-long attack on members’ wages and working conditions and the union’s ability or inability to respond.

NAFTA.  Part-time work. Double-breasting.  Subcontracting.  Two-tier wage systems.  The growth of non-union competition.  Concessionary contracts.  These are the problems that hit members closest to home. Here, Hoffa’s allegiance to member demobilization and Old Guard protocol (“local autonomy”) leave him vulnerable.

Only two obstacles stand in the way of Hoffa Jr.’s re-election in 2001: TDU and a government-supervised election of International officers.  Hoffa Jr. will be working against both in the days to come. Indeed he has been working for months with anti-labor congressman Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) to attack the use of government tax dollars to supervise a fair rank-and-file election.

“Get the Government out of the Teamsters” has been a rallying cry of a strange amalgamation of voices from the far right and some on the left. While space doesn’t permit an in-depth discussion of government intervention in the union in all its complexity, it is important to note that beyond the slogans lies this reality: The only aspect of government intervention in the Teamsters that is seriously up for grabs is a supervised election.

The Consent Decree signed by the union’s executive board and the Justice Department has no end-date for government intervention.  The IRB, including its appointee former CIA director William Webster and federal judge David Edelstein with his quasi-monarchical powers over the union’s affairs, are safe as long as racketeers enjoy free run in the union.

A rank-and-file election-supervised by an independent election officer backed by the power of a federal court to discipline both employers and union officials who interfere with members’ rights to campaign and organize-is the essential mechanism that enables members to take back their union.  That’s why a government-supervised election will continue to come under fire by Hoffa Jr. and his right-wing political supporters, and why TDU will fight tooth and nail to maintain it as a mechanism of rank-and-file power.

The struggle for Teamster rank-and-file power has taken crazy twists and turns in recent years, and no one can say for certain where it will go from here. How high will Teamster members’ expectations be of their new General President?

Who will most effectively organize rank-and-file discontent with their conditions: Hoffa Jr. with his “anti-corruption” crusade and strong-man promises?  Or TDU with its vision of building Teamster power by tapping rank-and-file power?

In the last Teamster election more than 70% of the members voted “None of the Above” by not voting at all. Who, if anyone, will break into the swollen ranks of the cynical, disenfranchised, and apathetic?

TDU has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances in its battle for rank-and-file power.  The movement has survived and grown through the mob-dominated Fitzsimmons/Williams/ Presser years; steered a course through a threatened government takeover of the union to win the right to vote; spearheaded a victory in the first-ever one member, one vote election; performed the difficult balancing act of being a pro-administration reform organization; and emerged intact and revitalized from a scandal that brought down a popularly elected General President and disintegrated his reform coalition.

While we can’t predict what will happen next, the betting money says TDU will be in the race.

Henry Phillips is an activist in the teamster reform movfement and a member of SOLIDARITY.

ATC 79, March-April 1999