The Year One of Hoffa Junior

Against the Current, No. 86, May/June 2000

Henry Phillips

One of James Hoffa’s first initiatives after assuming the office of Teamsters General President was-no giggling please-to announce that he was launching a “self-policing” anti-corruption effort called Project RISE (Respect, Integrity, Strength, Ethics).  A few months later, to lend his effort sorely needed anti-corruption credentials, Junior Hoffa hired former U.S. prosecutor Ed Steir and ex-FBI official James Kossler to front for Project RISE as “advisors.”

As we mark the end of Junior’s first year in office, the finishing touches are being put on the first draft of the RISE code of conduct.  The code is being penned by consultants from the Ethics Resource Center (ERC), a think-tank that advises corporations on issues like “The Ethics of Downsizing.”

Teamster members who fear that their union’s moral center has been outsourced to corporate consultants can rest easier knowing that a blue-ribbon Teamster task force has been assembled to provide guidance and guidelines to the ERC. The Task Force, not to be mistaken for the Hoffa campaign committee to which it bears a striking resemblance, includes just one supporter of Hoffa-opponent Tom Leedham.

Expectations for Project RISE have never run real high among Teamster reformers.  Few expected a Hoffa ally like, say, Les Singer, a Hoffa Vice President and RISE task force member, to work aggressively to curb his $203,888 salary.

Yet even the most cynical of anti-Hoffa partisans were shocked when the RISE Task Force issued a summary of the decisions made by its various subcommittees a detailed list of what the Ethics Resource Center should NOT include in the Code. Some of the Task Force’s choice directives include that the Code should not:

  • “Set maximum salaries or maximum salary increases” for Teamster officials
  • “Set any limit on multiple salaries”
  • “Contain any restrictions on nepotism”
  • “Require job descriptions or performance standards for employees” (e.g.  business agents)

The summary also included profound ruminations on the nature of ethics like, “No-show jobs are bad, but the Code should not contain a prohibition.” This is Hoffa’s lauded RISE, the program that the New York Times hailed as “the most ambitious anti-corruption effort in decades”?!?

Project RISE may be the most laughable of Hoffa’s pretensions, but it is not just as a corruption fighter that Junior has proved to be a high-octane gas-bag.  Hoffa stormed the Teamster Marble Palace, promising to restore the power and build Teamster unity.  In every case, his rhetoric has astonishingly outpaced his record.

Restore Whose Power?

“What a strong union needs is a strong leader and a big bank account,” Hoffa was fond of saying on the campaign stump.  What about member mobilization and rank-and-file democracy?

It wasn’t an oversight that these were left out of Junior’s campaign quips.  Junior’s formula perfectly matches what’s needed for a union that wants to use its power over the members, instead of putting it behind them to take on the employers.  And time and again in Hoffa’s Year One, that’s exactly what members have seen.

Ask the 8,000 brewery Teamsters at Anheuser-Busch (A-B) who, facing an aggressive employer drive for draconian contract concessions, were hungry for Teamster power and a new face at the union’s helm when 80 percent of them cast their ballots for Hoffa in the 1998 election.  Candidate Hoffa promised A-B Teamsters that they would be on the cover of the Teamster magazine and that he would visit every plant to meet with members and make a battle plan for taking on the company.

When the Teamster magazine arrived after Hoffa’s election, Junior himself was on the cover and, of course, he never came to the breweries.  He did have time, however, to meet face-to-face with August Busch.  When the hot air had cleared, Hoffa submitted, for a third vote, virtually the same contract that A-B Teamsters had already rejected twice-except that Hoffa’s version was a year longer.

With their general waving the white flag, the troops surrendered, accepting a contract that gutted their seniority rights, eliminated all past practices and allows subcontracting of union jobs. This in an industry that is overwhelmingly union, vulnerable to consumer pressure, and where business is booming.

The 11,000 Teamster flight attendants at Northwest Airlines, now in their fourth year without a contract, have also faced the Hoffa Teamster Power formula, but here the presence of a vibrant rank-and-file network has made a Hoffa sellout a tougher sell.

With the help of TDU, flight attendants set up what they call the CAT (Contract Action Team), an activist network that uses emails, videos and member-to-member organizing to spread the word to a work force that is literally spread across the globe.  When their union called a strike vote, the CAT engineered an astonishing ninety-three percent voter turnout in which ninety-nine percent of voters authorized a strike.

Armed with this leverage and the knowledge that Northwest management could ill afford a second strike on the tail of the previous year’s pilot’s strike, Hoffa’s negotiators brought back a substandard contract to the ranks.  Hoffa’s “strong union” reached into its “big wallet” to send five separate mailings and an individual videotape to the home of each one of the 11,000 flight attendants.

But Junior’s strong-arm tactics were no match for rank-and-file power.  The CAT member-to-member network mobilized sixty-nine percent of the members to reject the contract and send Hoffa’s negotiators back to the table.  Hoffa’s allies on the Local 2000 executive board responded by voting to disband the CAT.

Rank-and-file flight attendants have maintained their network and continued to organize for a good contract.  Their most recent fight was to battle Northwest management’s attempts to chill the internet communication that flight attendant activists have used so effectively to organize.

After Northwest filed suit against its flight attendants, alleging that they organized a sickout, management got a court order to seize members’ personal home computers to search for evidence.  The Hoffa administration quickly cut a deal with management that allowed the company to go through with the search.  Emails, personal income tax reports, medical records, romantic notes: All were fair game for Northwest’s accounting firm to finger and review, though only relevant material was supposed to go directly to management.

TDU member Kevin Griffin and fellow flight attendant Ted Reeve fought back, and with the help of TDU counsel were able to win limits to Northwest’s wholesale search.  The protections apply only to the websites organized by Griffin and Reeve.  Otherwise, Northwest’s internet strip search remains in effect.

Elsewhere the story has been the same-from Iowa Beef, where Hoffa undermined the largest Teamster strike since UPS (see “The Battle of Iowa Beef,” ATC 84); to UPS, where the International gave the company carte blanche to ignore a key provision of the 1997 strike victory by subcontracting thousands of Teamster over-the-road loads to non-union drivers instead of creating more highly sought after “feeder” jobs; to the warehouse industry, where Hoffa has allowed key employers like Kroger and SuperValu to whipsaw Teamster locals against one another in a drive to cut costs.

Everywhere, it seems, Hoffa shakes his fist for the rank-and-file (and sometimes at the rank-and-file) and then puts on the kid gloves to sit down with the boss.

Teamster Unity?

Not content to bully just those Teamsters seeking to win good contracts or enforce their existing ones, Hoffa has adeptly used the power of his office to attack reform officers and block rank-and-file insurgents.

After Teamsters in Connecticut’s Local 1150-who had voted by more than two to one for Hoffa-elected the TDU-led Reform Team to head their local, Hoffa ordered that the election be re-run, bringing back the Old Guard tactic of “Vote `til You Get it Right.” Local 1150 members got it wrong again, turning the Reform Team’s narrow victory in the first vote into a two-to-one landslide in the re-run.

Despite his 1150 setback, Hoffa may order yet another re-run in Los Angeles Local 396, where a coalition of UPS drivers and primarily Latino sanitation workers teamed up to oust their local’s Old Guard leadership in the third try by local reformers.  The Hoffa-dominated Joint Council 42, the regional Teamster body that covers all locals in Southern California has already ordered a re-run.  An appeal sits before Hoffa.

When not ordering election re-runs, Hoffa is canceling elections altogether.  Just days after striking IBP Teamsters announced that they would run a reform slate against their do-nothing union officials, Hoffa settled the strike and put Local 556 in “emergency trusteeship,” canceling the upcoming local election.

The official appointed by Hoffa to run the local kept the entire 556 staff and officialdom in place with one exception: He removed strike leader and TDU steering committee member Maria Martinez from her elected position as IBP chief shop steward.  In early March, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the Teamsters to reinstate Martinez to her position.

The ruling, which states that “Ms.  Martinez enjoys a likelihood of success” in her legal charge that her removal constituted a violation of LMRDA Title I (a federal law known as the union member’s bill of rights), gives a boost to 556 members Martinez and Maria Sauceda, whose lawsuit against the Teamsters Union to demand an end to the Local 556 trusteeship will go to trial on June 26 in the same judge’s court.

Elsewhere, Hoffa has used mergers and local union dissolutions to avoid elections where weak old guard incumbents face opposition.

Members in New Jersey Local 617 teamed up with TDU and submitted a petition signed by hundreds asking Hoffa to end the two-year old trusteeship of their local and schedule a democratic election.  Hoffa ignored the petition, but responded by breaking up the local and parceling out the members to different allied local unions after reformers asked the Department of Labor to investigate the trusteeship.

Hoffa, the candidate, issued a “Rank and File Bill of Rights” that promised “Trusteeships free of political terror” and “No mergers or breakups of local unions without a membership vote.” Hoffa, the General President, has been a different story.

Given members’ meager legal protections and the enormous powers of the Teamsters General President’s office, Hoffa has many tools for keeping reformers in check.  Even when his strong-arm tactics backfire as at Locals 1150 and 556, Hoffa sends a message to every insurgent that the General President can make things unpleasant.

It’s a carrot-and-stick game of threats combined with dangled promises of the benefits of getting on board the Hoffa train.  Just the threat of a re-run or similar retaliation is enough to keep some would-be insurgents in check.  Opposition slates have to think twice before teaming up with TDU, Hoffa’s favorite target.

Dissidents who run as reformers face the temptation to quickly tack to the right to stay in the General President’s good graces.  With ninety percent of Teamster local officials backing Hoffa, Teamster Joint Councils firmly in his pocket, and a staff of loyal International Reps making the rounds, the pressure on reform officials to fall in line is enormous.

TDU has responded by stepping up the activity of its Reform Officers Network, which brings together reform-minded officers including non-TDU members.  Through the network, TDU, which has long assisted members in running insurgent campaigns, has begun providing more intensive support to reformers once they win office, including trainings and on-site assistance during the transition period.

While these efforts are critical, the surest strategy for keeping officers true to a reform course is to strengthen reform activism in the ranks.

Keeping Score

From the point of view of fighting corruption, promoting militancy and fostering unity, Hoffa’s first year in office has been a dismal failure.  But for would-be Teamster reformers that is, sadly, not the point.  Hoffa ran to restore officers’ perks, not Teamster power, and his unity was never meant to be anything other than fall-in-line or pay-the-consequences.

Hoffa is measuring his performance by entirely different yardmarkers than his public pronouncements.  If Hoffa were to lay out his real goals as forthrightly as his Project RISE buddies laid out their “anti-corruption” agenda, they would look something like this:

  • Clear His Plate.” Going into next year’s election for International officers, Hoffa doesn’t want messy problems lingering around, like unresolved contracts (e.g.  Anheuser-Busch and Northwest Airlines) or the Overnite organizing campaign.  Hoffa has known that he is going to suffer some losses.  His goal has been to take the hits early, and get things out of the way before election time.
  • Unity of, by and for the Old Guard. Hoffa has always been the front man for the Old Guard, who need his name and celebrity as cover.  Crucial to Hoffa’s staying power will be his ability to maintain the unified support of the different ranks and factions of the union’s officialdom, some of whom have ambitions of their own.
  • Capitalize on his celebrity status and establish himself as a legitimate labor leader. A labor lawyer who had never made a living as a Teamster and one with some unsavory friends to boot, Hoffa’s election made a lot of folks nervous.  These included AFL-CIO Prez John Sweeney, who backed Ron Carey in `96 and feared payback was coming; the Democratic National Committee, who were implicated in the Carey campaign donorgate scandal and feared the Teamsters returning to the Republican camp; and large ranks of the Teamster membership, who remained wary if not horrified at the prospect of a Hoffa General Presidency.

    Hoffa’s challenge is to prove he belongs and to use his celebrity status to build his popularity, while downplaying the seedier side of the Hoffa legacy.

  • Get the government out and isolate the reform forces. Two things stand in the way of lifetime job security for Jimmy Jr.: a government-supervised election and TDU, the union’s national rank-and-file reform movement.  Since he took office, Hoffa hasn’t made a move that wasn’t informed by this political calculus.

Grading on these goals, Hoffa’s first year on the job doesn’t look so dismal after all. Hoffa has cleared his plate at an impressive rate. The Anheuser-Busch contract is out of the way, though there Hoffa may yet pay the price.  Eighty percent of A-B Teamsters voted for Junior in `98; he assuredly doesn’t poll that well at the breweries these days.

The strike against Overnite, the largest non-union LTL (“Less than Truck Load”) carrier in the country, is also tricky.  There, Hoffa has broken the cardinal rule of the Teamster Old Guard: Don’t raise members’ expectations.  Having fired the organizing department and replaced them with Hoffa campaigners to cover the union’s largest organizing campaign, Hoffa proceeded to launch a nationwide “strike” in which only 10% of Overnite’s workers are participating.

It is possible that Hoffa will settle for anything so long as he gets Overnite under contract.  If Hoffa signs a weak agreement to represent workers at the less than half of the Overnite terminals where the union has NLRB bargaining rights, it may actually hamper efforts to organize the remaining Overnite workers.

A substandard Overnite agreement would also undermine the National Master Freight Agreement covering 100,000 Teamsters.  The impact of such a move on Hoffa’s standing with freight members is less clear.  Freight members want to see Overnite toppled.  Will any contract be perceived as better than no contract?  That remains to be seen.

Hoffa’s Old Guard Unity quest has been decisively successful.  Ninety percent of officers fell in line by the time of the election.  Since then, the trend has continued as officers bow to the only game in town.

Even in locals where reform has deep roots in the rank and file, some officers have quietly slid over to Hoffa, including half of the executive board at Local 2000, where Northwest flight attendants voted more than ten to one against Hoffa in the 1998 election, and Local 804, Hoffa nemesis Ron Carey’s former local, where Hoffa took only ten percent of the vote in 1998.

If reformers are going to stop the bleeding, insurgent slates will have to show that they can make officers pay the cost for distancing themselves from their pro-reform membership.

Hoffa’s task is to sustain his Old Guard unity over the long haul. There have already been grumblings of discontent in the Hoffa camp. The International’s free pass to UPS on subcontracting embarrassed even close Hoffa allies.  Chuck Mack, a Hoffa vice president, wants Hoffa to remove the official he named to head relations with UPS. More schisms and cracks will likely develop in the old guard monolith, especially as the Hoffa honeymoon wears off.

So far that honeymoon has been astonishing.  Eight months into Hoffa’s term, AFL-CIO leaders including so-called progressives like 1199’s Dennis Rivera and SEIU President Andy Stern honored Hoffa for his contributions to the labor movement at a dinner sponsored by the Labor Research Association.

Even President Clinton got into act. In the first appearance by a sitting U.S. President at a Teamster event since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Clinton stood with a beaming Hoffa to announce that the United States would continue to block the trucking provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which the Teamsters have strenuously opposed.  Al Gore has continued to kiss up to Hoffa in the hopes of winning the union’s endorsement in the fall.

Project RISE, the Stier-appointment and all the surrounding hoopla are designed to lay the groundwork for end government oversight of the Teamsters for good. The final edition of the RISE Code won’t be the embarrassment that the initial for-internal-consumption guidelines are, but will feature all manner of nice-sounding, toothless clauses.

The one exception will be on organized crime, where the Code will feature tough prohibitions on assorting with organized crime figures.  Remember, it’s organized crime, not sweetheart deals, no-show jobs or multiple salaries that brought the Justice Department’s RICO and the 1989 Consent Decree, which created the IRB to monitor Teamster corruption and established one-member, one-vote election of International Union officers in government-supervised elections.

Be tough on La Cosa Nostra and end the Consent Decree.  No Consent Decree, no government-supervised elections and a free hand to deal with Teamster dissidents: That’s the long-term Hoffa perspective on government intervention.

Hoffa’s PR and political deals were not enough to land him the prize he immediately treasured: no government supervision of next year’s election of International officers.  This is the only aspect of government oversight that is up for grabs in the short term.

Reformers are seeking a fully supervised election.  In February, the Justice Department and the Teamsters announced that the election will be supervised with rules similar to recent Teamster elections.  These rules provide for candidates’ “battle pages” in five Teamster magazines, a quick method of getting protests investigated and adjudicated, and a long list of protections to help level the playing field.

But Hoffa is aiming to eliminate or change a few key rules.  For example, he proposed raising contribution limits for members and candidates (to $2,000 and $10,000 respectively), which benefits those who get their funding from wealthy top officials.  The rules, lacking the judicial authority they had in previous elections, do not hold power over employers to force access to parking lots for candidates and supporters.

Most importantly for Hoffa, he is attempting to use the rules to attack TDU. He wants to limit TDU’s ability to support candidates and to force TDU to disclose the names of all its members, an obvious intimidation move. Hoffa, the Justice Department and reformers are presently arguing over these issues.

Junior’s Soft Spots

The second element of Hoffa’s lifetime security project, the isolation of TDU and reform leaders, is a long-term project.  Hoffa has used the power of his office to harass reform officials, block rank-and-file reform efforts, and continue his campaign to discredit Carey and 1998 reform candidate Tom Leedham.

At the same time, every Hoffa misstep creates organizing opportunities for TDU. Every sold-out Teamster, every member who voted for Hoffa to restore the power, is a potential recruit to the cause of rank-and-file power.

This gets to Hoffa’s weaknesses and the challenges that TDU must meet.

  • Fat-cat friends in high places.  Hoffa’s ongoing association with wretched officials at the International level creates problems for him. His appointment of the faint-hearted Dick Heck to head International’s dealings with UPS was a major blunder.  Heck’s surrender to the company on subcontracting resulted in TDU’s launching of a the national UPS Network to Defend our Contract.
  • Fat-cat friends in low places.  Hoffa’s relationship with wretched officials at the local union level brings its problems as well. TDU successfully knocked off Hoffa backers last fall in several key locals including a major Cleveland freight local, the Los Angeles UPS and sanitation local, a trucking and miscellaneous local in Tacoma, and a warehouse local in Stockton.

    In two of the largest locals in the country-Local 89 in Louisville (UPS) and Local 237 in New York (public employees)-reform slates came close to victory.  So long as Hoffa’s base fails to deliver for the members, the ranks will be restless and will generate local opposition that can carry over into opposition to Hoffa.

  • No program for restoring the power. This is Hoffa’s big dilemma.  He has enjoyed a marvelous honeymoon, but has done little to establish a sound foundation for a long-term relationship with the ranks.  Teamster employers across the board are using the full arsenal of lean production tactics to undermine working conditions and promote speedup on the job: production standards, two-tier contracts, part-time labor, subcontracting, shrinking work forces, double-breasting and on and on.

    In the face of these real attacks, how long will members be satisfied with empty symbolism?  Where TDU is growing it is because it is working with rank-and-filers to build the power to win better contracts, enforce their rights, and reform their locals into unions that fight for, not against, the members-whether those members work as UPS drivers, sanitation workers, meatpackers, public employees, brewers, flight attendants, truckers or dock workers.

It is hard to believe, but as we mark the end of Year One of Hoffa, both sides in the Teamster civil war are already gearing up for the next IBT election in 2001.  Hoffa is serving out the final three years of Carey’s five-year term that began in `96.

The Teamsters Convention, where candidates will be officially nominated, is still more than a year away, but petitioning begins June 1 to get candidates’ access to the Teamster magazine for campaign ads. Campaigns to elect Convention delegates will begin as soon as this summer and continue through spring 2001.

As we go to press, Tom Leedham has not announced his candidacy, but it is widely assumed that he will be head the reform ticket.  He has a tough job ahead.  Hoffa has all the benefits of incumbency, and the backing of a unified officialdom.

In 1998, some officers who had supported Carey were reluctant to campaign openly for Hoffa, given that they had denounced him as a mobbed-up lawyer for employers just two years earlier in the Hoffa/Carey race. With the `96 election five years behind them, these “soft switchers” won’t be so soft, a factor that could make it difficult for Leedham to match his vote tally in a number of key locals.

Hoffa’s biggest advantage may be that he hasn’t had enough to screw up. His bargaining record at Northwest, A-B, and IBP is a disaster for those who study it. But few rank-and-file Teamsters pay attention to contract results outside of their jurisdiction.  The challenge for reformers is to raise awareness of the fiascoes that Hoffa has endeavored to keep hidden.  With the UPS agreement expiring in 2002 and the NMFA in 2003, Leedham and TDU will ask freight and UPS Teamsters, “Can you trust Hoffa to negotiate your contract?”

For now, Hoffa is sitting high and mighty, and feeling pretty good after Year One of his reign.  But Teamster reform activists-who are marking twenty-five years since they began their rank-and-file struggle with the launching of Teamsters for a Decent Contract in 1975-know something about anniversaries too. Not to mention uphill fights.

The feisty rank-and-file movement is constantly seeking opportunities to expose and exploit the glaring gap between Hoffa’s pretensions and his performance.  Bring on Year Two!

Henry Phillips is a Teamster reform activist and member of Solidarity.

ATC 86, May-June 2000