Can Hoffa "Restore the Power"?

On the strength of his dad's reputation, Jimmy Hoffa Jr. now has three years to run the Teamsters Union. But from now on, the magic Hoffa name counts for less.

In the coming months, rank and file Teamsters will care more about what Hoffa does than what his name is. The issues that will count are the same ones that built the Teamsters reform movement in the 70s and 80s: contracts, the grievance procedure, organizing, union democracy--the kind of things that make an everyday difference to rank and file members.

The reform movement will, in the words of its presidential candidate, Tom Leedham, be able to "hold [Hoffa's] feet to the fire" because the election was not the landslide Hoffa had earlier predicted.

The final unofficial count gave Hoffa 195,598 votes (54.5 percent) to Leedham's 141,113 (39.3 percent). John Metz, another anti-Hoffa candidate who did not campaign seriously, drew 22,037. Just over 28 percent of the union's membership cast ballots.

While the vote is a serious setback for the Teamster reform movement, at the same time the results suggest that reformers retain a strong position in the union. They were, after all, fighting pretty strong odds.

They had little money, little support from local union officials, only about six months to campaign, and a candidate who was not well known. One UPS driver in western Michigan said that while he voted for Leedham, he was concerned because Leedham "came out of nowhere."

In contrast, Hoffa has the most famous name in Teamster history. He was endorsed by 90 percent of union officials. And he had been campaigning for four years, during which time he spent $6 million.

In his current campaign alone, Hoffa outspent Leedham 7-1. Hoffa's campaign spending was over $1.5 million, plus another half million dollars in legal and accounting fees, which are reported separately. Including his legal and accounting fees, Leedham spent about $275,000.

Leedham's situation was not too different from 1991 when a local Teamster president, Ron Carey, came from nowhere to win the union's first one-member, one-vote election. Carey was vastly outspent, and had no more support from local officials than did Leedham. The key difference then was that Carey had two years to campaign.

Like Carey in '91, Tom Leedham campaigned tirelessly from one workplace to the next. Together with the activists in Teamsters for a Democratic Union, he managed to make the election a real race. "Our campaign for rank and file power ran out of time," Leedham said.


Although he drew 25,000 fewer votes this time than during his losing campaign in 1996, Hoffa won all four U.S. regions and Canada. His supporters won all International Executive Board positions except for two Canadian vice president positions, which were taken by independents.

The election was closest in the South, where Hoffa won by only a thousand votes. The most lopsided vote in a large local was Northwest Airlines flight attendants' 3,222-300 endorsement of Leedham.

For the most part, Leedham did well in locals which--like the flight attendants--have been involved in big contract fights or which have national contracts and which therefore have more contact with the international union and more of a stake in what it does.

A TDU analysis shows that Leedham defeated Hoffa in those locals which have a significant freight or UPS membership. Leedham edged out Hoffa in the 153 such locals in the four U.S. regions, 70,000-69,000. In the remaining 353 U.S. locals, Hoffa won, 119,000-66,000.

Though it's not possible to break out precise numbers, it's clear that UPSers went for Leedham by big margins.

"In their national strike last year, UPS Teamsters had a taste of the kind of rank and file power that Leedham was promoting, and they want more of it," said TDU organizer Ken Paff.

In the smaller, more diverse shops, Paff said, "it takes longer to reach the members, and most of them had heard of only one candidate--Hoffa."

Paff said that Leedham phone bankers found many members who knew Hoffa was running but didn't like him. Yet when told about Leedham, they wouldn't vote for him either since they'd never heard of him.


Hoffa will take office as soon as the court-appointed elections officer certifies the election. But already there is a cloud over his administration.

Two of Hoffa's newly-elected vice presidents are being investigated by the government-established Independent Review Board, and the charges in one of these cases could spill over to Hoffa himself.

On December 3, the IRB charged Tom O'Donnell with filing false financial reports to hide the fact that he had employed a convicted felon, Kevin Currie, to run Hoffa's New York office in the 1996 campaign. Currie was convicted of grand larceny in 1992. In order to avoid paying a convicted felon, O'Donnell issued the paychecks to Currie's wife.

In October 1996, the national Hoffa campaign began paying Currie's salary -- and it continued the practice of paying it to Currie's wife. The federal elections officer who investigated Hoffa's 1996 campaign found both O'Donnell and Hoffa guilty of signing false campaign expense reports.

"It is logical to conclude the IRB would file charges against Hoffa, who did the exact same thing [as O'Donnell]," said Steve Trossman, Leedham's campaign manager.

Another newly-elected vice president, James Santangelo, is facing IRB charges that he had his local make illegal loans and that he distributed severance pay to local union employees, including himself, who were still on the payroll.

Since Hoffa first began campaigning for the Teamster presidency, five other of his announced running mates were forced to resign from his slate because of charges of wrongdoing. These included Hoffa's first secretary-treasurer candidate, Billy Hogan Jr., who is famous for saying, "I'm living proof that nepotism works."


When he takes office, Hoffa will have to handle a number of key issues that will shape his three-year term. These include:




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Only one national contract will expire during Hoffa's term. The carhaul contract expires May 31; it covers the 12,000 Teamsters who deliver new cars from factories to dealers. It took a three-week strike in 1995 to win job security improvements, along with increased wages and pensions.

  • In addition, there are several other high-profile contracts which are unresolved. Teamsters at Anheuser-Busch are working under a concessionary contract imposed by the company. Earlier, a contract campaign had mobilized many members and showed great promise. But after Ron Carey was forced from office, the international union and the A-B negotiating committee, which is controlled by Hoffa supporters, gave it up.

  • Ten thousand Northwest Airlines flight attendants have been without a contract for 18 months.

  • Detroit Newspaper Teamsters have received significant support from the international in their campaign of harassment against Gannett and Knight-Ridder. Though they are not close to a contract, their campaign has increased the cost of the newspapers' union-busting."We do think there can be a solution," Hoffa told the Detroit Sunday Journal."I can't talk about everything we're doing. But there are solutions."


UPS is the big one here, having announced that it will not honor the 1997 contract settlement which required it to combine existing part-time jobs to create full-time positions. The biggest union victory in years is in jeopardy. Will Hoffa organize the same kind of membership mobilization that originally won the strike? Not too likely; he's said that the strike wouldn't have been needed if he'd been in charge.


The Carey administration made great strides towards organizing Overnite, the largest non-union trucking company. Can Hoffa finish the job? Can he build on the early steps the Teamsters have taken towards organizing FedEx ground workers? Will he support the apple packing workers' organizing campaign in Washington state?


Hoffa's campaign platform called for "political action that delivers instead of blindly passing out DRIVE money to politicians who do nothing for Teamsters." (DRIVE is the Teamsters' political action arm.)

At first glance, this doesn't sound too far different from Ron Carey's promise not to endorse anti-labor politicians just because they were Democrats.

One difference is that Hoffa may not have much interest in mobilizing the members for political goals. He once said that a powerful union needs two things: a strong leader, and a big bank account.

Another difference may be that when Hoffa rails against "politicians who do nothing for Teamsters," he may mean those "who do nothing for Teamster leaders." Before reformers took control of the union in 1992, the Teamsters frequently endorsed Republican candidates, and there are signs that history may repeat itself. During his campaign, Hoffa worked closely with Rep. Peter Hoekstra, an anti-labor Republican from Michigan whose subcommittee was investigating the union.


AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, who raised money for Carey in 1996, told the New York Times that his union's approach to politics is not that different from Hoffa's. "Our union and the [AFL-CIO] are not captive to the Democratic Party," he said. "This year we supported more Republicans than ever before."

Whether Hoffa's victory will lead to a rightward drift on political action and other issues at the AFL-CIO is yet to be seen. But AFL-CIO leaders, with an eye on the Teamsters' $7 million a year in dues payments, are scrambling to mend fences. Federation president John Sweeney praised Hoffa's "strong new leadership." "The AFL-CIO," he said, "needs...the involvement of Jim Hoffa."


Another set of issues will determine whether the internal union reforms of the last seven years continue or are rolled back.

Will the newly-elected officers continue to accept multiple salaries? At the Teamsters' 1996 convention, Hoffa said he would put a cap of $150,000 on the total salaries (from all union positions) that international union officers and staff are paid. That would mean a substantial pay cut for some of his running mates, who now make up to $225,000.

What sort of appointments will Hoffa make? Will he follow Ron Carey's lead in putting rank and filers on contract negotiating teams?

Will Hoffa's appointees to the Ethical Practices Committee take action against corrupt and anti-democratic practices throughout the union? Or will Hoffa make good on another of his promises, this one to "restore local autonomy"--which reformers say means allowing local officials to plunder their locals, as many did in the pre-Carey era.

One early Hoffa appointment demonstrates more loyalty to the new president's old guard pals than to ethical practices. As part of his transition team, Hoffa selected Carlo Scalf, a business agent for Detroit Local 337. Scalf has admitted that he illegally collected kickbacks from Local 337 staff and funnelled the money to Local 337 President Larry Brennan's 1996 reelection campaign.

Another key issue is how Hoffa will spend the international union's money. Hoffa has promised to cut the international union's spending. This fits with the consistent old guard theme that the Carey administration spent wildly and bankrupted the union.

Carey in fact cut spending on multiple salaries, eliminated free lunches for headquarters staff, shut down the unnecessary regional conferences, and eliminated an officers-only pension plan. He boosted spending on organizing, communications with members, and contract campaigns.

If Hoffa plans to substantially cut spending, it is difficult to see how he can do it without scuttling the international's work in these areas.


TDU says it will be watching Hoffa's actions carefully. "If old guard officials like Hoffa are ready to change their stripes and mobilize members to take on corporate greed, we certainly will support them," said TDU's Ken Paff. "But if they go back to corruption and backroom deals with employers, then rank and file Teamsters will be there to fight back at every turn."

TDU says it will not limit its role to watchdog, but will keep building its movement. A small example of what they hope to do occurred on Long Island even as reformers were losing the national election: TDU member Gerry Whelan was elected to the top position in Local 805, defeating the incumbent 2-1.

Paff notes that wherever TDU was active, Leedham won. Among his organization's goals, he sees recruiting more activists and building a base for reform in more areas. This will be done by organizing over things like contracts, shop issues, local elections, and bylaws reform campaigns.

TDUers intend to work closely with Tom Leedham to continue the reform movement. TDU's national leadership is planning two days of meetings early in the new year to evaluate the election and to set plans for the coming months. Leedham is expected to participate in these discussions