Teamsters Set the Stage for Hoffa-Leedham Rematch

In some ways, the Teamsters convention in Las Vegas at the end of June was a throwback. The huge majority of delegates voted for everything the leadership proposed and against everything it opposed. As if it were a football game, they loudly cheered their team and booed their opponents.

Repeatedly, delegates would rise to speak, not on any business before the convention, but to announce how great Teamster President James P. Hoffa is. Hoffa delegates hooted down a proposal to raise strike benefits and rejected a plan to cut and cap officers’ salaries.

At the same time, the agenda of reform was present in much of the convention.

NOMINATIONS

More than half the delegates wore buttons reading "TDU Sucks," referring to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has led the fight for reform over the last quarter-century. Nevertheless, Hoffa campaign spokesperson Chip Roth held a press conference at which he recounted the history of TDU and claimed that the Hoffa administration is carrying out TDU’s reform program.

While shouting down the reformers who had put the members’ right to elect their leaders on the Teamsters’ agenda, they added that right into the union’s constitution.

The main business before the convention was the nomination of candidates for this year’s election. To get on the ballot, candidates needed the votes of five percent of the convention delegates. Hoffa got 89 percent and reformer Tom Leedham eight percent.

The outcome of the election will certainly be much closer than these lopsided results suggest. In 1998, when Hoffa and Leedham first met, Leedham got 39 percent to Hoffa’s 54 percent. Leedham clearly starts as the underdog, but he hopes to inspire the members by bringing them a message about a different kind of unionism.

"We are serious about activating Teamster members and organizing tens of thousands of new members," Leedham said in his acceptance speech on the convention’s final day. "Power requires leadership that organizes and mobilizes the ranks and unleashes their power on the job—and when necessary—in the streets."

Leedham, a former International Vice President and current principal officer of Teamsters Local 206 in Portland, Oregon, served as director of the 400,000-member Warehouse Division from 1992 to 1998.

In rallies and in his convention address, Leedham challenged Hoffa to debate him. So far, Hoffa has sidestepped such challenges. William Wertheimer, the court-appointed official overseeing the election, has said he plans to organize a debate.

GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

Aside from winning re-election, getting the government out of the union ranks as one of Hoffa’s top goals. Thus convention officials were careful to protect the badly-outnumbered reformers from any physical attack by over-enthusiastic Hoffa supporters. And Hoffa made a number of attempts—usually unsuccessful—to check the booing by his supporters when Leedham delegates spoke. "Remember that what we do here, how we act, reflects on the reputation of this great union," Hoffa said.

"Hoffa and his allies want the government out of the Teamsters so they can return to the days when union resources were treated as the personal property of high officials," said Ken Paff, TDU national organizer. "Apart from that, he has no program for what they are going to do in the union."

On the other side, the reformers emphasized a string of broken promises arising from Hoffa’s campaigns in 1996 and 1998. These included a pledge to cut and cap officers’ pay, to increase strike benefits without a dues increase, and to "restore the power."

"The people who vote in the Teamsters are extremely unhappy," said Sandy Pope, a Leedham spokesperson. "The carhaulers have been sold out. Freight members see no organizing, a failed legal strategy in the Overnite strike, and no preparation for the upcoming contract. And UPS workers, with less than a year before their contract expires, see no preparation."

RIGHT TO VOTE

The union made several constitutional changes that had been ridiculed when reformers proposed them at past conventions. One requires the election of delegates to the convention and a rank and file vote for the International’s top officers. Since 1991, these provisions have been required under the settlement of the anti-racketeering suit filed by the U.S. government, but they were not in the constitution.

The convention also approved constitutional changes giving Canadian members greater control over their dues money. Leedham endorsed the proposal, saying it could prevent the kind of splits that have occurred in other international unions where Canadian concerns have not been addressed. He credited a member of his slate, Diana Kilmury, for first raising the issue at a convention two decades ago.

This action represents an about-face by Hoffa; his supporters fought a similar proposal raised by then-Teamster President Ron Carey at the union’s last convention in 1996.

Had Hoffa to do it over again, he might not have held the convention in Las Vegas. In May, the Independent Review Board, a court-appointed oversight panel, uncovered a major scandal in Las Vegas involving two top Hoffa associates, Dane Passo and Billy Hogan Jr. The IRB found that Passo and Hogan had attempted to negotiate a sweetheart deal that would allow a Chicago company headed by Hogan’s brother to do set-up work for conventions in Las Vegas. The company planned to use nonunion workers making about half the pay and without the benefits of union employees. The Chicago company made a $5,100 payment to the James R. Hoffa Scholarship Fund.

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When Tim Murphy, the top officer of Teamsters Local 631 in Las Vegas, opposed the scam, Hoffa put his local in trusteeship. When the first trustee also objected, Hoffa had him replaced.

Murphy spoke at a rally sponsored by the reformers outside his Las Vegas local the day before the convention opened, and announced his support for Leedham. The Vegas scandal was also the subject of several major news reports during the convention.

"CORRUPTION-FREE"

It was therefore particularly ironic that one of the first actions of the convention was a proposal by Hoffa to eliminate language in the preamble to the union’s constitution stating that the union is committed to "ridding our union of corruption."

Hoffa delegate Patrick Flynn of Chicago Local 710 defended the language removal, saying, "Corruption has been cleaned out of the International…. Corruption needs to be removed from the preamble of constitution."

Joe Fahey of Teamsters Local 912 in Watsonville, California urged delegates to retain the language. He cited the Las Vegas scandal. "You’re trying to get the government out of union, so you want the government and the public to trust you," said Fahey. "But pretending the union of 1.3 million Teamsters is now corruption-free is not a good way to begin building that trust. Now, I’m sure this preamble will pass here as is. You’ve got the Hoffa Unity thing going for you all week in this hall. In fact, you’ve got so much unity here, I bet you could even pass a resolution declaring former General President Jackie Presser as tall, lean, and muscular."

That drew repeated boos from the Hoffa delegates. "This vote and this change to the preamble won’t fool anybody outside this hall," said Fahey. "It won’t change the truth." As Fahey predicted, the Teamsters declared themselves corruption-free anyway.

Tom Gilmartin, principal officer of Local 559 in Hartford, Connecticut, was nominated for secretary-treasurer on the Leedham slate, the number 2 position. Gilmartin is also a former international vice president and former director of the International’s Industrial Trades Division.

Gilmartin took the floor to urge an increase in strike benefits, which remain mired at $55 a week. He said that Hoffa’s proposal--a "blue ribbon commission" to study the union’s finances for another year--was insufficient, given that Hoffa has already been in office more than two years.

"Mr. Chairman and Brother Hoffa, when you ran for office in 1996, you made several promises," Gilmartin said. "In particular you promised to quadruple the strike fund without a dues increase. Obviously that’s not happening here today."

His voice rising over loud boos, Gilmartin continued, "Mr. Chairman, had you lived up to and not broken your promise about lower salaries, lower vice president salaries today…there would be today $4.5 million in the strike fund, and well on our way to really taking on UPS."

SALARY CAP

Leedham delegates also sought to introduce a constitutional amendment to cap officers’ salaries at $150,000, a promise Hoffa made when he first ran for president. After he was elected, Hoffa broke this pledge, kicking his salary up to $226,000, a 50 percent increase.

Holding a flyer from the 1996 campaign in which Hoffa promised to "cut the general president’s salary to $150,000, Seattle delegate Dan Scott of Local 174 argued that the amendment would "save millions of dollars to put organizers on the payroll and build the union. One hundred forty-one people on the IBT payroll receive multiple salaries, more than ever in the history of the IBT."

Like other proposals, this one also lost.

VERY PLEASED

Hoffa spokesperson Richard Leebove said the convention was "a huge success for the members…. We saw a new level of unity in the IBT."

Asked how that unity theme squared with the image of hundreds of Hoffa delegates chanting "TDU Sucks!" Leebove suggested that the reform movement is too small to be taken seriously.

TDU is "an obscure sect with very little support within the rank and file," he said. "Leedham could barely field a slate…. This appears to be a vanity campaign of Ken Paff and Tom Leedham."

Since the convention, Leedham has been on the road talking to members, doing his best to make it a real race. "To the extent that the word gets out about what they did at the convention, it’s going to hurt Hoffa," he said in New Jersey in mid-July. "They refused to fix the strike benefit even though Hoffa had made it a litmus test for the 1996 election. The Hoffa delegates did raise the meal allowance to $75 a day for Teamster officials, even while striking Teamsters get $55 a week after the second week of the strike."

Leedham added, "Now we’re getting out there with the people who will really make the decision about who is going to lead this union."