'Viva Las Vegas,' Says Hoffa, Teamsters' 'Street-Fightin' Man'
LAS VEGAS—When I was involved in the planning of annual labor conferences in Atlantic City, I once tried to find out what our 400 local officers, executive board members, and stewards really thought about conducting union business in places where all-night drinking and gambling is not only permitted but actively encouraged. As one might suspect, there was a division of opinion.
On the conference evaluation forms we collected, roughly half the delegates turned out to be bigger boosters of Atlantic City than the local Chamber of Commerce or Donald Trump. They reported having a great time and insisted that the Communications Workers return to the same place ever after.
The other 50 percent of participants concluded—correctly, in my view—that any meeting in Atlantic City was an abomination, verging on trade union mortal sin. Never bring us back here, they demanded. Even if the hotels and casinos are unionized and supposedly inexpensive—and the conference itself has some educational content—Atlantic City will never be a good place to build CWA, said these outraged local leaders.
If any such survey was ever conducted in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), I feel certain the results were much less conflicted. Or maybe the official poll-takers liked the idea that little or nothing of substance would ever be accomplished in close proximity to craps tables and the slots. In any event, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) is back in Vegas for a costly celebration of its present leadership that has little substantive connection to any workplace threats facing the union rank and file.
Charms and Distractions
Five thousand delegates, guests, and friends are gathered here at Bally’s Hotel and Casino, amid charms and distractions that put the Jersey Shore to shame. In this heavily air-conditioned city, already over-stuffed with glitzy amusements, any business union hierarchy laying claim to the loyalty of an active and retired officialdom—plus its assembled spouses, girlfriends, or families—for six long days and nights can’t afford to stint on hospitality or production values.
That’s why the union now headed by James P. Hoffa is spending millions of dues dollars this week on the care, feeding, housing, and entertainment of a small fraction of the membership, consisting mainly of delegates fond of his leadership (to varying degrees), along with two groups of dissenters whose presence is only grudgingly tolerated.
A long string of staff- and consultant-crafted speeches, resolutions, and video presentations, plus greetings from various dignitaries, will fill out most of the delegates’ taxing schedule. If opening day is any guide, the daily proceedings will begin at 9:30, the convention will break for a lunch requiring two hours or more, and delegates will adjourn no later than 4:30 sharp.
The IBT convention won’t reach its dramatic peak until later in the week. On Thursday, presidential candidates will be nominated, and those who garner 5 percent of the delegate vote will deliver their acceptance speeches to much applause or resounding boos on Friday morning. Currently in that race is Hoffa himself, plus two opposition candidates.
One is Fred Gegare, a dissident IBT executive board member from Wisconsin who has become a vocal Hoffa critic. The other is a grassroots challenger, Sandy Pope, leader of Local 805 in New York and longtime activist in Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). If either demonstrates the minimum delegate support, Hoffa will be sharing the ballot in a referendum vote this fall involving all 1.3 million members.
Voter Turn-Out, Las Vegas-Style
Yesterday, things got off to a bully start at the Bally with a well-attended pep rally for Hoffa, who would much prefer to have no election at all. The Hoffa-fest was held outside, in the already-searing desert sun, before the official proceedings got under way. Fresh from a $100-per-person fundraiser on Sunday night, several thousand dutiful and placard-waving supporters of Hoffa and his running-mate for secretary-treasurer, Ken Hall, packed the palm-tree-lined driveway. Most were wearing the ubiquitous red vests of the “Hoffa-Hall Team.”
Rally organizers used a sound truck to warm up the already sweating crowd with a series of call-and-response chants, plus a musical sound track that was canned for the moment but impressively live several hours later, when surprise guest and Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member Tom Morello took the stage to sing a few songs.
Unfortunately, as the morning unfolded, the play list became increasingly out of whack with the visual images it accompanied. Hoffa’s rally DJ kicked things off, appropriately enough, with Elvis belting out “Viva Las Vegas,” before moving on to Chumbawamba. (How could we do without that band’s tub-thumping ode to “pissing the night away” in light of where many in the throng had spent the evening before?)
Hoffa campaign cheerleaders then led his supporters through a series of chest-thumping chants. The most relevant seemed to be “Don’t think small, vote Hoffa-Hall!”—a slogan that clearly resonated in a crowd trending toward Triple X in its T-shirt sizes.
The stumpy 70-year-old president soon took the stage to lead his own cheers (“Five More Years! Five More Years!”) before announcing his satisfaction at seeing, in front of him, nothing but “a sea of red” that was just “unbelievable.” This is, he assured his audience, “a moment in history and you are part of history.”
He closed his speech with the faintly ominous reminder that it was time to “go in and make sure we kick some ass and win this.” (Hoffa was not talking here about any employer’s ass; corporate America’s rhetorical horse-whipping would come later in the proceedings.)
Won’t Get Fooled Again
After the sea of red reassembled in the convention center, the overhead lights were dimmed and the sound of Harleys filled the hall. The huge stage and delegate section in the front of the room were briefly encircled by a Teamsters honor guard on wheels, gunning its engines to the sounds of The Who belting out “Won’t Get Fooled Again”—an odd choice for an incumbent. Hoffa then made his own grand appearance to the strains of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.”
Introductions of the Teamster executive board and division directors provided an opportunity for lusty booing of Gegare and several of his similarly wayward running-mates.
Hoffa next took center stage to tell the delegates that labor is much better off with Barack Obama than it was under Bush. The role of the White House in pushing job-killing trade deals or disappointing labor in other ways went politely unmentioned. Instead, Hoffa praised the president for appointing Hilda Solis, the daughter of a Teamster shop steward, as his secretary of labor.
Hoffa proudly cited the 135,000 new members recruited under his leadership in the last five years, but conspicuously failed to mention one of the largest bargaining units recently acquired—an independent union of clerical workers at the University of California. The 14,000 members of the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), now IBT Local 2010, sent a delegation to the convention largely composed of Sandy Pope supporters.
Hoffa also claimed that the “Teamsters have organized more than any other union in North America” (a first-place finish actually accomplished by the Service Employees, his partner in the never-mentioned Change To Win coalition).
Freedom of Speech, Sort Of
The first order of business was Resolution 37, drafted ostensibly to project an action plan for stopping management’s “war on workers” through membership education and mobilization (subjects on which there will be no convention workshops).
In the first “resolved” was a stirring passage declaring that “the Teamsters Union will unite with all those who share our Vision of an America where working people have…the right to free speech and assembly.” But in the final “be it resolved,” convention delegates decided to “make every effort in the course of the next six months of campaigning for International Union office to refrain from public pronouncements that can be used by the enemies of workers to undermine the strength of our union and our common fight to Stop the War on Workers.” Resolution 37 was passed quickly and with no discussion of implementation.
CUE member Claudette Begin went to the mike later in the day to offer a friendly amendment to a resolution about fighting back in the public sector. Begin was bravely sporting Sandy Pope regalia, so maybe she wasn’t dressed right, or perhaps the chair (Hoffa) just didn’t see her. In any event, she never got recognized, “debate” was quickly ended, and the resolution was rubber-stamped as written.
It was a lesson in “free speech and assembly,” Teamster-style, that did not sit well with the delegate from Berkeley, California. But then, in the IBT, what is said and what is done are often very different, both at union conventions and back home.
Steve Early is the author of The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor from Haymarket Books and a former staff member of the Communications Workers. He has been writing about Teamster politics since 1977 and is in Las Vegas reporting on the Teamsters convention for Labor Notes and In These Times, where this article was cross-posted.