In Low Turnout, Hoffa Reelected Teamster President
James Hoffa has been overwhelmingly reelected president of the Teamsters. With well over half the votes counted as Labor Notes went to press, Hoffa was taking nearly two-thirds.
Member turnout was down from the previous election. Only 22 percent of the members had returned their ballots. The Hoffa campaign attributed the low turnout to voter fatigue, citing three IBT presidential elections in five years, plus delegate and local union elections. It also cited the anthrax scare as discouraging people from opening letters postmarked Washington.
The Rank and File Power reform slate, led by Tom Leedham, was getting about 34 percent of the vote, down from the 39 Leedham received in a three-way race in 1998. According to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the vote reflects the three million dollar campaign war chest that Hoffa accumulated, the support he received from 95 percent of Teamster local officials who wanted to be in the good graces of the International, and hardly any bargaining history to defend.
In the two years Hoffa has been in office, he has overseen contract negotiations for carhaulers, Iowa Beef, Northwest Airlines, and Budweiser. In all of these jurisdictions, Hoffa was convincingly defeated. But these contracts represent less than four percent of the Teamster membership. The vast majority of Teamsters have not experienced a Hoffa-negotiated contract, so his name recognition, national visibility, and glossy campaign materials allowed him to carry the day.
Workers at Anheuser Busch voted heavily for Hoffa in 1998, but this year 68 percent backed Leedham-a commentary on what TDU calls "the worst contract in the history of the brewery industry." The Leedham slate easily carried Iowa Beef, carhaul, and Northwest Airlines locals, despite low voter turnout. Several flight attendants at Northwest have said they would rather decertify and reaffiliate with the Association of Flight Attendants than work another five years under Hoffa.
"To Hoffa, democracy was a slogan," said Matt Ginsburg, Leedham's campaign coordinator. "Without having a rank and file campaign, there would be almost no issues on the table. His campaign has been: 'I'm Hoffa, vote for me.' We raised many important issues that have defined the campaign-negotiating strong contracts, the need to organize especially in freight, and a proactive stance to rooting out corruption in the union."
Hoffa's number one campaign issue was unifying the union, said Hoffa spokesperson Richard Leebove. "The union has been through civil war-brother against brother, sister against sister. We worked tirelessly to unify the union," he said. "We want a unified and progressive union and don't want to see any more of the negativity that the Leedham campaign promoted."
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Hoffa's reelection has broad implications in a number of areas. It could mean a shift to the right at the AFL-CIO. It was the Teamsters that pushed the AFL to back President Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
The IBT will be tempted to endorse Bush for reelection in exchange for an end to federal oversight of the union, although the Teamsters' success at limiting Mexican trucking in the U.S. will cause friction with the Administration's free trade agenda.
An end to federal oversight will mean stronger attacks on reformers in the Teamsters, since the international will get to run its own elections and members will have to appeal to the General Executive Board if faced with corruption in their locals. It also means multiple salaries will continue to grow. There are now 199 Teamster officials who earn over $100,000. During Hoffa's tenure, this elite club has increased its take from the union by over $11 million dollars, while the organizing budget has been cut by 63 percent. Hoffa's reelection means the Teamsters will continue to lose members.
Ginsburg says that RISE, the internal review body created by Hoffa, has spent millions of dollars but has not held a single hearing. "If they were serious about ending corruption to replace [the government], they would have done it by now and they haven't."
The UPS contract, which comes up for renegotiation next year, will be Hoffa's first large-scale test as a bargainer. So far, management doesn't seem too worried. TrafficWorld, a trade journal, reported that UPS management is "enjoying a lovefest with Hoffa." It seems certain that there will be no repeat of the last contract campaign at UPS, which reinvigorated the entire labor movement and showed the power of the rank and file.
UPS will likely try to gain control of the pension plan, as it did in 1997. Other issues will include the company's growing non-union work in logistics and technology, and the use of technology to track and deskill package car drivers.
"The UPS contract will be a challenge for all Teamsters," acknowledged Ginsburg. "While Hoffa has promised to negotiate a strong UPS contract, he does things behind closed doors and from top down. The folks in the reform movement will be fighting on the front lines for a strong UPS contract."