Hoffa Now Must Negotiate the Big Teamster Contracts

James Hoffa's reelection as Teamster president came as no surprise. Hoffa took nearly 65 percent of the vote among the 25 percent of Teamsters who voted.

Even so, if there is one take-home lesson from the election, it is this: where there is an organized rank and file movement, it can beat a famous name with the officialdom and the big money behind him.

By any measure, Hoffa's official backing was enormous. In his camp were 95 percent of the thousands of local, regional, and international Teamster officials, and they ponied up over $3 million for his campaign-nearly 10 times what his opponent, Tom Leedham, raised. It was the first time in the four Teamster elections over the last decade that officials were not divided among themselves.

Employers joined the campaign, too. UPS management announced that they preferred to deal with Hoffa. The Detroit News, which had defeated the Teamsters and stolen hundreds of good jobs in a five-year newspaper strike, endorsed him. So did President Bush, on Labor Day in Detroit. (In a rare ad lib, Bush added that he didn't know if his endorsement would "help [Hoffa] or hurt him.")

Given that alignment, how did Tom Leedham and his Rank & File Power Slate take 35 percent of the vote, and win in key groups of Teamsters?

Where the Teamster reform movement-TDU-has a strong, organized presence, Leedham won. That's how he won in 68 locals, in six states and Puerto Rico, and how he split 50-50 a few other states and Ontario.


Minnesota, for example, boasts a solid TDU chapter, which reached out to diverse sectors and campaigned hard. The 45,000 Minnesota Teamsters gave Leedham a clear majority, even though Hoffa's number-two man, Tom Keegel, heads the state apparatus. Hoffa even brought Minnesota Senators Wellstone and Dayton to his big campaign rally, to no avail.

Most Teamsters who have actually experienced Hoffa voted for Leedham. Hoffa bargained just four contracts in his three years in office: at Anheuser Busch's 12 breweries, for carhaulers, for Northwest Airlines flight attendants, and a contract at Detroit Newspapers.

The 7,000 Teamsters at Anheuser Busch voted for Hoffa by 80 percent in 1998. By the 2001 election, they had experienced just how impressed management is with the Hoffa name. Concessions in jobs, contracting out, and working conditions were forced on them. In November, they voted by 70 percent for Leedham. The Detroit Newspaper strikers, who had backed Hoffa previously, went for Leedham too.

A majority of the 12,000 carhaulers voted for Leedham, and the 10,000 Northwest flight attendants did so by 89 percent.

Luckily for Hoffa, these groups total only about 30,000 out of 1.4 million Teamsters. It was in locals where the members have contact neither with the International union nor with the reform movement that the power of the officialdom, its money, and name recognition could carry the day.


Hoffa's first tests in negotiating very big and visible contracts are coming quickly.



Give $10 a month or more and get our "Fight the Boss, Build the Union" T-shirt.

The contract covering 200,000 Teamsters at United Parcel Service expires July 31. UPS management is well aware that Hoffa has not led a single strike in his life, except for the doomed Overnite strike that he called soon after taking office. In 2003 comes the National Master Freight Agreement, covering another 100,000 of the union's drivers. TDU has built support in both units over the years.

UPS Teamsters got a taste of rank and file power in 1997 during their 15-day strike that won 10,000 new full-time jobs. Leedham won the UPS locals in most big cities-New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle, Portland, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Atlanta, Louisville, Memphis, Charlotte, Buffalo, and others-despite the defection of a key official. Ken Hall, who was the UPS division director under former President Ron Carey and a leader of the 1997 strike, prominently endorsed Hoffa.

TDU, which played a major role in the 1997 strike, is planning a rank and file contract campaign among UPS Teamsters, who cannot expect much leadership from the International.


Despite Hoffa's sizeable victory, he failed to achieve his top goal, which was to not have any election at all. The Hoffa machine campaigned hard in delegate elections to deny Leedham and his slate enough delegates to be nominated at the Teamster convention last June. Failing that, they carried on a propaganda campaign demanding that the Rank & File Power candidates withdraw "to save the union $10 million wasted on an election."

Leedham was not only nominated, but ran a competitive race with a slate of 21. He put together the most diverse and forward-looking slate that has ever run in a Teamster election.

The substance of the Hoffa campaign was essentially chants of "Hoffa" and "unity." Their unity is unity of top officials (and often employers), but does not include hundreds of thousands of Teamsters. Hoffa's General Executive Board includes 23 whites and 23 men, of 24 total.

Hoffa's goal was to crush TDU and prove that the union is so "united" around Hoffa that elections are irrelevant. He failed badly in that goal. Teamster, including those who voted for Hoffa, want elections to hold their leaders accountable. The reform movement has won that debate.


The Hoffa administration has already had an unwholesome impact on the broader labor movement, and there are indications that impact may worsen. Hoffa successfully pushed the AFL-CIO to back President Bush on oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

At the recent AFL-CIO convention, the Teamsters' number one resolution was to get AFL-CIO backing to demand that "the government relinquish control over the Teamsters Union." This means to end the consent order which requires impartially supervised elections for top officers and an Independent Review Board to investigate and judge officials charged with corruption.

It's not a surprise that the AFL-CIO readily adopted the resolution, but were delegates aware that Hoffa wants to make a deal with the Bush administration? It is widely believed in the union that Hoffa wants to trade an endorsement of Bush in 2004 for an end to the consent order. Getting out from under government oversight is Hoffa's number one goal for this five-year term-because he believes that will grease the way for as many more five-year terms as he wants.

TDU members have been at it for 25 years, and our movement is actually stronger than ever. There is no way TDU, on its own, could have taken 35 percent of the vote against a united officialdom ten or even five years ago.

But the Teamster reform movement has never been primarily about elections-although we certainly prefer to win them. For now, the Teamster reform movement will thankfully put international union politics aside, and concentrate on developing new leaders and winning good contracts.

Ken Paff is an organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union