After Winning Election, Hoffa Targets Teamsters’ Right to Vote

In the wake of the November Teamster election, top officials are calling for stripping members of their right to vote for president and international executive board. Photo: Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

In the wake of the November Teamster election, top officials are calling for stripping members of their right to vote for president and international officers.

James Hoffa, president for the past 13 years, won the election with 59 percent of the vote, besting two opponents: Vice President Fred Gegare and New York local president Sandy Pope, who was backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Vice President Dan Kane then told officials in New York that it’s time to return to choosing presidents at union conventions. Other Hoffa lieutenants around the country soon floated the same line.

TDU, the reform movement within the union, is sounding the alarm to defend the right of members to elect their top officers.

FIVE MORE YEARS

Hoffa won despite a decade of declining Teamster standards, contract concessions, and pension cuts, illustrating the power of incumbency.

He raised $3 million, according to his slate’s financial reports, most of it from officials who owe their positions or power to him. His multiple mailings to the 1.3 million members were devoted to attacks on Pope. His campaign paid telemarketers to make hundreds of thousands of phone calls.

The union itself spent millions for a supposedly nonpartisan GOTV program, featuring automated phone calls from Bill Clinton and Danny DeVito (yes, the one who made the movie Hoffa).

The election supervisor also found that Hoffa and his election team had tried to bribe three high-level officials whom they wanted to deter from running, a violation Hoffa had to acknowledge in a mailing to all locals.

Pope raised about $200,000, and TDU contributed its own independent campaign support. Her phonebanks were staffed by volunteers.

A decade of corporate attacks and member demobilization took a toll on turnout and on Hoffa’s vote total. Just 20 percent of the union, 250,000 members, returned ballots.

But more important is the toll on Teamster power.

The TDU-backed candidate in the 1990s, Ron Carey, could tap a sentiment that Teamster power was real, and just needed someone willing to unleash it. And the union began to do just that, including the victorious 1997 UPS strike.

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In the recent political climate, our argument has been more difficult: that Teamster power can be rebuilt. Thousands of members are up for the challenge, and are the heart and soul of the TDU movement. But most Teamsters have been hunkered down, without great hopes of transforming the union to take on corporate power.

Where Pope and TDU had volunteers on the ground, turnout was higher and the majority voted against Hoffa. Her candidacy inspired thousands of Teamsters, many of whom had given up on our union.

SUCCESSION STRATEGY

Teamsters—unlike most North American unionists—directly elect their president and executive board, with an impartial election supervisor to oversee the process. This right was won in the late 1980s when the Justice Department brought a racketeering lawsuit against top Teamster officials and mobsters. TDU mobilized to argue against a government takeover and for members’ right to vote.

Hoffa associates are now trotting out three tired rationales for ending the right to vote: Elections have low turnout, cost a lot, and “distract” from the union’s business.

The real reason: Hoffa is 70 years old and looking for a successor before the next election. Running an untested candidate, without a famous last name, is a problem for the old guard. Between 2006 and today, Hoffa’s majority slipped by 7 percent.

So quashing the right to vote is an insurance policy against a successful insurgency in 2016.

TDU members will not be waiting for the next election. Important contracts are coming up, including the largest in the country—260,000 Teamsters—at UPS. Pope’s campaign was stronger in UPS and other national units, where Teamsters have their contracts bargained by the international, not their local.

In areas where TDU has strong local roots, the election results were dramatically different from the national result. That is the base we will build on.

The argument that rank-and-file power can rebuild the Teamsters has been a hard sell in the last year.

But anti-corporate populism shows signs of gaining steam—thanks in good part to the 99% movement. TDU embodies that spirit within the Teamsters.

Hoffa is fond of calling the Teamsters “America’s strongest union.” Our job is to do our part to make that power a reality.


Ken Paff is the national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. More analysis of election results here./i>

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #394, January 2012. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.

Comments

matt carmody (not verified) | 01/18/12

Ron Carey wasn't always an enthusiastic proponent of rank and file democracy, Ken. When you and I first met in Cleveland during the charter meeting of Teamsters for a Democratic Contract, which grew into TDU, and UPSurge, Carey was denying UPSurge members the right to speak at local meetings, violating rules of procedure to silence critics from the floor who saw him dealing with UPS bosses behind the backs of members. Shortly after the '74 strike was ended, new union members showed up to work who were significantly older than other new workers and who were associates of various groups who wanted to make sure that the workplace would be free of annoying radical elements.
Shortly after I left UPS in 1982, three of Carey's executive board members were tried and convicted of racketeering, including his treasurer and two business agents.
That being said, I can think of nothing worse for the health of the Teamsters Union going forward than Hoffa and his cabal getting what they want which is a union run by the good old boys for the good old boys.