How Much Harm Can Hoffa Do?

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

The election of James P. Hoffa as president of the nation’s largest unionhas been greeted by many on the left as nothing short of a disaster, thoughmany of the Teamsters voting for the man did so in the expectation thathe would bring added clout to the union in its dealings with the bosses.CounterPuncher JoAnn Wypijewski met a couple of Teamsters at a gatheringof the Association for Union Democracy in New York, where one of them said,”I really think they [ie, the bosses] are going to be afraid of him”.The record suggests this man be cruelly disappointed.

Before he took control of the Teamsters, James P. Hoffa was favored byCongressman Peter Hoekstra and other Republicans bent on choking off unionspending in politics. Now Hoffa vows to support Republicans and create thebiggest PAC in labor, because, he says, it’s money that gets Congress’sattention.

In his campaign against Tom Leedham and the Rank & File Power slate,Hoffa got the assist of management under Teamsters contract at UPS, Anheuser-Busch,Roadway, Strohs, USA Waste, Certified Grocers, Lipton Co., Fleming Foods,Price Club/Costco (and that’s just the group that was reprimanded and finedby the court-appointed Election Officer). Now he pledges he’ll usher fortha “new militancy” against employers. (This is the same man whofirst opposed the 1997 UPS strike and didn’t have the nerve to debate Leedham.)

Following the annulled 1996 Teamsters election, federal monitors finedHoffa’s campaign almost $200,000 for filing false financial reports andforced “Junior” to sever his ties with the man behind the campaign’sdirty tricks, Richard Leebove. Years earlier, Leebove was also one of thebrains behind BLAST, a goon squad that physically assaulted reformers inTeamsters for a Democratic Union. Now Hoffa, whose own chicanery in 1996is still under internal review, calls for an end to government oversightof the Teamsters and proposes to hire former FBI agents as the union’s privateinvestigators. It’s not likely that those corrupt Teamster officials whoeither sponsored Hoffa or ran on his slate (men pulling down annual salariesto the tune of $468,407, $274,527, $225,000 and so on) would be the firsttargets of his “watchdog” efforts.

No question, Hoffa’s victory is bad news all around, but one needs asense of perspective. After all, he’s not the only thug in organized labor.The others just operate under less of a spotlight. For some time now, there’sbeen talk that a Hoffa takeover of the biggest union in the country couldspell the end for the Sweeney team at the AFL-CIO. It’s true that John Sweeneycould not have risen to power in 1995 without the Teamsters, but this isnot 1995; unseating an AFL-CIO establishment is not a simple project. Perhapsas insulation against a possible challenge, Sweeney got union delegatesin 1997 to extend his term from two years to four, meaning his next electionwill be in 2001, the same year Hoffa has to defend his own seat. Sweeneydidn’t get where he is because he’s a radical visionary or audacious leaderbut because he’s an expert politician. After playing to his left the firsttwo years or so of his tenure, he’s lately been more conscientious aboutmollifying the right, the pork-choppers in the state federations of laborand the international unions who’ve had it with all the talk of organizingand “street heat,” had it with the militants who threaten theircomfortable way of doing business. Internal union democracy is not an issuefor the AFL-CIO, whose first concern is to make sure no one defects. TheTeamsters pay $7 million a year in per capita dues to the federation, afact undoubtedly in the forefront of Sweeney’s mind when, immediately afterthe election results were posted, he declared that Hoffa “has the potentialto be a great leader”. (For a sense of the turnaround, recall thatSweeney’s second, AFL secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka, is still underinvestigation for shuttling money into Ron Carey’s re-election campaignagainst Hoffa in 1996.)

For rank-and-file democrats in the Teamsters, it’s not the end of theworld, either. The road to reform is a long one. The road to radical reformis longer still. When Ron Carey became Teamsters president in 1991, Teamstersfor a Democratic Union found itself in a delicate position, almost as theparty of the party in power. That had its up side-the Teamsters did becomea fighting union-and down side, as loyalty required assent when “uniondemocrat” came to mean anyone who won without rigging an election,anyone who supported Carey; as the “reform” label became so malleablethat finally even Hoffa could wear it.

In the interim between Carey’s disqualification and Hoffa’s victory,TDU returned to organizing pitched challenges in local elections, winningcontrol of many locals formerly in the hands of Hoffa men, and realizingthat maybe it’s time to pay a bit more attention to the union’s marginalizedranks, particularly the low-wage Latinos under Teamsters contracts. In thepresidential race, activists working the field for only five months heldHoffa to 55 percent of the vote, denying him his longed-for landslide. Howeverugly things get, too much has happened in the Teamsters for Hoffa to achievetotal rollback. Right now, his mentor and former boss, Larry Brennan ofMichigan, is being investigated for using members’ dues to finance his ownlocal election.

Two others from Hoffa’s winning slate could also soon find themselvesthrown out of their new jobs and maybe out of the union, one of them (TomO’Donnell from Long Island) for hiring a convicted felon, paid through hiswife, to work on the 1996 Hoffa campaign. But even if he and his cronieswere suddenly to follow every law to the letter, Junior Hoffa is liableto make countless slips that disappoint the members.

He remains the darling of the Wall Street Journal, the friend of businessbosses, a labor leader who’s never organized a thing in his life. That’sdeep history, and for the reform crowd it heightens the political challenge,even more than the institutional one. CP

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