Where Do Hoffa’s Tactics Fit in a Mob-Free Teamsters?

The Teamsters union has released a voluminous report that purports to demonstrate that the union is virtually corruption-free. The report documents that mob influence in our union is on the decline. But it fails to make its central case: that the leadership of James Hoffa is cleaning up the Teamsters union.

The report’s omissions speak volumes on this point. In all 526 pages, you never learn that Hoffa’s special assistant was expelled from the Teamsters earlier this year for attempting to cut a sweetheart deal in Las Vegas to undermine the wages and working conditions of Teamster members. Nor do you learn that Hoffa’s first running mate was expelled for the same corrupt scheme. Or that his current executive assistant was likewise implicated in the scandal, though not charged.

You will not find out that Hoffa’s life-long friend and aide, Mike Bane of Pontiac, was recently removed from the union for giving false testimony about his organized crime associations. Or that other top officers have been charged and ousted for corruption.

None of these individuals were disciplined by Hoffa’s housecleaning operation Project RISE. In fact, in each case, Hoffa declined to take action, leaving the job to the Independent Review Board (IRB), the three-person panel charged under the consent order with ridding the Teamsters of corruption.

Now Hoffa is trying to rid the union of the IRB. Thus the voluminous report.

To press Hoffa’s case, Ed Stier, the former prosecutor and principal author of the Teamster report, narrowly defines corruption as mob infiltration. Since Hoffa’s corrupt associates are not made men, they’re written out of the report. But you don’t have to be a Tony Soprano to be a union thug. The report takes no interest in Hoffa’s heavy-handed abuses of union power to stifle dissent. No mention of Hoffa’s hostile takeovers (trusteeships) of local unions where reform leaders are on the rise. Not a word about the many documented cases of threats and retaliation against Teamster reformers.

The report even overlooks the shady characters in Hoffa’s inner circle who were implicated in the federal racketeering case that led to the establishment of the IRB in the first place. Take Detroit’s own Richard Leebove. In the 1980s, Leebove organized the BLAST goon squads that attacked dissenting Teamster members, as documented by the President’s Commission on Organized Crime. Today, he is a top Hoffa communications and campaign adviser.

Not to worry, the report says. Hoffa should only have to act against corruption after the IRB is out of business. Hoffa has attacked the IRB as too expensive. At some $2.5 million a year, it’s a bargain compared with Hoffa’s own anti-corruption program Project RISE. The just-released report cost Teamster members $3 million, and RISE has not removed a single corrupt official.

The RISE report claims a culture of democracy and anti-corruption is taking root in the Teamsters. We agree. But it has come despite the Hoffa administration, not because of it.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the reform movement of Teamster members, has fought for 26 years to build a strong, democratic Teamsters union. We provided the blueprint for the one-member one-vote system in the union and fought to win it. Our members have been on the front lines of Teamster struggles from the Detroit Newspapers strike to winning democratic reforms like majority rule on Teamster contract votes.

TDU would like to see the IRB phased out. But we also want to see a proven, independent mechanism in place in our union with a track record for fighting corruption and protecting the rights of members.

Just as important, Teamster members want a guarantee of independently supervised elections, under fair rules, for top Teamster officers. The new report fails to note that Hoffa has set in motion a system in which he will write the rules and choose the umpire for the next Teamster election. Who wouldn’t want to play ball under those circumstances?

Actions speak louder than words. A $3 million report that says the leadership is cleaning up the union is no substitute for an actual track record of action on the issue.

KEN PAFF, formerly a Teamster truck driver, is the national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in Detroit.