Can Teamsters “Change To Win” With Hoffa At The Helm?


uring last year’s debate about revitalizing
the AFL-CIO, members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) watched
with amazement and then dismay as their national union leader was
repeatedly described as an “insurgent,” “dissident,”
and “reformer.” 

For three decades, such labels have been routinely applied to TDU
activists—for good reason—but never to a Teamster president
backed by the union’s conservative officialdom. James P. Hoffa
earned these media sobriquets as a strange new bedfellow of Service
Employees (SEIU) President Andy Stern and his breakaway AFL-CIO
faction, now known as the Change to Win Coalition (CTWC). Yet, recent
press clips aside, many working Teamsters see little evidence that
their own union has “changed to win” since Hoffa took
office eight years ago. 

This matters now because Hoffa, unlike Stern, is up for re-election—
not at a typical union convention dominated by headquarters staff
and officials, but in a membership vote involving 1.4 million Teamsters
in November. At TDU’s 30th anniversary convention last Fall,
300 rank-and-filers helped launch the “Dump Hoffa” campaign
that has been gaining momentum ever since. Their candidate is Tom
Leedham, a Portland, Oregon local officer who ran against Jimmy
Hoffa’s son in 1998 and 2001 when the latter succeeded in convincing
Teamsters that he alone could “restore the power” lost
since Hoffa, Sr. 

In just one month TDU members collected the 50,000 signatures necessary
for initial certification of Leedham’s “Strong Contracts,
Good Pensions” slate last winter. Then Leedham backers won
convention delegate slots in more than half the local races they
entered, giving Hoffa’s challenger the support he needed to
be officially nominated at the upcoming Teamster convention. Within
the Teamsters, Leedham and his slate are rallying members against
what they call “celebrity business unionism”— Hoffa’s
reliance on PR consultants, rather than membership mobilization
in organizing, bargaining, and strikes. But this year’s Hoffa-
Leedham contest is shaping up to be a referendum on crucial questions
facing all of organized labor—some of which were little debated
last year. If Leedham wins, the current alignment of national unions,
inside and outside the AFL-CIO, may be altered as well. 

One of Leedham’s main issues is pension and health-care cuts
affecting hundreds of thousands of truck drivers, active and retired.
Most Teamsters at major employers are covered by Taft-Hartley welfare
and retirement funds that have union (as well as company) trustees.
Recent benefit reductions sought by profitable firms like United
Parcel Service (UPS) have thus been implemented by union representatives
closely allied with Hoffa—and members are not happy about it.
“I started driving full time at UPS in 1990 and had already
done five years part-time,” says Kansas City package car driver
Ross Thompson. “My goal was to raise my family and retire by
age 55. Now it looks like I’m going to be forced to work until
I’m 59 if I want to collect on a full pension.” 

The national agreement covering Thompson and 200,000 other UPS workers
expires next July—a major reason why Leedham is gaining ground
among disgruntled members in the union’s largest bargaining
unit. “We can’t let Hoffa negotiate another UPS contract,”
contends Dan Scott, secretary-treasurer of Seattle Local 174 and
a candidate for Teamster vice-president on Leedham’s slate.
“He had the best bargaining position ever in 2002 on the heels
of our 1997 strike—but he settled short.” The union’s
bargaining leverage has recently been eroded by management’s
acquisition of Overnite Transportation, a viciously anti-union outfit
that defeated a disastrous Hoffa-led strike in 2002. Ten thousand
former Overnite workers are now employed by UPS Freight, a non-union
division of the company. Says Scott: “We need to mobilize tens
of thousands of Teamster members—our best organizers—in
a coordinated national campaign at UPS.” 

last May, the Hoffa ad- ministration has said only that it will
“closely monitor” the new UPS/Overnite Freight operations
“to make sure members’ jobs are not adversely impacted.”
Teamster vice-president, Ken Hall, who heads the union’s UPS
division, told the

Wall Street Journal

that he foresees former
Overnite employees becoming part of the same union “family
with other UPS workers” through bargaining with the company.
TDUers are doubtful because they see no signs of the kind of militant
contract campaign that enabled Teamsters to make an equivalent breakthrough
in 1997 when Hoffa’s predecessor, Ron Carey, led a nationwide
walk-out over the issue of part-timing.  

Reform activists are going to the Teamster convention in late June
with proposals to make benefit fund trustees more accountable and
shift greater resources into organizing. As in the past, they’re
taking aim at Hoffa’s diversion of dues money into the pockets
of multiple-salaried officials. Under Carey, appointees to international
union positions— like Leedham (when he served as Teamster Warehouse
division director in the mid-1990s)—were limited to a single
paycheck. Thanks to Hoffa, nearly 150 officials now receive a full
salary for each of the two, three, or even four elected and appointed
positions they hold at the local, regional, and national union level.
Almost $45 million in Teamster dues money goes directly to the 300
highest-paid officials in the union. 

Hoffa’s personal patronage network gives him a huge funding
edge in the current campaign. Teamster election reports show that,
as of January 31, the Teamster president had already raised about
$1 million in contributions—more than 95 percent of it from
full-time union officials (with his own headquarters staff and appointees
donating 30 percent of the total). Only 4 percent of Hoffa’s
donors gave less than $100 while 60 percent kicked in more than
$1,000 each. 

Leedham, meanwhile, is passing the hat at rank-and-file gatherings
around the country where his message is resonating even among former
Hoffa fans. At an American Legion post in Braintree, Massa- chusetts
last February, Leedham spoke to a crowd of 100 working Teamsters
from 5 different New England locals. As he ticked off the broken
promises and unfulfilled expectations of the Hoffa admin- istration,
members of the crowd added their own complaints about workplace
grievances, pension cuts, job insecurity, and the lack of membership
education and organizing programs. When someone asked for a show
of how many in the room had previously voted for Hoffa, a majority
raised their hands. They weren’t about to make the same mistake
again, donating several thousand dollars in cash and monthly pledges
for Leedham’s campaign. 

This kind of rank-and-file commitment is not just an election-related
phenomena in the Teamsters. It’s a testament to the year-round
organizing work of TDU, labor’s most durable and effective
reform caucus. Founded in 1975, TDU has continuously revitalized
itself and attracted fresh recruits by waging local campaigns to
democratize union practices, expose lingering corruption, and empower
shop stewards in contract enforcement and bargaining. “My local
union is run by a Hoffa appointee, his national trade show director,”
says Kevin McNiff, a furniture mover and trade show worker in Boston.
“A lot of guys were unhappy with what’s happening with
our contracts and benefits. So we contacted TDU, which taught us
our rights and helped us fight for them.” 

McNiff, who’s going to the Teamster convention as alternate
delegate committed to Leedham, led a TDU membership drive in Local
82 with his co-worker Billy McDonald. Nearly 100 members joined—one-sixth
of the local’s total membership. In March they organized a
successful by-laws reform campaign. Adopted over the strong objections
of Local 82 Sec- retary-Treasurer John Perry, the new by-laws require
that stewards and bargaining committee members be elected rather
than appointed, future officer salary increases and benefit fund
trustee appointments must be approved by the membership, and local
elections must be conducted by mail ballot under the supervision
of an impartial outside agency. 

wanted to put more decisions in the hands of the members,”
explained Joe Wright, a commercial mover who helped introduce the

The Local 82 bylaw changes are now awaiting final approval by Teamster
President Hoffa, who doesn’t share Wright’s enthusiasm
for curbing official perks or putting power in the hands of the
rank and file. For members of Local 82, that’s one more reason
why it’s time to change presidents too.

Early is a Boston-based union activist who has been writing about
Teamster reform activity since 1977 for

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