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How did Hoffa Jr. win again?

By Joe Allen and Donny Schraffenberger, Stewards, Teamsters Local 705 | November 30, 2001 | Page 11

TEAMSTERS GENERAL President James P. Hoffa was reelected to office with an overwhelming 65 percent of the votes cast in the recent election. Reform candidate Tom Leedham received only 35 percent of the final vote, a decline from the 39 percent he won in 1998.

A Leedham victory was always a long shot. Virtually every local union officer supported Hoffa--including many former supporters of reformer Ron Carey, such as West Virginia's Ken Hall, Chicago's Gerry Zero, Boston's George Cashman and New York's Carroll Haynes. This meant that the full weight and resources of the union could be brought to the aid of Hoffa against Leedham.

Hoffa had more than 90 percent of the delegates at the Teamster convention in Las Vegas in June. This prevented Leedham's delegates from passing any resolutions and even from nominating a full slate of Leedham's "Rank and File Power" candidates. At the same time, Leedham supporters were fired from the staffs of some locals, and reform stewards were pressured not to campaign for Leedham.

What's more, Leedham's base is a medium-sized local in Oregon, thousands of miles away from the concentration of Teamsters in the Midwest and Northeast.

Nevertheless, many reform activists believed that Leedham would certainly do better than three years ago. Instead, he not only received a smaller percentage of the vote, he had 33,000 less votes, while Hoffa gained just 5,600. This likely means that many workers who voted for Teamsters reform in the past sat out this election.

In 1991, reformer Ron Carey was elected Teamsters general president in a race against two old-guard candidates under a vote mandated by a federal judge's consent decree with the union. Carey then won a close reelection fight in 1996 against an old guard that united behind Hoffa--and led the Teamsters' strike victory over UPS the following year.

Congressional Republicans and employers went on a witch-hunt against Carey. And citing financial wrongdoing by Carey's aides in the 1996 election, federal officials ordered a new vote--and ultimately expelled Carey from the union. Carey was vindicated in federal court in October--but the damage was done.

Compounding the problem were the weaknesses in Leedham's slate. Leedham's slate did contain longtime reform leaders like Maria Martinez, Bob Hasegawa, Ashley McNeeley and the late Noel Colón. But Leedham slate members Cliff Chetnik and Mark Serafinn of Illinois and Willie Smith of Ohio lost their own reelection campaigns for local union office.

Nevertheless, the legacy of reform meant that Hoffa and his allies had to pass constitutional reforms that guarantee direct elections of officers and convention delegates.

And while Hoffa's victory was overwhelming, it was by no means complete. Some key local unions, most with a heavy UPS membership, voted for Leedham. These include Ron Carey's former local, New York Local 804; Louisville's Local 89 (the center of UPS's air operation); Seattle's Local 174; Chicago's Local 705; Atlanta's Local 728 and Local 2000, which represents Northwest Airlines flight attendants.

This success shows the potential for Teamsters reformers to lead the fight for a good contract at UPS next year--and to build a rank-and-file challenge the policies of Hoffa and Co.

The future for reform in the Teamsters

WHAT DOES the future hold for reform in the Teamsters after Hoffa's victory? Answering that question requires a look at the past decade.

The leading reform group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), played the central role in winning union members the right to elect top officers. TDU played a major role in Ron Carey's victory in 1991--which was a giant step forward for the Teamsters and the entire labor movement.

But when Carey made alliances with old-guard figures like New York's Haynes, Boston's Cashman and Philadelphia's John Morris, TDU rarely challenged their claims to be "reformers." In addition, many "reform" officers elected with TDU's support, such as Local 2000 President Billie Davenport and Local 705's Zero, have gone over to Hoffa.

TDU also failed to defend Carey when he was framed. This led many union activists to conclude that Carey was guilty and that the whole reform movement was tainted.

Today TDU members and other Teamsters reformers need to reorient our activity around building a rank-and-file movement with a broader political vision. We must have an honest and open discussion of where we are going, and not be afraid of disagreements--like the need to get the federal government out of the union, for example.

We need a real base of militants on the ground organizing for more democracy in their locals--such as the election of rank-and-file negotiating committees, shop stewards and all union officers. Without rank-and-file militants pushing union officers to fight the bosses, today's "reform" leaders can all too easily become part of tomorrow's conservative old guard.

That's why it is most important that we have a constant focus on the shop-floor fights against the greedy companies and their ruthless managers. That's where the potential to rebuild union power really is.

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