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The myth of Hoffa the reformer

July 22, 2005 | Page 10

OVER THE last several months, International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa has been described by the media as a union "reformer" or even "dissident." This extreme makeover for Hoffa has mostly to do the alliance he has made with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern against the faltering and besieged leadership of AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

It takes quite an imagination to describe Hoffa as a "reformer," however. In fact, the results of two long-suppressed internal union investigations highlight the resurgence of mob influence and corrupt practices in the Chicago Teamsters.

These reports expose not only Hoffa's misleadership of the third-largest union in the AFL-CIO, but also what type of "reform" he promises to bring to the rest of the labor movement. JOE ALLEN, a member of Teamsters Local 705 in Chicago, looks at the reality behind the Hoffa myth and the crisis in one the country's most important unions.

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JAMES P. HOFFA is the son of the notoriously corrupt former Teamsters President James R. Hoffa, who disappeared and was presumed murdered by his former mob allies in July 1975.

Hoffa Sr., the union's general president from 1957 to 1967, was, according to mythology, single-handily responsible for the "golden age" of the Teamsters. It is this fictional history, passed down by the media and Hollywood, that allowed Hoffa Jr. to be taken seriously. If his name were Smith, no one would have given him a second look.

What has been almost forgotten is that Hoffa Sr. went to federal prison in 1967 for stealing from pension funds and jury tampering. The first Hoffa brought the Mafia into the highest levels of the union. He turned the Central States Pension Fund--the Teamsters' largest--into the mob's bank.

The Hoffa myth would have gone to the grave with him if those who succeeded him weren't such ridiculous figures. Frank Fitzsimmons, Roy Williams, Jackie Presser and William McCarthy were all identified with extravagant living and hobnobbing with gangsters and Republican presidents. Meanwhile, the union kept declining from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, virtually collapsing in the freight industry that was once its core.

Hoffa Jr., meanwhile, worked in obscurity as a labor lawyer--but one who showed loyalty to the officers of the Teamsters. Junior's fortunes changed following the 1990 settlement of the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against the Teamsters.

The settlement established the right of members to elect top officers of the union and delegates to the union convention. It also created the Independent Review Board (IRB), with draconian powers to investigate and punish any union member involved in corrupt practices or associated with organized crime.

The first election for union president and the general executive board was held in the fall of 1991. Hoffa declared himself a candidate for president, but was quickly ruled ineligible because he lacked the prerequisite two years of membership in the Teamsters to qualify.

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RON CAREY, the president of Local 804 in New York City, a local mostly made up of UPS workers, won a stunning victory for general president in a three-way race against two "old-guard" candidates. Carey was endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the longstanding reform group.

Carey got rid of the worst extravagances of the old guard, launched new organizing drives and instituted programs to boost membership involvement.

At every turn, Carey found Hoffa and his allies playing an obstructionist role. This came to a head in the 1996 election when Carey faced a united "old guard" led by Hoffa. Hoffa's slate was incredibly well funded, with fat checks from old-guard Teamster officers and staffers across the country.

Nevertheless, Carey eked a victory with 52 percent of the vote, thanks most of all to support from UPS workers.

The election came on the eve of the 1997 UPS contract fight, on which Carey staked his record, aiming to achieve a significant number of new full-time jobs, pension protection and wage increases. For their part, Hoffa's allies were completely compromised by the Teamsters' past policies at UPS--huge pay cuts for part-time workers and the vast expansion of part-time work.

In 1997, UPS attempted to further cripple the Teamsters by grabbing control of the pension fund, pushing workers into HMOs and refusing to create new full-time jobs. This provoked a two-week strike that became the biggest labor victory in three decades--and a personal triumph for Carey.

Hoffa spokespeople, however, took to the airwaves to attack Carey while 185,000 Teamsters were on the picket line. A UPS spokesperson admitted that he consulted the Hoffa campaign about how to attack Carey. The biggest act of betrayal during the strike came when Chicago-based Teamsters Local 710, led by Hoffa supporters Frank Wsol and Pat Flynn, refused to strike UPS.

UPS's humiliation quickly turned into fury at Carey. The old guard had already protested the 1996 election, and a government-appointed election official set aside the results.

Meanwhile, a coterie of union-bashers in the House of Representatives, led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.)--a recipient of campaign contributions from Hoffa--began a campaign to discredit Carey. Hoekstra's congressional hearings smeared Carey as a "corrupt dictator" in the mold of previous Teamster leaders.

These sham proceedings laid the basis for Carey to be expelled from the Teamsters by the IRB. Several years later, Carey would be found innocent in federal court of the same charges that led to his expulsion. But the damage was done--and Carey remains banned from the Teamsters to this day.

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HOFFA JR. came to power in the government-ordered election rerun of 1998, easily defeating reform candidate Tom Leedham. He beat Leedham again in the regularly scheduled election of 2001. By the 2001 race, Hoffa had the support of virtually the entire officialdom of the union, including defectors from the reform camp--notably UPS negotiator Ken Hall and Chicago Teamsters 705 Secretary-Treasurer Gerald Zero.

Hoffa's reign has allowed his most retrograde supporters to return to their worst practices. Two of Hoffa's "special assistants," Dane Passo and Carlow Scalf, have either been expelled from the union or forced to resign their positions.

Ed Stier, the former top corruption investigator of the Teamsters appointed by Hoffa, resigned along with his entire staff last year after it became clear that Hoffa was blocking a serious investigation into corruption involving Chicago Teamsters leaders.

Stier's final report on Teamster corruption in Chicago was finally released to the public in May--not by Hoffa, but by TDU. Stier reported that one-third of Teamster locals in Chicago--which has the biggest concentration of union members in the U.S.--are under mob influence and engaged in possible corrupt practices.

Meanwhile, the union has continued to decline. In 1999, Hoffa called a nationwide strike at Overnite, the largest nonunion trucking company in the country. Though it officially lasted three years, it was lost from the start because the Teamster bureaucracy did almost nothing to win it. The high cost of this failure was seen recently when UPS purchased Overnite to help build up the nonunion part of its company--in preparation for 2008 negotiations with the Teamsters.

Hoffa has utterly failed to come to terms with the crisis of the Teamsters. Whatever his rhetoric about the need for new ideas in the labor movement, they are meaningless in the face of his practice of restoring some of the worst policies of the past.

Yet Hoffa's control of the union has begun to fray at the edges. In Seattle, Atlanta and Milwaukee, reformers won control of important Teamster locals in recent years. The Central States Pension Fund, the largest pension fund for Teamsters, totters on the edge of bankruptcy. With the approval of Teamster trustees--Hoffa supporters--the fund has pushed through draconian cuts in benefits, alienating members.

The conclusion is clear. Hoffa is no reformer--and he has to go.

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