Reformer takes on the Teamsters’ old guard

December 15, 2010

Edgar Esquivel, a UPS worker and member of Teamsters Local 952 in Southern California, looks at the upcoming Teamsters presidential election.

AS THE Teamsters old-guard leadership splinters and their allies in local unions are being challenged by reform slates, Alexandra "Sandy" Pope, president of Teamsters Local 805 in New York, has announced she will challenge Teamsters General President James Hoffa in next year's election for the union's top position.

Pope has a proven track record of standing up for working people in tough economic times. A former truck driver, warehouse worker and Teamsters staff member under the reform administration of Ron Carey, Pope is an established national leader in the reform wing of the union and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), and is former executive director of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

She has also taught labor studies, and trained and involved new leaders in the labor movement, especially women and minorities. In a union where 30 percent of the 1.3 million members are women, Pope, with the support of the members, has the potential to change the course of Teamsters history.

Pope is already on the campaign trail. Her campaign announced yesterday that it has collected 50,000 signatures from dues-paying members to make her an accredited candidate--surpassing its goal by 10,000 signatures. Pope was the leading vote-getter against Hoffa's slate in the last Teamster election in 2006, gaining 100,000 votes as a candidate for secretary treasurer, the number two position in the union.

Sandy Pope
Sandy Pope

Taking on the entrenched Teamsters old guard will be a great challenge. But the union's leadership has failed to develop a strategy to cope with the impact of the recession--and even some longtime Hoffa allies are jumping ship.

And it's not hard to see why. Perhaps no other union in the last decade has served its members worse then the International Brotherhood of Teamsters under James Hoffa, the son of the famous and notorious mafia-tied Jimmy Hoffa, who ran the Teamsters in the 1950s and 1960s.

Following the reform administration of Ron Carey from 1992 to 1997, Hoffa Jr. won an election that restored the old guard to power. In the 12 years since, the old guard has succeeded in reviving the union's notorious legacy of nepotism, deception, racketeering, embezzlement, betrayal and sweetheart deals with employers.

Moreover, the union has lost over 200,000 rank-and-file members, and hundreds of organizers have been laid off due to the executive board's lavish lifestyles and fiscal incompetence that have put the union in a hole financially.

At the same time, Hoffa, like his old-guard predecessors, has cut deals with Washington's political establishment. That includes both the Republicans who have waged open war against labor and the Democrats who claim to be labor's friends, but who, year in and year out, have turned their back on the working class.

To understand the crisis in the Teamsters union today and the failure of the Hoffa administration, it's important to trace the Teamsters' history. By analyzing and understanding the Teamsters' past, we can help build the grassroots-led rank-and-file rebellion in the forthcoming battle to unseat Hoffa.

THE TEAMSTERS, founded before the turn of the 20th century as a craft union made up of local cartage drivers, became in 1903 an independent union affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). The Teamsters' first president was Cornelius Shea, whose tenure was short-lived due to his ties to organized crime.

The union's second leader, Dan Tobin, was a conservative man uninterested in organizing minorities or industrial workers, who he referred to as "riff-raff." Nevertheless, under Tobin, the union steadily grew in membership during the first quarter of the century. However, Tobin actively discouraged strikes while encouraging a "go along to get along" agenda with employers. Tobin also developed the regional conference structure that, he claimed, would provide stability, organizing strength and leadership, but which in fact only created a layer of bureaucracy.

Simultaneously, throughout the first quarter of the century, the Teamsters made no significant gains that benefited the welfare of the members and their families. The first loud bang the union made was in 1934 when a group of socialists led by Farrell Dobbs, Carl Skoglund and Ray Dunne in Minneapolis' Teamster Local 574 made national headlines for their role in a citywide general strike.

They were the first to succeed in unionizing freight, dock and warehouse workers in the Midwest. Dobbs trained many other colleagues in organizational strategies with one objective in mind--the amelioration of working-class conditions. One of Dobbs' students was Jimmy Hoffa.

However, it was during this time that the most ardent and radical elements of the Teamsters were also expelled from the union as they were put on trial under the anti-communist Smith Act of 1940. This removed an obstacle to Tobin's corporate-friendly agenda.

By the late 1940s, the Teamsters had gained a reputation for being corrupt and abusive toward their own members. Tobin defended the union against such accusations, but he himself presided over many constitutional and organizational changes and practices that cleared paths for union officials to engage in criminal activity.

In 1952, Tobin was succeeded by Western Conference head Dave Beck. Once in power, Beck pushed through a number of changes that would block any challenge to his throne.

Under Beck, organized crime reached deep into the Teamsters hierarchy. In the Midwest, where the union had a strong presence, corrupt locals spent years seeking bribes, embezzling money and engaging in extensive extortion and labor racketeering. The Teamsters used beatings, vandalism and even bombings in an attempt to control the construction and trucking industries.

Following the resignation of Tobin, Beck appointed Jimmy Hoffa--then president of Detroit's Local 299--as vice president of the Teamsters. Hoffa Sr. had moved up the union hierarchy because he had quelled an internal revolt against Beck by securing for him the support of the Central States region at the Teamsters convention. In exchange, Beck made Hoffa a union vice president.

At the same time, the federal government initiated an investigation on the union for its ties to organized crime and corrupt practices. When the government began subpoenaing Teamsters officials, Beck fled the country for a month to avoid being served. Upon his return, rank-and-file anger over revelations of corruption pushed Beck to retire from the Teamsters, which allowed Jimmy Hoffa to take over.

WITH HOFFA at the head of the union, the Teamsters used Dobbs' organizational methods to expand into the South and also won the Teamsters' first health, welfare and pension funds. But Hoffa also established close ties to other mafia figures, like Allen Dorfman, whom he brought in to manage the Teamsters' Central States Pension, Health and Welfare Plan, which is today in dire straits.

Hoffa's inner circle also included other Mafia-connected union officials such as Roy Williams from Kansas City and William Presser from Cleveland. These two built a reputation for cutting sweetheart deals with employers that included payoffs for breaching agreements and guarantees against work stoppages.

At the same time, a comfortable and complacent Hoffa embezzled money to buy trucking companies under his wife's name. In addition, he was instrumental in using the assets of the Teamsters' pension plan, particularly the Central States plan, to support Mafia projects, such as the development of Las Vegas in the 1950s and 1960s.

As general president, Hoffa destroyed whatever democracy was left in the Teamsters and corrupted every single aspect of the union. He dictated the use of pension fund money and looted it. In 1957, the AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters for its continued corruption scandals.

By the 1960s, Hoffa and the Teamsters were at war again with Washington as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy targeted the union over its continued corruption. After numerous indictments and trials, Hoffa was convicted in 1964 of jury tampering, attempted bribery and fraud; he was sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Hoffa was released in 1971 following a presidential pardon and disappeared in 1975--presumably murdered by the mob. For decades to come, the Teamsters membership lived under fear and fraud.

Before going to jail, Hoffa left the union under the leadership of Frank Fitzsimmons, a close associate of his from his years as president of Local 299. Fitzsimmons cut a deal with the Republican Nixon administration to release Hoffa from jail on the condition that Hoffa was to be banned from all union activity for 10 years. In exchange, Fitzsimmons promised that the Teamsters would endorse the re-election of President Richard Nixon and the Republican Party in 1972.

Corruption continued under Fitzsimmons, who allowed mob-tied union officials such as Roy Williams and William Presser's son Jackie to dominate Teamsters politics and loot the Teamsters pension fund. Under these three, the union negotiated numerous sweetheart deals that permitted trucking companies to rewrite contracts in their favor.

Fitzsimmons died in 1981 and was succeeded by Roy Williams, who as head of the Teamsters, was indicted and convicted for attempting to bribe a U.S. senator. Williams, who later admitted that he was controlled by the mob, was succeeded by Jackie Presser. Presser, who cut a deal with the FBI to become an informant against the mob and his union colleagues in order to keep out of jail, died in 1988.

THE TEAMSTERS old guard didn't go unchallenged. In 1975, rank-and-file militants launched TDU, a reform group seeking to clean up and democratize the union. The movement was organized with an effort to fight for good contracts and oppose concessions and benefit cuts. TDU brought Teamsters of all crafts and trades together to enforce members' rights and hold union officials accountable to the members.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. government decided to take action by using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to file a lawsuit against the Teamsters that could have resulted in a direct government takeover of the union.

TDU intervened, arguing that rather than putting the union into trusteeship, the government should end the corrupt structure of Teamsters elections. Instead, TDU argued, the government should insist on a process that would grant the members the right to directly elect their president and other top officers.

TDU launched a national Right-to-Vote campaign that gathered 100,000 signatures. It held rallies around the country and organized members at the local level to support their position. By 1989, the government had dropped the trusteeship idea, and instead negotiated a consent decree with the Teamsters leadership.

Under its terms, the government established an Independent Review Board to root out corruption, and the Teamsters would implement a one-member, one-vote procedure for the election of the top union officers. The decree also gave a federal judge and the U.S. Justice Department indefinite oversight over the union.

Soon afterward, Ron Carey, a reformer and president of New York's Local 804, announced his candidacy for president. With a history as a rank-and-file Teamster and a vocal opponent of the corrupt policies of the union's old guard, Carey won the endorsement of TDU. His campaign inspired Teamsters activists across the U.S.

The other two candidates for Teamsters president were R.V. Durham, supported by the majority of the old guard's General Executive Board, and Walter Shea, supported by a minority of the board. The old guard made a critical mistake in doubting that Carey could possibly win, and split over the two candidates.

Against tremendous odds, the Carey slate won the election with 48 percent of the vote in the three-way race. Carey took some important measures at the very beginning of his regime, important both in substance and symbolism: He cut the salaries of the top union officials, including his own. He ended the officers' practice of "double-dipping," that is, taking multiple salaries for holding various offices. He sold off the Teamsters' Lear jet planes and other luxury items.

Carey also put an end to the union's marriage to the Republican Party and shifted the union's support to the Democratic Party and the candidacy of Bill Clinton in 1992. But Carey sharply criticized the Democrats over their endorsement and passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. Carey argued that NAFTA would see the flight of good-paying jobs.

As Teamsters president, Carey was committed to not only challenging corporate greed, but the fight against the union's old-guard tradition of favoritism, nepotism and overall bureaucratic corruption. He had inherited a union on the brink of financial collapse. But much to the dislike of the old guard, Carey revived the union through grassroots organizing that for the first time included rank-and-file involvement in contract negotiating committees.

Under Carey, the Teamsters won some of the best contracts and pension plans in the union's history. The most important fight, of course, was the 1997 two-week strike against UPS that paralyzed the greater part of the American parcel distribution service. The strike--the most important labor battle in decades--won widespread popular support.

However, Corporate America would never forgive Carey for beating them. His administration came to an end when government overseers removed him from office on the grounds that he had used union funds to finance his re-election campaign.

In fact, Carey was ultimately acquitted of those charges in federal court. But the damage was done. James Hoffa Jr., who had been defeated by Carey in the 1996 union election, took over as president following a special union election in 1998.

IN THE last decade, Hoffa Jr. has been the leader of the most reactionary and mobbed-up elements of the Teamsters union. Many of Hoffa's closest advisers and supporters over his 12 years as head of the union have been permanently barred from the Teamsters for corrupt practices--a list that include his former running mate, William Hogan, and his former special assistant, Dane Passo.

Hoffa who promised in 1999 to rid the Teamsters of corruption through the formation of Project RISE--an internal anti-corruption union task force to replace the Internal Review Board--has done anything but.

In April 2004, Ed Stier, who had been assigned by Hoffa himself to lead the RISE task force, resigned along with his staff, stating, "My problem is with one man: Jim Hoffa." Stier quit after Hoffa prevented him from investigating links between organized crime and John Coli, head of Chicago's Local 727 and Joint Council 25.

To make matters worse, in 2002, Hoffa--who during his 2001 re-election campaign ran on a "No Dues Increase" platform--called a special convention that would raise members' union dues by 25 percent. The pretext for the increase was to build a strike fund. A small number of reform delegates offered an amendment that would have required membership ratification of the increase, but the proposal was rejected by Hoffa and his supporters.

Ironically, the union's last dues increase proposal had been put forward in 1994 by Ron Carey, and would have put $63 million into the strike fund. It was subjected to a membership vote and was democratically defeated by the members after opposition from the old guard.

Not surprisingly, since the increase in union dues over eight years ago, the Teamsters rank and file has yet to see a strike fund. Instead, the money has gone straight to the pockets of union officials and their multiple salaries and pensions, and other unnecessary luxuries. Since Hoffa came to power, well over 120 Teamster officials have become part of the $150,000-plus a year "club."

At the same time, concessions after concessions and contract violations have been the norm. For instance, the 2007 UPS deal that the Teamsters negotiated under Hoffa is by far the most regressive the union has agreed with the company in the last 25 years. Traffic World, the semi-official voice of the transportation industry, editorialized that this was the contract that UPS wanted in 1997, but was stymied by then-reform Teamsters General President Ron Carey. Back in 2000, industry journalist John Shultz ran a major article on UPS's close relationship with Hoffa that he titled, "In love with Hoffa."

Since the ratification of the regressive deal with UPS, Hoffa has failed to enforce the contract to protect and create full-time jobs guaranteed under Article 22.3 of the contract as well as many others--despite the fact that the company continues to generate extraordinary profits in a bad economy. In the third quarter of 2010, the company recorded third quarter profits of over $991 million and expects to exceed the $1 billion mark in the final quarter.

Many more concessions at other crafts and trades have been on the rise and will continue with Hoffa atop the union. Since Hoffa came to power, no significant victories or gains have been achieved, and the strike Hoffa called at Overnite (now UPS Freight) ended in failure. Big concessions at the last of the unionized freight trucking companies, such as YRC, have become commonplace.

As a result of all this, splits in the old guard are coming to the fore. In May 2010, Teamsters Vice President Fred Gegare announced that he was running for union president, declaring that "members' voices are not being heard under Hoffa." Six other International officials from Hoffa's cabinet have since endorsed Gegare.

To make matters worse, Secretary Treasurer Tom Keegel--the number two officer in the Teamsters--announced he was not running for re-election. In his resignation letter, Keegel added that "continuing down the same road as the [Teamsters union] has traveled for the last few years will not lead us out of our present difficulties, or help us avoid the problems yet to come."

The problems for Teamster members are indeed mounting, and Hoffa and his cronies have no solution. That's why Sandy Pope's bid to become Teamsters president is so important. Pope's campaign should have the support of all union members and supporters who are committed to union democracy and rank-and-file power.

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