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Issue 35, February 1999

Hoffa takes the Teamsters

THE ELECTION of James Hoffa Jr is a blow to many Teamsters and US union activists. The 1991 election victory of Ron Carey and a reform leadership, supported by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), opened the possibility of transforming the Teamsters into a fighting union. Now Hoffa's election, backed by most of the union's officials, threatens to turn the tide back to the Old Guard rule and business unionism.

Despite Hoffa's election, it is important to note that he only received 55% of the vote. Tom Leedham, the reform candidate, won 140,000 votes, or 39%. With a 25% turnout, Hoffa won the support of only 13% of the membership - after a four-year, $6m campaign. It shows that an important layer of Teamsters have not been swayed by the Hoffa juggernaut.

Clearly Hoffa's name recognition and his slick 'I'm for uniting Teamsters' soundbite had its effects, coupled with the tragedy of Carey's 1996 election campaign misconduct. The illegal channelling of finance via Democratic fundraising organisations into Carey's campaign resulted in his debarrment from standing by the court-appointed superviser who has overseen Teamster elections since the corruption and election fraud scandal of the 1980s. Overall, the turnout was even lower than in 1996, which shows no great support for either candidate.

The task now is to rebuild from the bottom up. This should not just be aimed at getting more votes for Leedham and the reform slate in the elections in three years time. We have to rebuild a rank-and-file movement in the union. This means putting forward a fighting strategy to members in the locals. Also, we must hold Hoffa's feet to the fire and make him follow up on his reform promises - and hound him if he doesn't.

  Hoffa Jr's talk of rebuilding union power contrasts with his own lack of fighting union experience and his association with very dubious elements in the union (acting as advocate for shady business interests and many local officials charged with corruption) and with right-wing Republican politicians. If, as seems likely, Hoffa tries to remove all the anti-corporate policies of Carey, cuts national support for organising, and turns a blind eye to the actions of union locals, then this will suit his backers - the officials left over from the Old Guard at union, Joint Council and regional level. These individuals don't want to mobilise members to fight for a better contract, when they can just sign a deal with the companies.

However, it was exactly these rotten polices that led to rank-and-file rebellion in 1991. If Hoffa repeats these, he will face increased anger and opposition. And this will give the reformers a second chance.

But a second chance maybe the last - the reform movement can't afford to fail. There is a tendency for the TDU leaders to explain the Carey's failure as a mischievous plot by Carey's re-election campaign organisers. But these corrupt elements were recruited and allowed to operate by Carey. We have to be honest: much of what Carey did was top-down. We benefited somewhat, but not enough emphasis was put on grass-roots involvement and the need to step up to the plate to rebuild the union.

Also, the reformers around Carey took salaries way above the wages of average members, allowed the union to hobnob with the Democratic Party, and supported concessionary contracts negotiated by the Carey administration without criticism. In the face of problems from the Carey administration, the TDU reformers looked the other way. Gone was their tradition of fighting against bad national contracts. (Had the contracts agreed in the last seven years been negotiated by the Old Guard, they would have been criticised by the TDU). This all raises the need for a new strategy for the union. In a time of world economic slowdown, big business parties of all stripes are pushing the corporate agenda of cuts in wages, benefits and social programmes, etc. The policy of negotiating contracts craft by craft and union by union, without mobilising other Teamsters and workers, merely produces more and more concessions. The corporations are after blood, and we need to respond with strength, as in the past.

The fighting traditions of the 1930s and earlier, when workers and the unemployed were mobilised into a wider movement, are needed. This doesn't happen overnight, but must be built by activists on the ground. The union leaders have to come out of their plush offices and fight on the day-to-day issues that face workers - low wages, lack of decent health care, affordable childcare, unacceptable hours and conditions, and so on. This cannot be done by holding hands with either of the two big business parties. Under Carey, the Teamsters were the biggest union contributors to the Democrats. We need to put our muscle and influence behind the new Labor Party and join the nine unions already affiliated.

To make real gains today, the reformers need to step into the Labor Party movement. That would give a vision that can mobilise Teamsters, especially younger members, to get involved in the reform movement. It would provide a strategy on how to improve their lives, and that of their families. If the Teamsters is seen as a force to be reckoned with, we can start recruiting and mobilising part of the 85% of the workforce that is non-union. It is time to re-build.

Doug Frechin, Teamster Local 174 & Tony Wilsdon

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the US socialist monthly, Justice, available from:

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