Teamsters Notebook: TDU Needs to Refute Hoffa’s Lies


Recently, an analysis of the 1998 Teamsters election appeared in Union Democracy review, publication of the Association for Union Democracy (AUD). The article was written by Herman Benson, editor of the review. Benson was the founder of the AUD and for 20 years its executive director.

One of Benson’s main assertions is this: “Despite Hoffa’s victory .. government oversight remains as a guardian of democracy.”

On the other hand. Benson writes: “With a skewed talent for making disastrous decisions based on spuriously righteous reasons, the court-appointed monitors have succeeded in eliminating the man who led the battle against organized crime [Carey] and have turned the union back to the type of officials who admitted the mob in the first place.”

Benson also writes: “The second election monitor, Michael Cherkasky, turned the election rerun into a travesty of democracy.”

Benson defies logic and common sense

Despite his devastating charges against the government monitors, Benson argues in defiance of all common sense that it is a good thing the Teamsters union remains under federal supervision. “Hoffa and his friends,” writes Benson, “want to gain a free hand by ending those controls. It would be a disaster if they succeeded.”

Instead of concluding that “travesty” and “disastrous decisions” are unacceptable. and that we must find a third way, Benson wants us to view the government as the ranks’ guardian of democracy.

The more logical conclusion to draw from the fact that the union is bureaucratized, and that the government cleared the way for the bureaucracy’s return to power, is that the ranks are between a rock and a hard place. If the ranks don’t get the shaft from the bureaucrats, they get it from the government.

Perhaps more likely, as in the case of the 1996 election and its aftermath, the ranks can count on getting the shaft from both the government and the bureaucracy!

This is not a pretty state of affairs. But it is the reality. My question is, why don’t people like Benson admit that both bureaucratic control and government control are dead ends? They are not the road to rank-and-file democracy.

Cynicism and “heavy fog of confusion”

In his account of the 1998 campaign, Benson does make a significant contribution that we should not ignore.

“The real contest in this campaign,” he writes, “was between the forces of democracy and reform led by Leedham and TDU against those who were comfortable when the union was heavily influenced by crooks and racketeers. But it was difficult for the membership to grasp this essential truth because the election campaign proceeded in a heavy fog of confusion.

“The irony was Hoffa’s ability to wrap himself in the flag of reform without being drowned out in mocking laughter. He could safely sound the stop-thief alarm because Carey’s staff had been caught laundering union money into their campaign.

“It became impossible for members to sort out the charges and countercharges of theft and fraud. A big section of the membership, probably on both sides, surely concluded that there was enough blame to go all around.

“Seven years before, when Carey first led the charge, the trumpet call for reform sounded certain. This time, inevitably, there was cynicism.”

Benson is not the only commentator who has said that members’ cynicism was an important factor in the election. The New York Timesreferred to Teamster officials who also cited cynicism as influencing the election outcome.

Approximately 86,000 fewer votes were cast in 1998 than in 1996. It is likely that rank-and-file voter cynicism reduced Leedham’s total.

In my opinion, the actions or miss-actions of TDU following its 1997 convention contributed to the “heavy fog of confusion” and the resulting cynicism among thousands of Teamsters. TDU’s failure to expose the lies that Hoffa and the major press put out about the Carey campaign affair made rank-and-file cynicism inevitable.

The lies promoted by Hoffa and the press are based on phony charges made by a court-appointed judge, Kenneth Conboy, a former corporate lawyer.

Conboy charged that Carey knew about the fund-raising scam carried out by his campaign manager and others. Although Carey’s lawyers have effectively refuted this charge, federal appeal bodies have sustained Conboy at every step. And Carey has not been allowed to take his case before a jury, which would undoubtedly sustain him.

TDU only force that could have defended Carey

TDU is the only organized force in the Teamsters union with a vested interest in a fully informed, self-acting rank and file. It was and remains TDU’s responsibility to go to the ranks with the facts about the Carey campaign scandal-to oppose and expose what Benson rightly calls “the sorry role of the court-appointed election monitors who opened the road to Hoffa and in effect turned the union over to him.”

The question of what TDU should have done and what it didn’t do is not just water under the bridge having no bearing on the future of Teamster reform and of TDU itself.

In my opinion, Hoffa will continue his efforts to mislead the ranks about Carey, Leedham, and TDU as he did during the 1998 campaign. If TDU does not confront and refute Hoffa’s lies, some members’ good judgment will continue to be messed up by a “heavy fog of confusion.”

If TDU fails to mount an organized opposition to Hoffa’s lies and fails to mount a challenge to the government’s travesty of democracy, then the reform forces will fail to maximize their strength in the delegate elections.

If the Teamsters election in 2001 is a close election, the “confused,” misinformed, and cynical section of the ranks might well tip the scales against a reform slate.

What a shame that Hoffa had a clear field in 1998 when he repeatedly lumped Carey, Leedham, and TDU together as “crooks.” It would be a still greater shame if he were able to continue unchallenged with his systematic slandering of the reform movement and once again the ranks never get to hear the truth from TDU.

Benson says that, once the government ousted Carey, Hoffa’s election was preordained. But if Hoffa wins in 2001 and the ranks are no better informed and no less cynical, analysts should not chalk up his second win to preordination.

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