Teamsters Notebook: Can Hoffa Jr. Carry Out His Promises?

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By CHARLES WALKER

“If you don’t think I’m going to do a great job, you’re crazy.”

-Junior Hoffa,

Crain’s Detroit Business

Labor’s Haymarket May Day martyrs were executed over 100 years ago, yet recently they had good reason to roll over in their graves. For in a bit of caustic irony, the Teamster bureaucracy chose May 1, 1999, to ceremoniously anoint James Hoffa Jr. as general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

A Hoffa press release trumpeted that “Thousands Cheer Inauguration of True Reformer.” Showing none of the personal modesty of his predecessor, Ron Carey, the inaugural rite was convened at a Washington, D.C., reflecting pool, near an intersection temporarily renamed Hoffa Boulevard and Hoffa Way.

It’s one thing to pretend that streets are named after you, but it’s quite another to believe that your name is the key to protecting the interests of 1.4 million rank-and-file Teamsters. Yet that seems to be Junior Hoffa’s conceit. More than that, he has convinced some rank-and-file Teamsters to rely on the power of his name rather than the power of their organized strength.

A New York Times reporter recently wrote with a trace of exaggeration that “many Teamsters who worshiped his father … look to the son as the Second Coming and expect him to perform some of the same wonders [as his father].”

For some Teamsters the memory of the gains of the boom years when Hoffa Senior was president is still strong, almost mythological. But it must be acknowledged that all industrial unions won wage and benefit gains during the 10 years Hoffa headed the union (1957-67). Without taking anything away from the elder Hoffa, the fact is that during those postwar years it was damn difficult not to “bring home the bacon.”

Junior Hoffa campaigned for five years, telling the Teamster ranks he had the know-how, acquired at his father’s knee, to “restore the power of the Teamsters union.” Still, Hoffa Jr. lost to Carey, who then led the most inspiring labor battle in many decades when the union successfully took on United Parcel Service, in a first-ever national strike.

It took the federal government, not the icon-like mystique of Hoffa’s name, to topple Carey and choke off Carey’s militant policies.

Anheuser-Busch: Hoffa’s first test

Anheuser-Busch, the nation’s dominant brewing company, imposed a substandard, concessionary contract on its 8000-strong Teamster workforce less than a year after the government removed Carey from the union’s rerun election. On April 20, Hoffa sat down with the latest scion of the Busch dynasty to run the company, August A. Busch II.

According to the union, Busch “flatly” told Hoffa that “he was not interested in the union’s proposals.” Those proposals would save the jobs of 90 workers in two plants, end subcontracting at 10 other plants, put in place a negotiated contract, and restore the previous balance of power between the union and the company.

Failing to overpower Busch with the authority of his name, Hoffa has embarked on a low-key corporate campaign designed to convince the company’s shareholders to pressure Busch to reverse himself and reach an agreement with Hoffa.

When that fails, as it must, he will likely escalate the campaign, perhaps calling for a boycott. But that won’t work. The trick is to really hurt Busch, and that’s not easy. It was tried by the Teamsters in the 1970s and the Teamsters came up short.

Busch has deep pockets, vast political connections, and weak industry competitors. A successful strike against Busch would not only entail keeping scabs from operating the plants, but also giving banks and vendors compelling reasons to pressure Busch to settle. That means a level of class warfare that the bureaucratic backers of Hoffa showed no appetite for when Carey headed the union.

There are other pending major disputes that Hoffa won’t be able to resolve by merely leaving his business card on a CEO’s desk. In Hoffa’s back yard, there is the four-year-old strike by 1000 Teamsters and members of other unions at Detroit’s two major scab dailies.

Then there are 10,000 Teamster flight attendants who have been working at Northwest Airlines without a contract for nearly three years.

The UPS-style contract campaign at Northwest is hurt now that “at least 55 international field representatives and organizers have been fired. … The fired staffers include organizers of the successful 1997 United Parcel Service strike, and some who were involved in ongoing contract negotiations involving Northwest Airlines flight attendants and newspaper workers in Detroit” (Los Angeles Times).

Pie in the sky for carhaulers

Recently, Chuck Mack, one of Hoffa’s vice presidents, told a meeting of the Industrial Relations Association in San Francisco that he and others would be providing Hoffa “guidance” because Hoffa lacked experience as a “union administrator.” That lack of experience may have been on display in April, when Hoffa guaranteed a pie-in-the-sky future for 12,000 carhaulers whose national contract ends May 31.

In a Detroit speech, Hoffa told hundreds of carhaulers from dozens of local unions that he will win them pension improvements, a stronger grievance procedure, job safety, job security, and keep the non-union competition from “eat[ing] our lunch down the road, and organize every segment of the carhauling industry.”

As we go to press, reports indicate that a carhaul strike is looming. Hoffa told the press, “I have made it very clear to management that their unacceptable demands to hire part-time workers, to cut pay for new employees, and to use Mexican trucks would trigger a strike.” On May 12, the ranks voted 5705 to 251 to authorize a walkout.

The Teamsters have enough leverage in the carhaul industry to resist corporate take-aways and make gains over their present contract. But carhaul Teamsters who take Hoffa’s boasting seriously are sure to be disappointed when he brings back a settlement for ratification.

Five years ago, Carey began organizing Overnite, a major freight firm. His basic strategy was to build a member-to-member movement to win over a majority of the key terminals. The Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) says that the Overnite organizing drive “is in jeopardy.”

According to the TDU, Hoffa has “fired almost all the Overnite staff, including those who were formerly Overnite employees. There may be a new strategy, where the emphasis is less on organizing and more on negotiating. … Organizing itself will be largely turned over to the local unions,” while a five-person committee appointed by Hoffa will handle negotiations.

TDU believes that the Teamsters are still too weak to force the company into the national contract, and the union need not settle for anything less. TDU says the union should stick with “the same strategy used effectively by our union in the 1930s and 1940s to organize freight.”

“Where did your dues go?”

Hoffa’s inauguration hasn’t ended his systematic efforts to blacken Carey’s reputation, and undermine the reform forces. Hoffa’s first issue of Teamster magazine, which is sent to all active members and retirees, is virtually a campaign broadsheet from the photo portrait of himself on the front cover, testimonial letters from his supporters in the ranks, a Hoffa interview (four more photos of himself) and an attack on Carey dressed up as a report on the union’s finances.

The “report” is titled “The $153 Million Question: Where Did Your Dues Go?” Yet it never mentions the $123 million Carey returned to the members by way of strike pay.

In fact, Carey could have returned $34 million more, but the old guard took it out of the strike fund to pay for their extravagances. Several of the bureaucrats each retired with lump-sum pension pay-outs of over a million dollars, in addition to multiple monthly lifetime pensions.

Carey correctly believed the members’ money should be used for the members when they needed it, not squirreled away in stocks and investments. But Hoffa is going back to the days when the union put dues money in investments that partly paid multiple pensions and benefits to officials.

“The Teamsters’ assets,” the article states, “should be invested and protected in a continual effort to build for growth. By squandering $151 million, the previous administration took advantage of members’ dues and lost out on a significant opportunity to invest and generate additional income. Our administration wants to regenerate that income and build for the future of the union.”

Perhaps no clearer definition of “Business Unionism” has been uttered by a high-ranking Teamster bureaucrat since Dave Beck said that businesses don’t allow workers to run the company, so why should rank-and-file members run the union!

Now that Hoffa controls the main channels of communication with the ranks, a major campaign by reformers and militants to get the truth out is more important than ever. A campaign to tell the truth about Carey’s ouster, the government’s stealing of the members’ right to elect the leaders of their choice, and what happened to the union’s finances can undermine Hoffa’s propaganda advantage.

Such an effort would not be an idle exercise in digging up the past. For no matter who opposes Hoffa in 2001, Hoffa will campaign against Carey’s policies-as he did in 1988.

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