Teamsters Notebook: Hoffa’s First Clashes with the Ranks

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By CHARLES WALKER

On May 1, Teamsters President James P. Hoffa officially took office, claiming that he would restore the Teamsters Union power and pride. Hoffa said he would restore the union’s unity, after three bitterly fought elections since 1991 had pitted the union’s hardened bureaucratic officialdom against democratic reformers and militants.

Less than three months later, it’s still too soon to draw up a balance sheet on Hoffa’s efforts. Nevertheless, recent struggles by the ranks in three industries against their bosses and Hoffa’s quick actions to force the ranks to capitulate should alarm Teamsters who believed that Hoffa would be tough with bosses and fair with the membership.

On June 10, the Teamsters Union announced that a tentative settlement had been reached between Northwest Airlines, the nation’s fourth largest airline, and Local Union 2000, which represents 12,000 flight attendants.

The workforce has gone 10 years without a pay raise, and has had to make do with $1000 monthly pensions after 30 years. Meanwhile, bosses were retiring with up to 60 percent of their highest pay. At first, it seemed that at least three years of growing rank-and-file activity had finally paid off for the Northwest flight attendants.

“This is the agreement that our members sent us to negotiate,” said Billie Davenport, Local 2000 president. “We are proud to recommend it to our brothers and sisters for ratification.”

Although the tentative deal has the support of the negotiating committee, the local union’s executive committee is divided. More than that, many of the leaders of the union’s member-to-member contract campaign network are saying, in effect, that the union’s superior strategic position relative to the airline should allow the union to get a much better settlement.

Just days before the deal was announced, 93 percent of the ranks voted on strike authorization, and 99 percent of them voted yes. A Wall Street analyst said that the airline wanted to avoid a strike, especially after it posted a $285.5 million loss last year when its pilots struck for nearly three weeks.

Northwest had more to lose from a flight attendants strike, concluded the Salomon Smith Barney analyst, than it did from granting the union’s demands.

Over 1100 attendants signed a letter to their local union president, saying in part, “As we stand, poised to leap into the new millennium, let’s not step back into a regressive contract. Let’s get back to the table and finish the job we started.”

That dissatisfaction has caused Hoffa to campaign intensely for ratification. International union representatives have been sent to airports to whip up support for the deal, while individual workers are getting phone calls and letters urging them to vote yes.

But Hoffa must still be worried the ranks don’t agree with him. On July 19, he took control of the ratification balloting away from the local union, which had secured the services of the Bureau of Mediation Service to oversee the count. Local officers say that Hoffa recently has threatened to audit the union’s books, perhaps laying a flimsy groundwork for a trusteeship.

Local 2000 embarrassed Hoffa in 1998 when virtually all of its votes went to Tom Leedham, Hoffa’s main opponent. If Hoffa loses the Aug. 27 ratification vote, even with his own people counting the ballots, that would be a greater embarrassment. Hopefully, the workers’ vote will give them another chance to take advantage of the favorable relationship of forces they believe their UPS-style organizing has earned them.

Brewery workers told to accept concessions

Brewery workers at Anheuser-Busch’s 12 plants gave most of their votes to Hoffa. Now many of them, including local union officers, are certain to vote against Hoffa’s proposed deal with the nation’s self-styled king of beers. The workers twice voted down the brewer’s “last, best, and final” offer. In turn, the company imposed its concessionary contract before Hoffa was elected.

Now Hoffa is pushing the 8000-strong workforce to swallow the concessions and a new one: The latest offer is for six years, not the previous five.

Hoffa acknowledges it’s not a great deal, but he claims it’s the best that can be had without a strike. He boasts that he negotiated a job security promise from the company not to close any of its 12 plants during the life of the contract. The company had earlier said that it might close down two breweries. However, the promise is far from being ironclad.

The company only says the plants will stay open, barring an unforeseen event. Some workers rightly say that’s not their idea of job security.

One rank-and-filer succinctly summed up the “vote no” sentiment, “The fight against the elimination of good jobs, seniority, humiliating drug testing, the increase of part-time workers, (eliminating of) past practice, and another year added to this company wish list, must get rejected again.”

A Jacksonville, Fla., Teamster officer told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “I feel I’ve been let down by my own leaders. This is a concessionary contract, the worst contract in the world.” He told the paper that about half of his counterparts “feel there was a deal cut with the international and the company.”

Hoffa sent each brewery worker a letter telling them to ratify or take a strike. At the same time he told them that “a strike could very well result in the loss of your job at Anheuser-Bush. If we strike today, we could not guarantee that we would be successful. We could not guarantee that Anheuser-Bush would not attempt to starve our members into submission with a several-month strike and impose even worse conditions than we are currently working under. Or worse, attempt to replace our members with permanent scabs.”

Of course, with a leadership that has no intention of stopping scabs, let alone not smart enough to choose its own time and place to fight, the members can’t be blamed if they choose the company’s offer as the lesser evil over Hoffa’s leadership. As for dissenting officials, Hoffa says that they are “irresponsible” and “playing on the anger” of the ranks.

The ranks were plenty angry before with the brewery bosses. Now they’re growing angry with Hoffa, too.

Packinghouse workers wildcat

But flight attendants and brewery workers aren’t the only Teamsters that Hoffa has angered. On June 4, IBP meatpacking workers in Pasco, Wash., wildcatted against mistreatment and speed-up. It took four days before the IBT sanctioned the strike.

The IBT sent in Jon Rabine, an international vice president, who pushed aside rank-and-file negotiators and then negotiated a contract offer that was narrowly ratified by disappointed strikers. The new contract provides a $1.57 raise for slaughterhouse workers and $1.82 an hour for others, up from the company’s mid-strike offer of $1.05 over five years.

Senior workers told the Tri-City Herald that they would be paying for their own raise since the new contract replaces their pension plan with a 401 (K) plan. The workers say that single concession will cost them more than $1 an hour in benefits. “I’m going to be losing money,” said one meatpacker. “I was building something for the future, and now there is nothing.”

The month-long strike against IBP, the world’s largest processor of meat and pork products, with nearly $13 billion in sales last year, received national attention partly due to the diversity of the 1300-strong workforce-including Mexicans, Bosnians, Laotians, and Chinese, among others.

As the workers returned to their jobs, they vowed to throw out their sell-out officials at the next election in November.

One of the plant’s strike leaders is Maria Martinez, a long-time employee. Martinez ran on the Tom Leedham slate in 1998 and is a national leader of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

Martinez told the press, “The company forced us out on strike because of their disregard for our rights and our safety. And now our union officials’ undemocratic actions and lack of support have forced us back to work with less than we could have won. The workers’ actions won us a wage increase. Our union officials’ actions cost us our pensions. We’ve been robbed.”

It’s likely that Martinez could easily beat the incumbents in a fair election, as she did when she was elected chief shop steward. However, just days after the strikers returned to work, Hoffa took control of the local union, probably delaying the election for another 18 months. The IBP plant manager told a reporter that he was looking forward to “five years of labor peace at Pasco.”

Hoffa hasn’t completely struck out with the ranks. Hoffa gained a lop-sided ratification of his proposed agreement with the nation’s major unionized carhauling firms, covering nearly 13,000 drivers, mechanics, yard, and clerical workers. Some 80 percent of those voting accepted Hoffa’s settlement.

That was surprising, since carhaul Teamsters usually reject the first company offer, and frequently strike. One major difference this time is that there was no organized contract campaign leading up to the vote.

In the past, the TDU has surveyed the carhaulers to determine the ranks’ top demands, and then worked to organize opposition to settlements that fell short. If there was any spontaneous opposition to the settlement, it didn’t get public attention.

No matter how the brewery and airline ratification votes turn out, Hoffa’s honeymoon with the ranks isn’t blissful. And if Hoffa makes a practice of taking over militant locals, ignoring local autonomy, and attempting to scare and intimidate individual workers, it’s sure to turn stormy.

It will be even stormier if Hoffa caves in to the demand of lower-rung bureaucrats that he take the heat for their own failures in local and regional negotiations. Before Ron Carey’s election that was the unspoken quid pro quo between the international leadership and cooperative local officials.

Socialist Action News

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