By CHARLES WALKER
LAS VEGAS, Nev.-From June 25-29, the 26th Teamsters Convention was convened here in a huge auditorium located below a fake Eiffel Tower that rises 50 stories above a glitzy casino. Barely out of earshot of whirling slots and bouncing dice, the mostly enthusiastic 2400 delegates and alternates were joined by nearly 5000 working and retired Teamsters and spouses.
Although the delegates made changes to the union’s constitution, and passed numerous resolutions-supposedly to guide the union’s top administrators during the next five years-the main purpose of the convention was to nominate candidates for the union’s highest offices, to be elected in November.
Two rival slates were nominated; Teamsters President James P. Hoffa is again opposed by Tom Leedham, who got 39 percent of the vote in the last election. Hoffa had the support of 90 percent of the delegates, who repeatedly and loudly ridiculed and jeered the small opposition delegation that backed Leedham, a local union officer who was a former international union leader during the Ron Carey administration.
Among the Hoffa delegates and backers were one-time Ron Carey supporters, including former members of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), local union officers, as well as candidates on Carey’s 1991 and 1996 slates.
The boisterous catcalling and insults by the Hoffa-led delegates seemed more likely to turn off interested rank-and-file union members, than inspire them. For example, how many rank and filers are likely to respect the Hoffa-led officials who successfully organized a boycott by delegates and guests of Tom Leedham’s 20-minute acceptance speech?
After delivering his own acceptance speech, Hoffa left the stage and on cue his followers poured out of the hall. Barely 500 Teamsters heard Leedham’s appeal for a stronger union to meet the bosses’ challenges, by mobilizing the entire membership along the lines that won the Carey-led UPS strike in 1997.
Although the few Leedham delegates were elected by perhaps a hundred thousand or so Teamsters out of 1.4 million dues-paying members, the Hoffa delegates were organized by the union’s upper crust in a blatant display of arrogance and contempt.
Surprisingly and ironically then, on Friday, minutes before the convention adjourned, Hoffa introduced a singer who led the assembled delegates and guests in singing “Solidarity Forever,” the anthem of the “Wobblies,” formally known as the Industrial Workers of the World, a part-Marxist, part-anarchist revolutionary labor group once prominent in the United States.
Unlike two years ago, the Leedham forces were unable to field a full slate, so six of the 27 Hoffa slate members do not have to stand for election, since the union does not count write-in votes.
Leedham notes “broken promises”
Leedham charged that Hoffa heads up “an administration of broken promises.” Leedham reminded his listeners that Hoffa broke his promise to cut and cap salaries, ban multiple salaries, and eliminate perks that the ranks never enjoy. In fact, Hoffa has not limited his own pay to $150,000, as promised, and now yearly collects $225,000.
Hoffa’s supporters frequently justify their own privileged remuneration as necessary to attract effective union leaders. So far during Hoffa’s reign, Leedham said, the number of officers receiving multiple salaries has soared to the greatest number ever paid “in the history of this union.”
Leedham said that Hoffa promised five years ago-when Hoffa unsuccessfully ran against Ron Carey-that he would “raise strike benefits to as much as $250 a week without a dues increase.” Hoffa’s broken promise “undermines every Teamster fight to win a strong contract.”
Leedham faulted Hoffa for lying about the union’s “decline in organizing.” Hoffa boasts in speeches that the union has 1.5 million members, but in documents filed with the Labor Department, the Hoffa administration admits to a net loss of 11,000 members since Hoffa took office.
Leedham promised to reverse the union’s decline by “training 1000 Teamsters as organizers. If the Carpenters Union, a much smaller union, can train 600 member organizers, we can surely exceed that number.”
Leedham reported that Hoffa has turned a blind eye to corruption, though Hoffa promised to stand up against the corrupt elements that have profited at the ranks’ expense for many decades.
Leedham cited Hoffa’s aides and allies who have been charged recently by court-appointed agents with conspiring to line their pockets by way of a “sweetheart contract that would destroy the wages and benefits of 1400 Teamsters in this very city [Las Vegas]….” He said that Hoffa removed the honest local union leaders who opposed the deal, and at the same time paid $60,000 for a Hoffa’s aide’s meal and travel expenses while the aide “brokered this sweetheart deal.”
The unproven charges will be heard by the court-appointed Independent Review Board, which recently refused to penalize a longtime Hoffa backer, Larry Brennan, president of Detroit Local 337 and Joint Council 43.
The IRB dismissed the case against Brennan although the evidence of his using union funds to promote his slate’s election in a local union race seems far more substantial than the technicalities cited by the same board-which includes a former director of the FBI and the CIA-to justify ousting Carey from the union shortly after he famously led 180,000 UPS strikers and won the support of workers everywhere. (“Carey should have known what was deliberately kept from him, thereby violating his fiduciary duty,” it was argued).
New pledges by Hoffa
Hoffa ignored Leedham’s charges of “promises made, promises broken,” and made new promises to the ranks that he would get them “the best UPS and freight contracts in Teamsters history.” He promised to defeat Overnite, the giant trucking subsidiary owned by the mega-corporation, Union Pacific, though the two-year strike against Overnite has faltered.
Hoffa proclaimed, “I’ll end government control of the Teamsters Union.” All of Hoffa’s promises were received with standing ovations by his delegates.
Hoffa as much as told his convention backers to mind their P’s and Q’s, so as not to give the government a reason to refuse his bid to get the union and its bureaucracy from under the government’s thumb.
Perhaps his appearances at progressive functions has, in part at least, the same aim. That is, to get liberal support for “getting the feds out of the Teamsters Union.” If so, Hoffa made a wrong turn, but not a decisive blunder, when he threw the union’s support to oil companies and President Bush, who want to open up more of Alaska’s territory to drillers’ rigs and oil pipelines, no matter the inevitable horrendous environmental consequences.
Hoffa presented several constitutional amendments that he called a Democracy Package. They were all adopted, so now the union (not just the government) requires rank-and-file elections for both international union officers and convention delegates from the local unions. However, the Hoffa-led delegates voted down amendments from the Leedham delegation to provide for elected shop stewards in all local unions, allow all local unions to elect business agents (a local autonomy issue), eliminate multiple salaries, and provide for an impartial election officer for international union elections.
However, the Hoffa delegates did pass a Hoffa amendment that allows the union’s top officers to change the present election rules. For example, they could increase the number of delegates required to be nominated. The present requirement is 5 percent. By doubling or tripling the requirement they could keep a future Ron Carey off the ballot.
Frequently, Hoffa people called on Leedham to withdraw from the race and “save” the union $11,000,000 to $20,000,000. The estimates varied with the speakers.
Ron Carey condemned
Even higher on Hoffa’s list than ending the government’s intervention is to be reelected president-this time for five years. Hoffa acts as though the biggest weapon he has to turn back the Leedham forces, who are endorsed by TDU-an internal union caucus that the bureaucracy has come to hate in knee-jerk fashion (a frequent chant heard in and out of the convention hall was, “TDU sucks!”)-is the money-laundering scandal that was used to oust Ron Carey from the union in 1997.
Hoffa and company since 1997 haven’t missed many opportunities to charge that Ron Carey is a thief, who robbed or wasted anywhere from $1,000,000 to $430,000,000, depending on the accuser. Many times during the convention, accusations against Carey brought the Hoffa partisans to their feet in rousing condemnations of Carey. The uproar was no less deafening at those times when Leedham and some of his slate members were accused with being beneficiaries of the money-laundering scheme laid at Carey’s door.
One TDU confidant told this writer that he expects the Hoffa campaigners to rebuff every Leedham proposal for enlarging the ranks’ place in the union, with cries that the Leedham forces are no better than Ron Carey, who they claim stole some members’ dues money for his own aggrandizement, emptied a multimillion dollar treasury, wiped out the strike fund, and opened the union to attack by freight and UPS bosses when he conducted a “seven-year terrorist campaign” against the officialdom.
One Hoffa follower told the convention that now that the Carey-inspired “civil war” has been ended (and won) by Hoffa, the ranks may not need a strike fund. He asserted that the freight and UPS bosses will now think twice about challenging the reunified union, now skippered by Hoffa.
While Leedham and the TDU leadership cannot stop the Hoffa forces from falsely accusing some members of Leedham’s slate and Ron Carey of thievery, they could have reduced the big lie’s effectiveness if, starting in 1997, they had organized an effort in the ranks to get out the truth about how Carey was betrayed by trusted aides, and judged and then ousted from the Teamsters by corporate lawyers.
Neither Leedham nor the TDU leaders have told the ranks their evaluation of Carey’s guilt or innocence. Since silence is often taken for assent, perhaps some rank and filers for that reason alone believe the charges against Carey and Leedham that Hoffa will use in his third campaign for the union’s top job. With only four months until voting, it’s probably too late for Leedham to counter Hoffa’s charges that Carey is a crook and Leedham benefited too.
Hoffa’s support of the well-entrenched bureaucracy ensures that he will receive millions of dollars in campaign donations. More than that, he has received (and for good reason) several tributes from bosses (UPS, for example) who seem to be looking forward to negotiating their next contract with Hoffa, and not Ron Carey.
Clearly, the Leedham-led forces face an uphill battle. So did Ron Carey in 1991, when he won the first-ever rank-and-file election of Teamsters top officials.