Coming fresh off his reelection victory, Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa Jr. is seeking to take away the right of rank-and-file members to elect their international officers.
Hoffa was reelected with 59% of the vote against two challengers, reform activists Sandy Pope and former Hoffa ally Fred Gegare. Despite such a large margin of victory Hoffa and other top union officers want to do away with direct election of officers and replace it with a delegated convention election—the way most U.S. unions do it.
Hoffa and his slate won reelection despite massive concessions, job losses, pension cuts, and declining Teamster contract standards. Only 20 percent of the membership returned their ballots, meaning Hoffa won with the support of about 12 percent of Teamster members. This took place despite Hoffa’s raising over $3 million for his campaign, donated mostly by officers and staffers who owe their jobs to Hoffa.
Hoffa sent out multiple glossy mailings to the membership, mostly attacking reform candidate Pope, and hired professional telemarketers to do phone banking. Additionally, the International spent millions on supposedly non-partisan get-out-the-vote advertisements, including robo-calls from Bill Clinton and actor Danny DeVito, who just happened to portray the incumbent president’s father in a movie called “Hoffa.”
Sandy Pope, a veteran activist and local officer from New York, ran a different kind of campaign. She didn’t have millions of dollars and Hollywood actors to support her campaign. Instead, Pope had an army of rank-and-file activists who volunteered their time, money, and energy to get out her program to mobilize members and use the union’s resources to fight back against bosses’ attacks on workers.
Where Pope supporters campaigned and provided members with an alternative to the Hoffa concession train her support was strong. Pope did well in locals with large numbers of members under national contracts, particularly UPS and Freight. Despite these efforts, Pope was able to get only about 17% of the vote.
In addition to Hoffa’s resource advantage and the allegiance of most local officers to him, the Pope campaign was hurt by the presence of another opposition candidate. International VP Fred Gegare, a long-time Hoffa ally, formed a slate along with a handful of other VPs and local officers. Gegare gained support from some old-guard bureaucrats who felt left out of the inner circle of power surrounding Hoffa.
Gegare criticized Hoffa’s concessionary record, especially the failing health of the Central States Pension Fund. Yet while Gegare was an International VP on the Hoffa slate, he never raised any criticisms, even when Hoffa crippled the CSPF by letting UPS withdraw from the fund. However, even though Gegare was not a credible reformer, he often raised credible criticisms of Hoffa and echoed many of the same positions as Pope, therefore siphoning votes away from the Pope campaign.
The biggest challenge the Pope campaign faced was disillusionment and frustration of rank-and-file members, who after experiencing more than a decade of losses and concessions under Hoffa, and a generally weakened labor movement, have given up hope that the union’s losses can be turned around. These members didn’t participate in the campaign, and 80 percent didn’t even bother to vote.
Ken Paff, national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, wrote of the recent election, “In the 1990s, Ron Carey [elected Teamster president on a reform slate], could tap a sentiment that Teamster power was real, and just needed someone willing to unleash it. And the union began to do just that, including the victorious 1997 UPS strike. In the recent political climate, our argument has been more difficult: that Teamster power can be rebuilt. Thousands of members are up for the challenge, and are the heart and soul of the TDU movement. But most Teamsters have been hunkered down, without great hopes of transforming the union to take on corporate power.”
Rank-and-file activists in the Teamsters are now preparing for new battles ahead. First will be a fight to preserve the direct elections of International officers. National contracts at UPS and Freight will expire in the next few years, and members in those industries are preparing to build contract campaigns to force Hoffa to take a strong stand on negotiations.
While Teamster activists continue to face challenges engaging co-workers to get involved, there are encouraging signs. The Occupy Wall Street movement has inspired and mobilized working people, including Teamsters to fight back against the bosses’ offensive. It is notable that in New York the OWS movement has supported and marched in solidarity with locked-out Teamsters at Sotheby’s in New York. The Sotheby’s workers are members of Local 814, a local led by reform officers who supported the Sandy Pope campaign.
Efforts like that of the Sotheby’s workers, the Sandy Pope campaign, and the UPS and Freight workers’ contract organizing campaigns are the foundations for rebuilding Teamster power and returning the union to its militant roots.
> The article above was written by David Bernt, and first appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.