Opinion: Hoffa Restored the Perks, Not the Power

By Ken Paff

eamsters for a Democratic Union

In his 1996 and 1998 campaigns for Teamsters president, James Hoffa promised to restore Teamsters pride and to “restore the power.” Through good PR and visibility on some issues, he can claim some success on the “pride” promise. But he certainly hasn’t delivered any power to Teamsters members.

Hoffa sometimes hits the right note on trade or other policy issues, but has a disappointing performance on the things that mean the most to Teamsters: contracts, grievance procedures and organizing.

Why does Hoffa do well at speeches about trade but poorly at leading the kind of membership actions needed to win good contracts and to organize? Part of the answer is that Hoffa is a lawyer, not a unionist. He never made his living at a Teamsters job or was elected to any Teamsters office before taking the union’s reins in 1999. So the kind of membership involvement that led to the highly successful 1997 victory in the United Parcel Service strike is foreign territory for him.

The other part of the answer is that Hoffa’s ties to Teamsters power brokers in Chicago, Detroit, New York and elsewhere make him beholden to this “old guard” layer, which often has cozy, and sometimes corrupt, relationships with employers.

If members are not getting the “power” they were promised, certainly the old guard officials who bankrolled Hoffa’s campaign are getting their money’s worth. Hoffa has appointed some 82 supporters to multiple-salary positions, and most of his vice presidents are taking salaries at or near $200,000. Hoffa raised his own salary from the $150,000 that his predecessor, Ron Carey, made to $225,000. His campaign pledge was to “cut and cap” salaries at the International, with a specific platform plank of a $150,000 cap for the president and vice presidents.

Teamsters organizing has suffered as money that should have gone to organizing went to these perks. According to NLRB figures, Teamsters organizing victories fell 25% in Hoffa’s first year.

Hoffa’s answer in tough situations has too often been to settle short with employers, use PR to cover his tracks and, when necessary, clamp down on dissatisfied members.

Consider the contracts he has bargained. In the car-haul contract Hoffa settled for 1.9% a year in wage hikes, well below the industry average. Worse, just last month the union gave a concession on a temporary basis (that’s how many concessions start) to violate a key job security clause that prevents deliveries to dealers across the Canada-U.S. and U.S.-Mexico borders — without even taking the required vote of the members. Rank and file car-haulers on both sides of the Ontario-Michigan border rallied against the deal and filed charges against Hoffa. Detroit Local 299 (Hoffa Sr.’s old local) conducted its own vote and heavily rejected this concession.

In some cases the Hoffa administration has spun concessions as “victories,” such as at the huge food wholesaler, SuperValu. Teamsters leadership gave the company a two-tier deal of lower wages for K-Mart work and other new accounts. Fortunately, some locals refused to go along with it.

In both the Northwest Airlines and Anheuser Busch contracts as well as a number of local ones, the Hoffa administration has been too eager to plead management’s case. In the case of Northwest, Hoffa’s staff sent each of the 11,000 flight attendants six mailings and a videotape in a failed attempt to get them to ratify the company’s first offer. They courageously held out and recently won a better package.

To make these deals stick, Hoffa has been willing to use heavy-handed tactics long familiar inside the union. These have included placing locals in trusteeship, selling contract concessions or heading off elections. A federal judge recently issued an injunction against the Hoffa administration for its illegal removal of reform leader Maria Martinez from her elected position as chief steward for 1,300 Iowa Beef workers in Pasco, Wash. Hoffa’s trusteeship of Local 556 came just after Martinez announced her candidacy.

The Hoffa administration has ordered reruns in some local elections conducted by pro-Hoffa officials but won by challengers — a trick members call “vote ‘till you get it right.” Outspoken local leaders have found International reps sent into their locals to make threats of trusteeship. Dissenting letters to the “Teamster” magazine, previously a regular feature, have been completely eliminated. In fact, the letters section has been moved to the back, replaced by a new page featuring Hoffa.

In the June 5 Transport Topics features on the Teamsters, it was ironic that the most favorable things said about Hoffa came from major employer spokesmen. UPS negotiator Thomas Wiedemeyer has been lavish in his praise. Timothy Lynch of the Motor Freight Carriers Association said he is happy with Hoffa’s staff appointments. An employer consultant gushed about Hoffa’s PR talents.

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Some of the worst fears about Hoffa have not materialized. Much of the mob power has already been defeated in the union, and the new Teamsters democracy means his feet will be held to the fire. If Hoffa, or any Teamsters leader, wants to keep his job, he has to at least have the right rhetoric.

But that rhetoric is ringing hollow as more and more Teamsters see their pay and working conditions deteriorate as we enter the 21st century.

Mr. Paff is the national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a 24-year-old reform movement within the Teamsters Union. Previously, he was a driver for the defunct Preston Trucking and a member of Cleveland Teamsters Local 407.