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Can Teamsters “Change To Win” With Hoffa At The Helm?
D uring last year’s debate about revitalizing the AFL-CIO, members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) watched with amazement and then dismay as their national union leader was repeatedly described as an “insurgent,” “dissident,” and “reformer.”
For three decades, such labels have been routinely applied to TDU activists—for good reason—but never to a Teamster president backed by the union’s conservative officialdom. James P. Hoffa earned these media sobriquets as a strange new bedfellow of Service Employees (SEIU) President Andy Stern and his breakaway AFL-CIO faction, now known as the Change to Win Coalition (CTWC). Yet, recent press clips aside, many working Teamsters see little evidence that their own union has “changed to win” since Hoffa took office eight years ago.
This matters now because Hoffa, unlike Stern, is up for re-election— not at a typical union convention dominated by headquarters staff and officials, but in a membership vote involving 1.4 million Teamsters in November. At TDU’s 30th anniversary convention last Fall, 300 rank-and-filers helped launch the “Dump Hoffa” campaign that has been gaining momentum ever since. Their candidate is Tom Leedham, a Portland, Oregon local officer who ran against Jimmy Hoffa’s son in 1998 and 2001 when the latter succeeded in convincing Teamsters that he alone could “restore the power” lost since Hoffa, Sr.
In just one month TDU members collected the 50,000 signatures necessary for initial certification of Leedham’s “Strong Contracts, Good Pensions” slate last winter. Then Leedham backers won convention delegate slots in more than half the local races they entered, giving Hoffa’s challenger the support he needed to be officially nominated at the upcoming Teamster convention. Within the Teamsters, Leedham and his slate are rallying members against what they call “celebrity business unionism”— Hoffa’s reliance on PR consultants, rather than membership mobilization in organizing, bargaining, and strikes. But this year’s Hoffa- Leedham contest is shaping up to be a referendum on crucial questions facing all of organized labor—some of which were little debated last year. If Leedham wins, the current alignment of national unions, inside and outside the AFL-CIO, may be altered as well.
One of Leedham’s main issues is pension and health-care cuts affecting hundreds of thousands of truck drivers, active and retired. Most Teamsters at major employers are covered by Taft-Hartley welfare and retirement funds that have union (as well as company) trustees. Recent benefit reductions sought by profitable firms like United Parcel Service (UPS) have thus been implemented by union representatives closely allied with Hoffa—and members are not happy about it. “I started driving full time at UPS in 1990 and had already done five years part-time,” says Kansas City package car driver Ross Thompson. “My goal was to raise my family and retire by age 55. Now it looks like I’m going to be forced to work until I’m 59 if I want to collect on a full pension.”
The national agreement covering Thompson and 200,000 other UPS workers expires next July—a major reason why Leedham is gaining ground among disgruntled members in the union’s largest bargaining unit. “We can’t let Hoffa negotiate another UPS contract,” contends Dan Scott, secretary-treasurer of Seattle Local 174 and a candidate for Teamster vice-president on Leedham’s slate. “He had the best bargaining position ever in 2002 on the heels of our 1997 strike—but he settled short.” The union’s bargaining leverage has recently been eroded by management’s acquisition of Overnite Transportation, a viciously anti-union outfit that defeated a disastrous Hoffa-led strike in 2002. Ten thousand former Overnite workers are now employed by UPS Freight, a non-union division of the company. Says Scott: “We need to mobilize tens of thousands of Teamster members—our best organizers—in a coordinated national campaign at UPS.”
Reform activists are going to the Teamster convention in late June with proposals to make benefit fund trustees more accountable and shift greater resources into organizing. As in the past, they’re taking aim at Hoffa’s diversion of dues money into the pockets of multiple-salaried officials. Under Carey, appointees to international union positions— like Leedham (when he served as Teamster Warehouse division director in the mid-1990s)—were limited to a single paycheck. Thanks to Hoffa, nearly 150 officials now receive a full salary for each of the two, three, or even four elected and appointed positions they hold at the local, regional, and national union level. Almost $45 million in Teamster dues money goes directly to the 300 highest-paid officials in the union.
Hoffa’s personal patronage network gives him a huge funding edge in the current campaign. Teamster election reports show that, as of January 31, the Teamster president had already raised about $1 million in contributions—more than 95 percent of it from full-time union officials (with his own headquarters staff and appointees donating 30 percent of the total). Only 4 percent of Hoffa’s donors gave less than $100 while 60 percent kicked in more than $1,000 each.
Leedham, meanwhile, is passing the hat at rank-and-file gatherings around the country where his message is resonating even among former Hoffa fans. At an American Legion post in Braintree, Massa- chusetts last February, Leedham spoke to a crowd of 100 working Teamsters from 5 different New England locals. As he ticked off the broken promises and unfulfilled expectations of the Hoffa admin- istration, members of the crowd added their own complaints about workplace grievances, pension cuts, job insecurity, and the lack of membership education and organizing programs. When someone asked for a show of how many in the room had previously voted for Hoffa, a majority raised their hands. They weren’t about to make the same mistake again, donating several thousand dollars in cash and monthly pledges for Leedham’s campaign.
This kind of rank-and-file commitment is not just an election-related phenomena in the Teamsters. It’s a testament to the year-round organizing work of TDU, labor’s most durable and effective reform caucus. Founded in 1975, TDU has continuously revitalized itself and attracted fresh recruits by waging local campaigns to democratize union practices, expose lingering corruption, and empower shop stewards in contract enforcement and bargaining. “My local union is run by a Hoffa appointee, his national trade show director,” says Kevin McNiff, a furniture mover and trade show worker in Boston. “A lot of guys were unhappy with what’s happening with our contracts and benefits. So we contacted TDU, which taught us our rights and helped us fight for them.”
McNiff, who’s going to the Teamster convention as alternate delegate committed to Leedham, led a TDU membership drive in Local 82 with his co-worker Billy McDonald. Nearly 100 members joined—one-sixth of the local’s total membership. In March they organized a successful by-laws reform campaign. Adopted over the strong objections of Local 82 Sec- retary-Treasurer John Perry, the new by-laws require that stewards and bargaining committee members be elected rather than appointed, future officer salary increases and benefit fund trustee appointments must be approved by the membership, and local elections must be conducted by mail ballot under the supervision of an impartial outside agency.
The Local 82 bylaw changes are now awaiting final approval by Teamster President Hoffa, who doesn’t share Wright’s enthusiasm for curbing official perks or putting power in the hands of the rank and file. For members of Local 82, that’s one more reason why it’s time to change presidents too.
Steve Early is a Boston-based union activist who has been writing about Teamster reform activity since 1977 for Labor Notes , the Nation , the Progressive , In These Times , the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsday , and many other publications.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
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BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
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WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.