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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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HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.