Labor Notes

 

NEWS FROM THE TEAMSTERS CONVENTION IN LAS VEGAS...

 

 

TEAMSTERS SET THE STAGE FOR HOFFA-LEEDHAM REMATCH

 

by Randy Furst and Jim West, a Labor Notes cover story

Sun, 5 Aug 2001

 

In some ways, the Teamsters convention in Las Vegas at the end of June was a throwback. The huge majority of delegates voted for everything the leadership proposed and against everything it opposed. As if it were a football game, they loudly cheered their team and booed their opponents.

 

Repeatedly, delegates would rise to speak, not on any business before the convention, but to announce how great Teamster President James P. Hoffa is. Hoffa delegates hooted down a proposal to raise strike benefits and rejected a plan to cut and cap officers' salaries.

 

At the same time, the agenda of reform was present in much of the convention.

 

NOMINATIONS

 

More than half the delegates wore buttons reading "TDU Sucks," referring to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has led the fight for reform over the last quarter-century.

 

Nevertheless, Hoffa campaign spokesperson Chip Roth held a press conference at which he recounted the history of TDU and claimed that the Hoffa administration is carrying out TDU's reform program.

 

While shouting down the reformers who had put the members' right to elect their leaders on the Teamsters' agenda, they added that right into the union's constitution.

 

The main business before the convention was the nomination of candidates for this year's election. To get on the ballot, candidates needed the votes of five percent of the convention delegates. Hoffa got 89 percent and reformer Tom Leedham eight percent.

 

The outcome of the election will certainly be much closer than these lopsided results suggest. In 1998, when Hoffa and Leedham first met, Leedham got 39 percent to Hoffa's 54 percent. Leedham clearly starts as the underdog, but he hopes to inspire the members by bringing them a message about a different kind of unionism.

 

"We are serious about activating Teamster members and organizing tens of thousands of new members," Leedham said in his acceptance speech on the convention's final day. "Power requires leadership that organizes and mobilizes the ranks and unleashes their power on the job--and when necessary--in the streets."

 

Leedham, a former International Vice President and current principal officer of Teamsters Local 206 in Portland, Oregon, served as director of the 400,000-member Warehouse Division from 1992 to 1998.

 

In rallies and in his convention address, Leedham challenged Hoffa to debate him. So far, Hoffa has sidestepped such challenges. William Wertheimer, the court-appointed official overseeing the election, has said he plans to organize a debate.

 

GOVERNMENT'S ROLE

 

Aside from winning re-election, getting the government out of the union ranks as one of Hoffa's top goals. Thus convention officials were careful to protect the badly-outnumbered reformers from any physical attack by over-enthusiastic Hoffa supporters. And Hoffa made a number of attempts—usually unsuccessful--to check the booing by his supporters when Leedham delegates spoke. "Remember that what we do here, how we act, reflects on the reputation of this great union," Hoffa said.

 

"Hoffa and his allies want the government out of the Teamsters so they can return to the days when union resources were treated as the personal property of high officials," said Ken Paff, TDU national organizer. "Apart from that, he has no program for what they are going to do in the union."

 

On the other side, the reformers emphasized a string of broken promises arising from Hoffa's campaigns in 1996 and 1998. These included a pledge to cut and cap officers' pay, to increase strike benefits without a dues increase, and to "restore the power."

 

"The people who vote in the Teamsters are extremely unhappy," said Sandy Pope, a Leedham spokesperson. "The carhaulers have been sold out. Freight members see no organizing, a failed legal strategy in the Overnite strike, and no preparation for the upcoming contract. And UPS workers, with less than a year before their contract expires, see no preparation."

 

RIGHT TO VOTE

 

The union made several constitutional changes that had been ridiculed when reformers proposed them at past conventions. One requires the election of delegates to the convention and a rank and file vote for the International's top officers. Since 1991, these provisions have been required under the settlement of the anti-racketeering suit filed by the U.S. government, but they were not in the constitution.

 

The convention also approved constitutional changes giving Canadian members greater control over their dues money. Leedham endorsed the proposal, saying it could prevent the kind of splits that have occurred in other international unions where Canadian concerns have not been addressed. He credited a member of his slate, Diana Kilmury, for first raising the issue at a convention two decades ago.

 

This action represents an about-face by Hoffa; his supporters fought a similar proposal raised by then-Teamster President Ron Carey at the union's last convention in 1996.

 

Had Hoffa to do it over again, he might not have held the convention in Las Vegas. In May, the Independent Review Board, a court-appointed oversight panel, uncovered a major scandal in Las Vegas involving two top Hoffa associates, Dane Passo and Billy Hogan Jr.

 

The IRB found that Passo and Hogan had attempted to negotiate a sweetheart deal that would allow a Chicago company headed by Hogan's brother to do set-up work for conventions in Las Vegas. The company planned to use nonunion workers making about half the pay and without the benefits of union employees. The Chicago company made a $5,100 payment to the James R. Hoffa Scholarship Fund.

 

When Tim Murphy, the top officer of Teamsters Local 631 in Las Vegas, opposed the scam, Hoffa put his local in trusteeship. When the first trustee also objected, Hoffa had him replaced.

 

Murphy spoke at a rally sponsored by the reformers outside his Las Vegas local the day before the convention opened, and announced his support for Leedham. The Vegas scandal was also the subject of several major news reports during the convention.

 

'CORRUPTION-FREE'

 

It was therefore particularly ironic that one of the first actions of the convention was a proposal by Hoffa to eliminate language in the preamble to the union's constitution stating that the union is committed to "ridding our union of corruption."

 

Hoffa delegate Patrick Flynn of Chicago Local 710 defended the language removal, saying, "Corruption has been cleaned out of the International....

 

Corruption needs to be removed from the preamble of constitution."

 

Joe Fahey of Teamsters Local 912 in Watsonville, California urged delegates to retain the language. He cited the Las Vegas scandal. "You're trying to get the government out of union, so you want the government and the public to trust you," said Fahey. "But pretending the union of 1.3 million Teamsters is now corruption-free is not a good way to begin building that trust.

 

Now, I'm sure this preamble will pass here as is. You've got the Hoffa Unity thing going for you all week in this hall. In fact, you've got so much unity here, I bet you could even pass a resolution declaring former General President Jackie Presser as tall, lean, and muscular."

 

That drew repeated boos from the Hoffa delegates. "This vote and this change to the preamble won't fool anybody outside this hall," said Fahey. "It won't change the truth." As Fahey predicted, the Teamsters declared themselves corruption-free anyway.

 

Tom Gilmartin, principal officer of Local 559 in Hartford, Connecticut, was nominated for secretary-treasurer on the Leedham slate, the number 2 position. Gilmartin is also a former international vice president and former director of the International's Industrial Trades Division.

 

Gilmartin took the floor to urge an increase in strike benefits, which remain mired at $55 a week. He said that Hoffa's proposal--a "blue ribbon commission" to study the union's finances for another year--was insufficient, given that Hoffa has already been in office more than two years.

 

"Mr. Chairman and Brother Hoffa, when you ran for office in 1996, you made several promises," Gilmartin said. "In particular you promised to quadruple the strike fund without a dues increase. Obviously that's not happening here today."

 

His voice rising over loud boos, Gilmartin continued, "Mr. Chairman, had you lived up to and not broken your promise about lower salaries, lower vice president salaries today...there would be today $4.5 million in the strike fund, and well on our way to really taking on UPS."

 

SALARY CAP

 

Leedham delegates also sought to introduce a constitutional amendment to cap officers' salaries at $150,000, a promise Hoffa made when he first ran for president. After he was elected, Hoffa broke this pledge, kicking his salary up by 50 percent, to $226,000.

 

Holding a flyer from the 1996 campaign in which Hoffa promised to "cut the general president's salary to $150,000, Seattle delegate Dan Scott of Local 174 argued that the amendment would "save millions of dollars to put organizers on the payroll and build the union. One hundred forty-one people on the IBT payroll receive multiple salaries, more than ever in the history of the IBT."

 

Like other proposals, this one also lost.

 

VERY PLEASED

 

Hoffa spokesperson Richard Leebove said the convention was "a huge success for the members.... We saw a new level of unity in the IBT."

 

Asked how that unity theme squared with the image of hundreds of Hoffa delegates chanting "TDU Sucks!" Leebove suggested that the reform movement is too small to be taken seriously.

 

TDU is "an obscure sect with very little support within the rank and file," he said. "Leedham could barely field a slate.... This appears to be a vanity campaign of Ken Paff and Tom Leedham."

 

Since the convention, Leedham has been on the road talking to members. "To the extent that the word gets out about what they did at the convention, it's going to hurt Hoffa," he said in New Jersey in mid-July. "They refused to fix the strike benefit even though Hoffa had made it a litmus test for the 1996 election.

 

The Hoffa delegates did raise the meal allowance to $75 a day for Teamster officials, even while striking Teamsters get $55 a week after the second week of the strike."

 

Leedham added, "Now we're getting out there with the people who will really make the decision about who is going to lead this union."

 

 

. . .WITH THE TEAMSTERS IN LAS VEGAS . . .

 

Starting at the top, nepotism plays a big role in the Teamsters Union. Look down the list of Teamster officials, and you see multiple Hogans and Condors, Brennans and Mathises, Zimmermans and Salmerons, Macks and Aloises.

 

So it was that two incumbent vice presidents were nominated for re-election by their children. Matt Flynn, a delegate from Local 710 in Chicago, nominated his dad, Patrick Flynn, who earns about a quarter-million as an international vice president and president of Local 710. Chastity Young, who works for Local 541 in Kansas City, nominated her dad, Phil Young, who makes nearly as much from positions with the international union, Local 41, and Joint Council 56.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Both the Hoffa and Leedham campaigns held rallies just before the convention opened. Hoffa made a grand entrance in an 18-wheeler, its horn blaring. The rig is owned by the Ohio Conference of Teamsters. Leedham arrived at his rally on foot.

 

The next day, William Wertheimer, the government-appointed election administrator, ruled that Hoffa's use of the truck was an illegal use of union resources. As Wertheimer stepped to the podium to publicly reprimand Hoffa for this violation, Hoffa delegates, wearing yellow vests with their candidate's name printed in large letters on the back, turned their backs on Wertheimer and walked out of the convention hall. Hoffa walked out along with them.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The convention heard the U.S. and Canadian national anthems each morning. But unlike the 1996 convention, it did not hear the Puerto Rican national anthem. Noel Colo'n, president of Local 910 in Puerto Rico and a candidate for vice president on the Leedham slate, objected to the omission and asked Hoffa to include it the next day. Hoffa replied, "Very good," and did nothing.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Colo'n was also the author of a resolution, approved by the convention, which asked the U.S. Navy to immediately cease its target-practice bombing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The convention unanimously passed a resolution expressing pride at "the strength that is drawn from the diversity within the Union's ranks" and committing itself "to work actively to involve all members." The Leedham campaign pointedly noted that 23 out of the 24 top candidates on Hoffa's slate are white, and 23 out of 24 are men.

 

The Leedham slate, which is running 18 candidates for those 24 positions, includes three Latinos, three African Americans, one Asian American, and four women. Hoffa has two additional people of color running for the non-voting trustee positions.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

"Speak English!" heckled a Hoffa supporter as Local 556 President Melquiadez Pereyra seconded, in Spanish, the nomination of Tom Leedham for Teamster president.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

The essence of Las Vegas, in a bottle, was in every room at Bally's, the hotel where many delegates stayed. "Valued Guest," the label welcomed. In tiny type, the label informed the valued guests that if they drank the bottled water inside, it would cost them $4.50.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

"The Teamsters today are the most democratic union in the world and the standard by which democracy will be measured," said Hoffa spokesperson Chip Roth. Nevertheless, delegates cheered wildly when two top Hoffa supporters, Frank Wsol and Jim Santangelo, suggested that the union would be better off without the presidential election. "If [the Leedham campaign is] so concerned about saving the union money," Santangelo

asked, "why are they insisting on this election which will cost our union $12 million?" Roth added that it would be "appropriate" for Leedham to drop out of the race.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Might this be the last Teamster election? Roth pointedly noted that other unions which have direct election of top officers make it more difficult to qualify for the ballot.

 

The United Mine Workers, he said, requires 20 percent support at their convention, versus only five percent for the Teamsters.

 

Asked whether Hoffa plans to raise this threshhold once the government ends its oversight of the union, spokesperson Richard Leebove said that "we don't have a position on it now." But in an April speech at the National Press Club, Hoffa indicated that the Teamsters' current rules on ballot access are too generous.

 

TDU organizer Ken Paff claims that these hints indicate Hoffa's real goal: to raise the bar to the level where there will be no opposition. Paff noted that if Teamster officials had been free to require 15 percent or more delegate support in 1991, then Ron Carey would not have been allowed on the ballot. Carey's entire slate swept that election.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

Quote of the Week: "Don't you guys ever get a new act?"--Diana Kilmury, responding to a chorus of boos as she accepted the nomination as a vice president on Leedham's slate. Twenty years earlier in the same city, when reformers had not many more than a dozen delegates, Kilmury endured the same sort of treatment when she supported a proposal for a Teamsters ethical practices commission. She went on to become the union's first female vice president in 1991.

. . . . . . . . . .

 

To read more about the Teamsters convention and the election campaign, visit these web sites:

The Hoffa Unity Slate: <www.hoffa2001.com>.

The Tom Leedham Rank & File Power Slate: <www.leedham.org>.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union: <www.tdu.org>.

 

[Labor Notes is a monthly publication that covers the labor movement from the ground up. Annual subscriptions are $20. Website: www.labornotes.org

 

Email: labornotes@labornotes.org, or Call:(313) 842-6262.]


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