Reuters Limited

In Teamsters race, dark horse sees an advantage

By Peter Szekely

July 23, 1998

WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - To become the next president of the Teamsters, Tom Leedham will have to beat an opponent whose name once was synonymous with the 1.4 million member union.

But Leedham says he has the edge over Jimmy Hoffa, whose father and namesake ruled the union in the 1950s and 1960s.

``I don't have as much name familiarity, but what I have going for me is Hoffa junior -- his names carries a lot of baggage with him,'' Leedham told Reuters in an interview. ``I think it's very negative. It speaks to the corruption and the weakness of the past.''

Even if going against the Hoffa name for the Teamsters' top spot were not a formidable challenge, the younger Hoffa is still seen as the front-runner. He has a well-established campaign organisation, money and a solid support base that includes endorsements from many leaders of large locals.

And Leedham's hopes for capturing the anti-Hoffa faction of the sharply divided International Brotherhood of Teamsters were clouded recently with the emergence of a third candidate.

But the 47-year-old grocery warehouse worker turned Teamsters local leader from Portland, Oregon, is undeterred as he stumps the country, talking to workers at plant gates and staying at members' homes along the way.

``We think this is going to be a race between the reform candidates and Hoffa junior,'' Leedham said in the tiny converted townhouse near the railroad tracks of Washington's Union Station that serves as his campaign headquarters. ``We're going to get the reform vote. There's no question about it.''


Leedham came to the national scene as an ally of fallen Teamsters President Ron Carey. It was Carey whose long-shot reform slate swept into power in 1991, Carey who appointed Leedham to head the union's 400,000-member Warehouse Division in 1992 and Carey whose scandal-marred 1996 campaign led to the nullification of his slim 52-48 percent victory over Hoffa.

Enter Leedham. With Carey barred last November from the rerun election scheduled for September, Leedham emerged from a handful of leaders who sought to carry the reform flag. Joined by five former Carey running-mates on his 16-member slate, he has the backing of the small but vocal Teamsters for a Democratic Union reform group and says he is pleased by the support and money his campaign is getting from members.

``The response that we've gotten so far has just been overwhelming and we're very encouraged by that,'' Leedham said.

With three of Carey's six predecessors including the elder Hoffa having gone to prison, the union was seen as hopelessly corrupt before a 1989 settlement of a federal racketeering suit placed it under court oversight.

Carey placed more than 70 of the union's 600 locals under trusteeship and ousted hundreds of officers in his drive against corruption. Ironically, he now could face the same fate since an official found that he had a hand in an illegal scheme to funnel union money into his campaign coffers.

Still, Leedham has nothing but praise for Carey and vows to continue the drive to root out corruption in the union. But he said he differs with Carey on some matters.


His campaign, for example, is staffed and managed entirely by Teamsters union members and staff on leave from their jobs rather than by the outside consultants Carey used in 1996.

Three of Carey's consultants have pleaded guilty to federal charges stemming from the money laundering scheme.

But Leedham sees Carey's up-from-nowhere 1991 campaign as his model, noting that Carey came out on top in a race against two more established candidates who had the backing of far more local leaders.

``That was the kind of campaign that we all believed in,'' he said. ``It was a grass-roots effort. It's the kind of campaign that we're trying to have in 1998.''

If he wins, another change Leedham would make is in the union's political activities.

Under Carey, the union became the fifth largest political contributor in the 1995-96 election cycle, giving $3.2 million, mostly to Democrats, after not having endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate since 1968, according to the nonpartisan Centre for Responsive Politics.

Rather than writing checks to candidates and political parties, Leedham said he would have the union pay Teamster members to man phone banks, go door-to-door and run get-out the-vote campaigns for friendly candidates.

``This gets our members involved in the process,'' he said.

Leedham promises to find new roles for rank-and-file members, including using them to help oversee pension funds and serve on negotiating committees along with elected officers.

On the financial mess at union headquarters, with assets of less than $1 million, Leedham said he could see no acceptable way of cleaning it up without a dues hike, but he vows not to seek one without a membership referendum.

While members rejected a dues hike in 1994, he says they would accept one if it were better explained. ``I don't think we've done enough to show members where their money goes,'' he said.

As a union officer, Leedham is perhaps best known for consolidating the union's contracts with Kroger Co., the nation's largest supermarket chain, into one master agreement.

Although he portrays the race as a battle between himself and Hoffa, another candidate, John Metz, the St. Louis-based head of the union's 125,000-member Public Employees Division, recently won a spot on the ballot and heads a slate that includes several former East Coast Carey allies.

``We don't see them as a key player in this,'' Leedham said.

A dispute over whether the federal government will pay for oversight of the election threatens to push it past the Sept. 14 date on which ballots are supposed to be mailed out. In the invalidated 1996 election, about 900,000 members did not vote.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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All original work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.