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From the November-December 2006 issue of Union Democracy Review #165

Teamster elections: inspiration from the ground up

By Barbara Harvey

The fifth supervised Teamster election under a federal consent decree ended on November 18th, 2006 with the Hoffa slate declared the victors. They were challenged by an opposition slate led by Portland Oregon Local 206 secretary treasurer Tom Leedham and New York City Local 805 president Sandy Pope, and endorsed by the Teamster reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

The outcome, 65% for Hoffa to 35% for Leedham, warrants reflection on the process by those who believe robust political opposition within unions to be in the best long-term interests of organized labor. The supervised Teamsters elections represent this country's most significant continuing experiment with the direct election of officers.

The Teamster influence on the labor movement during the Ron Carey years from 1991 through 1998 was the model for the Leedham slate. What was particularly notable about that era of Teamster history is that, to an unprecedented degree in the modern era of business unionism, union leadership came directly from the rank and file and remained grounded there. In the Teamsters and many other unions, this is where creativity, courage, and guts are still found. The bottom-up approach during those years explained the success of the 1997 UPS strike, the largest successful strike in recent labor history. Every package car driver interviewed by small town news crews was able to explain the rationale for the strike, clearly and persuasively. Those UPS drivers won the media war. On the picket line, the firm commitment of the entire UPS workforce to the striker's objectives proved to be more powerful than the pressures that encourage scabbing and won the strike.

It was during the Carey era that the Teamster membership decline briefly stopped. Organized labor became a focus for young idealists and drew college students seeking social causes to support during summer vacations. It was the Carey administration that tipped the balance of power in the AFL-CIO toward organizing and progressive politics.

On the eve of the 2006 election, it seemed to many that Hoffa could be defeated. The election came at a time of job, pension, and health benefits insecurity for Teamster members. Members had been disappointed by Hoffa's mediocre contract negotiations and angered by his failure to oppose painful reductions in pension and health care benefits. UPS acquired Overnite Transportation, bringing into the workforce a nonunion company that Hoffa had tried but failed to organize. These nonunion employees are now the new UPS ground transportation business and must be organized to preserve union security at UPS, but Hoffa is unlikely to succeed, given his past track record. The IBT had lost 150,000 core Teamster members and was able to claim stability in its membership numbers only by acquiring three other small unions by merger (Graphic Communications, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees.)

The Leedham campaign was talented, committed, and supported by unpaid volunteer members, hundreds using leisure time and vacations to campaign. Secretary-treasurer candidate Pope was a fiery and eloquent orator and an effective local leader.

Yet, instead of rising up to vote Hoffa out of office and replace him with the dynamic and idealistic leadership of the challenging slate, most Teamster members chose not to vote at all. Voter participation was an all-time low of about 21%.

One lesson learned from these elections is that the advantages of incumbency are truly overwhelming in a union election involving 1.4 million members from Puerto Rico to Nova Scotia and from San Diego to Alaska and Hawaii who were already aware of the Hoffa name and legend without the aid of any Hoffa campaign literature. The election rules were generally excellent, but their flaws exacerbated the advantages of incumbency. Overly permissive membership campaign contribution caps of $2,000 per member and $10,000 per candidate encouraged four-digit contributions to the incumbents from legions of union appointees, while rank-and-file members were able to contribute only two- or three-digit sums. Strict rules against all outsider contributions barred the insurgents from accepting outside contributions that might have helped to level the playing field. An army of well-paid appointees of the incumbent administration worked hard to impress their boss with their political loyalty. Local union leaders, many of them also on the IBT payroll, worked to deliver their locals to the incumbents, fearful of retaliatory quasi-trusteeships, the loss of second and third salaries, or other consequences that they had seen befall those who failed to deliver in the past.

The measures provided by the election rules to counter the advantages of incumbency were inadequate. Most valuable was a rule requiring employers to grant employee parking lot access to candidates and their supporters for leafleting. But there were simply far too many work sites for the Leedham campaign workers to reach. A new rule granting access to official union email lists was useful, but only a small proportion of the membership was listed there. Also valuable was a provision requiring "battle pages" for each slate in the official Teamster magazine. Far too few members bothered to open that glossy PR piece, however, before throwing it away. The measure that TDU fought for and won was a rule requiring a candidate forum and distribution of a recording of it to the "broadest possible" Teamster audience. But the rule ultimately adopted was a weak compromise that allowed Hoffa to designate his candidate for secretary-treasurer as his stand-in - and he did. The really big blow was the Election Supervisor's refusal to require the DVD recording to be mailed directly to all members. Thus, the new forum rule failed to deliver the only promising means of informing all members about the challenging slate's views.

But there is another lesson, as significant: Where rank-and-file challengers can reach the membership, it makes a big difference.

Closer scrutiny of the lopsided outcome yields interesting observations. Where TDU had an active presence, the Leedham slate generally did well, while Hoffa won strongly where there was no TDU presence, no robust debate on issues, and no democratic traditions. Despite a campaign war chest that was once again fully 10 times bigger than Leedham's ($3,000,000 to $300,000), Hoffa was unable to overcome his bad reputation among members employed under the master agreements, most notably freight and UPS. Hoffa lost major local unions and urban areas, including Chicago Local 705, Detroit Local 243, New York Local 804, St. Louis Locals 604 and 688 and numerous others. The Leedham slate won Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, St. Louis, and several states. Leedham's home local voted for him by a 93% margin, while Hoffa won in his home local, Pontiac Michigan Local 614, by only 26 votes.

Perhaps the nonvoting membership - 79% - did not know enough about the opposing slate to vote for it. The Leedham campaign's $300,000 war chest was not enough cash to pay for even a single direct mailing to 1.4 million members scattered across the continent. Perhaps the Hoffa name was simply too legendary to defeat. Perhaps members were too alienated from their union to care enough to cast a ballot.

The next election - in 2011 - should be a different ball game. By then, more union members will have computers, e-mail addresses and high-speed internet access, and experience in using these electronic media. This single development may prove to be the greatest asset of democratic union political campaigns.

Meanwhile, while the Leedham campaign failed to win the ballot count, it did succeed in keeping political pluralism alive in the Teamsters. The new generation of Teamsters may have largely sat by the sidelines, but at least they witnessed the race, and many thousands of them personally experienced the excitement of political participation. These members are the next generation's labor leaders. The 2005 and 2006 TDU conventions included more young faces, people of color, and women - the fighting edge of next generation's labor movement. If these courageous members can fight their way to the top, there is hope for revitalizing organized labor in the U.S.

Articles on the Teamsters:
In the Teamsters Union: What's the dollar cost of cruel beatings?
At the Teamsters Independent Review Board (3/08-4/08)
Teamster elections: inspiration from the ground up (11/06-12/06)
AUD Conference: Confronting Corruption in Labor Unions (12-06)
Teamster Convention reveals fatal flaw in election rules (7/06-8/06)
Harvey for TDU charges IRB coddles top Hoffa aide (3/05-4/05)
RISE uncovers corruption before its demise (9/04-10/04)
RISE and Teamster reform at Cornell University
(1/04-3/04)
Can the IBT police itself?(9/03-10/03)
The Transmogrification of Teamsters Local 854(9/03-10/03)
Is Teamsters Union safe for dissenters? An exchange (10/11 2002)
The vindication of Ron Carey (12/1 2001-2002)
"The Fox and the Chicken Coop" -- comments on the proposed Teamsters Ethics Code. (3/4 2000)
"Some Modest Proposals for a Teamster Code" (3/4 2000)

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