Hoffa Skips Presidential Debate As Fireworks Fly

Mike Elk

Presidential candidates for the Teamsters spark disputes

The security was heavy outside of Wednesday’s Teamsters Presidential debate. Several security guards marked the entrance of the Morton Auditorium on George Washington University’s campus in D.C. to search the bags of audience members as they entered. One might think the high profile security was a result of Jimmy Hoffa’s recent controversial comments about the Tea Party Republicans in office, remarking, Let’s take these sons of bitches out.” 

But despite the heavy security, Hoffa was nowhere to be seen at the Teamsters Presidential Debate with Sandy Pope and Fred Gegare. As Hoffa has done in two separate presidential debates during his 13-year presidency, he once again refused to debate his opponents, instead sending his candidate for secretary treasurer, Ken Hall, to stand in as a surrogate.

Where is Jim Hoffa, boasting his unity?” declared opponent Fred Gegare. Jim Hoffa has deserted his own membership. Hoffa talks about a war on workers [but] how about a war on membership by Jimmy Hoffa on workers in this union? If he disagrees with me, why isn’t he here tonight?”

Sandy Pope was likewise critical of Jimmy Hoffa. Prior to the debate, Pope issued a tough statement to Labor Notes playing on what she says is the irony of Hoffa’s controversial statements about the Tea Party. Suddenly he’s talking tough, when he’s been totally missing in action when it comes to fighting back against concessions at the companies we represent, like UPS or Waste Management. Now he’s talking about jobs, when he’s allowing all these companies to get away with hiring part-time workers, temp workers, contracting out our work.”

Hoffa’s running mate Hall blasted the other two candidates for criticizing Hoffa in public, saying, For the past 72 hours, Hoffa has been the target of right-wing forces in the Tea Party and Republican Party. He has been vilified on FOX News while the two of you have been sitting on the sidelines for the past 72 hours.” Hall claimed that by attacking Hoffa, Hoffa’s two opponents, Pope and Gegare, were giving more ammunition to Rush Limbaugh.”

Fireworks flew throughout the debate between the candidates. Profanities could be heard being muttered by union members in the audience when the candidates made disparaging remarks about each other.

Gegare and Pope both blasted the Hoffa Administration for general incompetency and failure to organize in the core industry. A large part of their critique centered on the underfunding of the Central States Pension Fund. The Central States Pension fund is a multi-employer Taft Hartley Pension that covers tens of thousands of employees represented by the Teamsters in 29 states. It is run jointly by the various employers in the pension fund and by the union. Many unions prefer this type of fund, since it allows more oversight of the pension than simply allowing employers to run it.

In 2006, UPS acquired the freight shipper Overnight, which became a separate division of UPS, known as UPS Freight. Hoffa was able to secure a card check neutrality pledge from UPS Freight, saying that UPS would not interfere with organizing at UPS Freight. A year later, in what critics say was a quid pro quo for the card check neutrality agreement, the Teamsters, under Hoffa’s leadership, allowed UPS to pull 44,000 workers out of the multi-employer Central State Pension Fund. Now the fund is underfunded by nearly 30 percent because, as Gegare and Pope argue, UPS was allowed to pull out of the fund.

Hall countered that, while the fund was underfunded, neither candidate has a clear solution on how to deal with the problem. Indeed, when asked, both Pope and Gegare did not offer a clear solution, but instead said they would leave it up to the membership on how to solve the problem of the pension fund.

However, Gegare, while agreeing with many of Hoffa’s critics, represented himself as a very different candidate than Pope. Pope comes from a small local and has been a longtime activist with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Gegare served on the Teamsters’ executive board for the past 12 years.

Hoffa’s surrogate Hall was quick to point this out. Fred has been part of Hoffa for the last 12 years and all of sudden he his criticizing. He could have spoken up about these problems over the last 12 years. ” Gegare remarked that on several occasions he did speak up about the problems with Hoffa, and decided to finally run as a result of the problem with the Central States Pension Fund and in bargaining for Waste Management Services.

Gegare and Pope disagreed on several issues. Pope heavily criticized a contract supported by Hoffa that the United Airline Mechanics voted down. Pope said the contract was voted down because it was giving unnecessary concessions to a profitable company, while Gegare refused to weigh in on the contract, saying, For me to play armchair quarterback, I would have to speak to membership or be at membership meeting.”

Gegare and Hall agreed that the Teamsters should stay within Change to Win. Pope, however, called on Teamsters to abandon Change to Win and rejoin the AFL-CIO, saying, I don’t think it helps us to be separated. I think we should all be together. I was pretty upset that local officers weren’t consulted about leaving the AFL-CIO at all. We need to have unity and solidarity in the entire labor movement.”

Gegare and Pope also differed on their opposition to the federally mandated Independent Review Board. Since 1989, the Teamsters have been federally monitored by an Independent Review Board composed of a Department of Justice official, a union official and an official agreed to by both the Justice Department and the Teamsters. Unlike other big institutions that do not have to pay for their own investigations, the Teamsters are forced to pay the federal government for the operations of the IRB, even if the investigations turn up no wrongdoing.

Some Teamsters, including Hall and Gegare, argue that these IRB agents hinder the union operations, saying the mob presence in the union is virtually gone and that an internal ethics panel could police the union internally. At a time of declining dues as membership in the Teamsters decreases, many Teamsters feel that it is unfair to have to pay for federal investigations of their own union. Both Hall and Gegare called for the IRB to be ended. Meanwhile, Pope cited a ruling by a court-appointed board that Hoffa tried to bribe three individuals with lucrative job offers from running against him.

Over the following weeks the campaign will be quite intense. Hoffa clearly holds the upper hand in the election. He has a fat war chest, a large degree of name recognition and an army of Teamster staffers who he can deploy to work on his behalf. Gegare, meanwhile, is not on the ballot nationwide, as he did not collect enough signatures.

Challenger Pope is optimistic that Gegare, being a former Hoffa insider, might be able to cut off just enough of Hoffa’s vote so that she can win; candidates from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union have traditionally received a third of the vote.

Still, even if Gegare or Pope does win the election to succeed Hoffa, the outcome is unlikely to change things at the Teamsters overnight. The winning candidate will most likely be stuck with an executive board stacked full of Hoffa loyalists. Pope is running without a slate of other candidates for the executive board, and Gegare is not running with a full slate, as he was unable to get some candidates on the ballot on the West Coast.

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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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