For all of his working life, like his father before him, John Thyer, 52, has been a Teamster. As principal officer of his St. Louis-based local union of carhaulers, Thyer supported James P. Hoffa in his winning bid for president in 2001. But as the Teamsters send out mail ballots for top international union officers to 1.4 million members around the country in October, Thyer is running as a vice-presidential candidate on a slate opposing Hoffa.
“Yeah, sure I supported Hoffa,” Thyer says. “I feel like a fool, but I did. But it’s never too late to do the right thing. I bought into the hype, the smoke and mirrors. I really thought they were going to do what they said they’d do, but they did nothing. Our health and welfare and pensions have been cut. There’s a lack of representation for members, lack of acknowledgement that there even are members in this union.”
With his famous name, the powers of incumbency, apparent support of most elected union officials and staff, and lots of money, Hoffa goes into the election as the favorite. His opponent, Tom Leedham, president of an Oregon local, has run against Hoffa twice before, winning about 38 percent of the vote in 1999 and 35 percent in 2001.
But despite his underdog status, nobody should rule out Leedham’s chances. Hoffa not only has a name, but a record. According to Leedham, “It’s a dismal record of failure.”
Hoffa, Leedham charges, “pushed through the largest dues increase in the history of the union without a membership vote. We’ve had the largest pension cuts in history, when he ran on a pledge of no dues increase and ‘25 and out’ [full pensions after 25 years of work]. He doubled dues, but there’s been no doubling of union power. He called two strikes, and both were failures. He developed an anti-corruption program with great fanfare and spent $15 million, but it collapsed when he blocked investigators when they were getting close to his office.”
“It’s a record of weak contracts, pension cuts and dues to support a lavish lifestyle of top officers,” says Leedham, “With the number of international employees receiving multiple salaries increasing from 16 to 163. Teamster members are hungry for change.”
Teamsters directly elect their top officers under rules established when the union’s former leadership signed a federal consent decree in 1989 to avoid prosecution on charges of corruption and mob influence. In the first direct election in 1991, Teamsters voted for an insurgent, Ron Carey, backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). This rank-and-file group, founded in 1976, has fought for a more democratic, member-oriented union. Leedham directed the freight division under Carey, whose re-election in 1996 was overturned because his campaign staff had used union funds for Carey’s race against challenger Hoffa.
Hoffa’s campaign says that he has restored unity and financial stability to a union that was divided under Carey. And the campaign has tried to link Leedham to real and alleged problems of the Carey era and decried his support from TDU.
Although Hoffa’s campaign claims to have negotiated outstanding contracts for freight truck and UPS workers, one of the biggest election issues may be the cuts in pensions and retiree health coverage provided by two of the biggest funds jointly managed by the union and companies. Those funds cover roughly 400,000 Teamsters, including many freight and UPS workers, who are among those most likely to vote in the election.
Last year, Hoffa was a key figure in the split of the AFL-CIO that led to formation of the Change to Win Federation. Leedham has expressed doubts about the rationale for the split, and a desire to negotiate unity in the labor movement. He champions greater mobilization of the members, both for contract fights (his model is the successful 1997 UPS strike) and for organizing. (He advocates hiring 1,000 Teamster members as organizers).
While Hoffa has increased the international union staff and budget for organizing and launched several new campaigns, the union has lost approximately 150,000 members during his tenure – although mergers of three small unions kept the union’s net membership stable. Hoffa failed in his biggest organizing gamble: a three-year strike at Overnite, a trucking firm where Carey’s team had begun to organize several dozen worksites. At the union convention last June, Hoffa announced that he had won an agreement for collective bargaining recognition by checking union cards at the company (now a division of UPS), but it applies only to one terminal in Indianapolis that was recently organized.
Leedham may benefit from diminished enthusiasm for Hoffa even among officers nominally supporting him. In one indication of tensions within Hoffa’s camp, one of his vice-presidents, Tyson Johnson, announced earlier this year that he would challenge Hoffa’s re-election, but he later withdrew and is now running with Hoffa. Also, two independent vice-presidential candidates in the East (informally supported by Leedham) were prominent former Hoffa supporters. But the question for Leedham’s campaign is not only whether Hoffa’s one-time supporters have grown disgruntled with his record, but also how hopeful such members are that they can change their union.
“If people feel it’s their union, Leedham will win,” says TDU organizer Ken Paff. “But there’s a lot of cynicism in the country, and that’s what we’re struggling with.”
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David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.