Delegates to the Teamsters union convention in Las Vegas this week are likely to set the stage for what may be the toughest fight for leadership of the union since James P. Hoffa, 75, won the presidency 17 years ago.
Fred Zuckerman, 59, the president of the 15,000-member Local 89 in Kentucky, will be at the head of the United Slate, challenging Hoffa for the presidency of the 1.26 million-member union. Zuckerman’s diverse local union is one of the biggest in the Teamsters. Equally important, they include employees at the giant hub in Louisville, of the United Parcel Service (UPS), arguably the most important single employer for the Teamsters union and the largest concentration of drivers for the carhaul industry (which transports new cars and often influences contract trends)
Five years ago, Zuckerman, a former Hoffa supporter, was part of a slate led by another breakaway Hoffa backer and union vice-president, Fred Gegare. Local union president Sandy Pope also ran for president without a full slate of challengers but with support from many long-term Hoffa critics, including Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
Neither group of Hoffa opponents fully trusted or wanted to support the other. Even though the two anti-Hoffa slates together drew about 41 percent of the vote, holding Hoffa to his lowest percentage in any of his re-elections. Most important, only about 250,000, or a fifth, of the members voted.
There are signs that the low turnout is not a measure of contentment with Hoffa as much as it is a withdrawal from the potential life of the union. There certainly have been potential grounds for discontent:
- There have been strong votes against parts or versions of important national contracts, such as UPS, carhauling and freight, and some contracts have been left unsettled for long periods or settled with weak contracts.
- Retirees who depend on the giant Central States Pension fund faced huge cuts, which many of them attributed in significant measure to agreements that Hoffa’s team made, and rose up in major protests that may still save their pensions.
- The union remains plagued with high-level corruption, including two cases brought so far this year by independent investigators against three officials of the Ohio Conference of Teamsters and against an international vice-president.
In order to win, Zuckerman’s Teamsters United need to go beyond the Teamsters who are disgusted and create Teamsters Excited — with a majority of an expanded union electorate feeling hopeful that the new crew can do things better.
“I ask people, ‘If you believe that if we don’t change how we operate, things will be better, raise your hand,’ ” explains a Teamsters United Slate vice-president-at-large candidate from New York, Tim Sylvester. “Why do a million Teamsters leave their ballot on the TV and not vote? They have no sense of hope.” Or solidarity: “It’s time that corporate America should take us on as a unified front,” he adds.
Zuckerman and his slate members seem to recognize that the Teamsters will once again win good contracts only if members grow in numbers and commitment.
“You can’t negotiate good contracts if you’re not organizing,” he said, reflecting on his experience with the carhaul division. But Hoffa “told me we’re not going to organize carhaul or spend the money.”
“They’re [Hoffa and his officers] certainly in bed with UPS,” he said. “I think they take the easy way out, to be company-friendly, get whatever they can, then go out and sell the contract.”
The federal government will still play a role in overseeing the balloting during October and November this year. But with the feds withdrawing some of the oversight imposed in 1989 as part of a consent decree with the courts over extensive corruption charges, the conduct of future elections and the investigation of official misdeeds is likely to be more under general executive board control and thus could be jeopardized by union officials determined to reverse the progress that the union has made.
The Teamsters union still has great potential for good — and despite deep disappointments, it still does excellent work in some areas, like the port trucker organizing. Not only Teamsters but all working people would benefit from a more energized, more deeply democratic Teamster union.
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.