Ken Paff is something of a labor hero. He helped form TDU, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, when he was a truck driver in Cleveland in 1976. Back then, opposing the union's corrupt national leadership could be physically dangerous.
Today Paff is the TDU's full-time national organizer, based in Detroit. He and his faction, now 10,000 members strong, are promoting the candidacy of Tom Leedham, a 47-year-old Oregon warehouseman running for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, long our most notorious union.
Voting will begin four weeks from now in a government-supervised election in which ballots will be mailed to the 1.4 million members. On Dec. 3, the count will begin, and within days, the man who will lead the union for the next five years will be known. But guess what? Odds are it won't be Leedham. Nor will it be John Metz, a St. Louis local boss who heads the union's public employees' division and an ally of the last Teamsters' president, the now-disgraced Ron Carey, once seen as the original Mr. Clean.
No, the winner is likely to be one James P. Hoffa. As in son of Jimmy Hoffa, the darkest knight of the labor movement, the man who won the troops good contracts while making himself corruption's poster boy. That Hoffa famously vanished in 1975 at Maple and Telegraph. This Hoffa now wants to sit in the Washington headquarters so aptly named the Marble Palace. To Paff and the TDU, nothing could be worse.
For them, the man they dismiss as "Junior" is only a front for the network of chieftains who have long used and abused the Teamsters. "His real platform is local autonomy. What that means is every little local a law unto itself," Paff said.
There are, indeed, questions about Hoffa. Three weeks ago, MT reported his campaign had taken in nearly $650,000 in cash and, mainly, unpaid legal services. The Hoffa candidate slate for the union's executive board includes 20 white men, one black man, and no women (one female Hoffa supporter is among six holdover members), though women are now nearly one-fourth of all Teamsters.
Yet, maddeningly, reality is often complicated. To anyone who cared to look, the evidence was that the Carey sold to the public as the Teamsters' great squeaky-clean hope was a media creation started by author Steven Brill, who made the young leader of a New York local the hero of his 1978 book, The Teamsters.
Time magazine reported years ago that Carey had acquired $2.4 million in prime Florida real estate while a humble UPS driver making $40,000 a year. "There long have been questions about Carey's moral purity," the New York Times admitted earlier this year, noting allegations linking him to the Mafia.
Yet the media made it seem clear who the good guys and bad guys were when Hoffa ran against Carey for leadership of the union two years ago. Carey won that race, 52 percent to 48 percent, and government monitors looked the other way when Hoffa's camp complained that 26,000 mailed-in votes mysteriously disappeared.
But they couldn't ignore it when a diligent Hoffa supporter scoured Carey's campaign finance reports and found a money-laundering scheme in which Teamster dues were transferred to liberal advocacy groups who then donated to Carey's campaign.
The election was voided. This summer, an independent review board not only barred Carey from running again, it expelled him from the union for life! Naturally Carey claimed to have known nothing, nothing about any illegal contributions. The board found that argument "less than credible." Frederick Lacey, a retired federal judge, said as he watched Carey testify, "My evaluation was that he was not telling the truth."
Now that doesn't prove that Hoffa is fit to lead. But bafflingly, and, I think, tellingly, the TDU and Needham still refuse to repudiate Carey; the most Paff will say is that allowing consultants to take over his campaign was "a monumental mistake."
"I think Ron Carey was a tremendous force for change in the Teamsters," Paff said, admiringly. There is some truth in that; Carey's spending nearly bankrupted the union, which had $155 million in its treasury when he came in and is now nearly broke.
Yet they attack Hoffa, essentially for being his father's son, ridiculing him as "junior" though they know he isn't one. Is that fair? The elder Hoffa had a seventh-grade education; this one has a law degree from the University of Michigan.
The elder Hoffa was deeply corrupt. Yet he also negotiated something called the National Master Freight Agreement, which tripled the wages of the average member, gave them a stake in the American dream. What if this Hoffa proved to be intent on restoring the bright side of his father's legacy while avoiding the rest?
What if the TDU, rather than blindly opposing him, were to fulfill its proper role as watchdog, praising if he does right, sounding the alarm if he goes off the track? Labor unions have been losing ground for decades. What if, just what if, this Hoffa could start turning that around? Too improbable to believe? Maybe.
Yet I sneered too, when a third-rate former actor claimed in 1984 his muddled policies would bring about the end of something he called the "evil empire." Those who follow the Teamsters might be wise to keep a closed wallet, and an open mind.