President Hoffa ... so far

Nov 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

When James P. Hoffa became president of the Teamsters, he promised Detroit newspaper workers that their struggle would soon be over. Insiders still make no predictions about when or whether the papers will settle the conflict short of an appeal to the Supreme Court. Every indication is that Hoffa does want to close the books on the Detroit disaster. But the signals he’s sent about the kind of terms he would settle for are worrying some of the holdout strikers and their leaders.

In the three national contracts bargained since Hoffa took office in March, as well as in some local fights, Hoffa’s policy has been to wrap up long-simmering disputes, even if that means accepting what critics are calling substandard or lackluster agreements.

The watchword is "resolution" — getting things over and done with, thus achieving stability both for the companies and for union officials. Hoffa came to the Teamsters job with no bargaining experience, but he soon got the chance to show his stuff. This spring and summer he oversaw national contracts for carhaul drivers, Northwest Airlines flight attendants and Anheuser-Busch brewery workers. Just last week, he called a national strike in an important organizing drive at the nation’s largest nonunion trucking company, Overnite, based in Richmond, Va.

Rising star

He’s also appointed a respected former federal prosecutor as his ethics adviser and is lobbying the government hard to end its 10 years of oversight of the union.

Along the way his national star appears to be rising steadily. He was honored at a gala New York City dinner attended by President Bill Clinton. He was even approached by right-wing presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan as a potential running mate.

And when the Teamsters recently refused to join most other members of the AFL-CIO in handing an early endorsement to Vice President Al Gore, the media anointed Hoffa a potential power broker in the 2000 presidential race.

But, asked to describe Hoffa’s most important achievement thus far, spokesperson Chip Roth names no bargaining table achievement. This may not be surprising, since the Anheuser-Busch contract was deeply concessionary, and the members at Northwest voted theirs down by 69 percent. Roth cites instead Hoffa’s "success in moving forward towards reunifying the union."

Roth castigates a Business Week article that declared the car-haul agreement concessionary, and points to its early retirement provisions and 80 percent vote in favor. He calls Northwest "a very difficult set of circumstances," with workers "three years without a contract," and points out the rejected offer’s wage and pension gains.

At Anheuser-Busch, Roth says that Hoffa "inherited" the situation from his predecessor, Ron Carey. Although the six-year contract eliminates "past practice" — working conditions long recognized but not officially part of the contract — and gives the company more flexibility to outsource and use temps, it was deemed better to sign a contract than to work under management’s imposed conditions.

"It’s important to put a foundation in place" to rebuild for the future, Roth said. In a letter to members, Hoffa said the contract was the best that could be negotiated, arguing, "Responsible leadership is willing to bite the bullet and tell it like it is."

Apparently, then, Hoffa did not consider the possibility of using the kind of member mobilization tactics that won the 1997 UPS strike. At Anheuser-Busch, he gave members only two choices: Accept the company’s concession demands — which they had already voted down twice — or strike and be "starved into submission."

Local officials at A-B breweries had strongly backed Hoffa in the 1998 election; now they felt betrayed. "I am ashamed of Jim Hoffa," wrote one St. Louis officer in a publication called "What’s Brewing." Officers urged their members to vote no; they finally voted yes by 59 percent.

At Northwest, flight attendants had built up an active Contract Action Team (CAT) to pressure management, after 10 years without a raise. Activists felt their power was frittered away at the table when bargainers came back with a so-so deal. After the no vote, Hoffa’s supporters on the local executive board voted to disband CAT .

Says Ken Paff at the Detroit headquarters of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the reform movement within the union: "When he ran, Hoffa promised the members that one man pounding on the table could do it for them. No surprise that that strategy hasn’t delivered. In a tough situation — and he’s had several — what you’ll notice is never an option for Hoffa is trying to rebuild the members’ power."

New negotiator

A big majority of the Detroit newspaper strikers were Teamsters, so what the union does will affect all workers involved. Rank and filers who remained active in harassment actions against the newspapers were upset this spring when Hoffa fired their highly respected organizer, Mike Zielinski. Zielinski was known for imaginative, in-your-face tactics, and for putting himself on the front lines. Hoffa ignored repeated pleas by the strikers to take Zielinski back. Instead he sent in Jon Rabine, who took over negotiations from local officials.

Rabine is an international vice-president from Seattle whom Hoffa brought in to quash a large strike of low-paid Mexican-immigrant meatpackers in Washington state this summer. When Rabine took over bargaining there, he brought back an offer without consulting with the local committee — who were all members of TDU.

The offer included wage increases, but high-seniority workers were forced to take big cuts in their pensions and won nothing on safety — the issue that had sparked the strike. At the ratification meeting, Rabine allowed little discussion. The committee’s recommendation to go back to work without a contract and continue the fight inside the plant was ruled out of order. The contract passed by a thin margin.

In Detroit, Rabine is leading negotiations on "noneconomic issues" and has reportedly reached some agreements with management. Noneconomic issues include work schedules, manning levels and work rules. According to Tom Page, secretary-treasurer of Local 2040 (mailers), local officials now sit in a separate room while Rabine and another international official talk to company bargainers.

Asked about the negotiations under Rabine, union leaders were cautious. Al Young, president of Local 2040, said, "Hoffa did re-spark negotiations with the company. It’s good that we got talks going. The verdict is out on what happens with that."

Al Derey, principal officer of Local 372 representing circulation workers, was carefully noncommittal: "Without seeing the whole picture it’s difficult to pass judgment exactly on what is being agreed to. My attitude in negotiating a contract is always to try to negotiate something the members will pass. Otherwise it’s an exercise in futility. … Whether the overall agreement that is reached on both non-economics and economics leads to a contract — that’s dependent on the membership vote. And how the members vote remains to be seen, depending on whether the final outcome is to their liking."

Privately, a leader of another newspaper union said Derey was "furious" about what Rabine was agreeing to. One activist said members were "skeptical" about what Rabine and Hoffa would bring back.

Rabine did not return calls from the Metro Times.

Benefit of the doubt

One longtime Teamsters watcher is Michael Belzer of the University of Michigan’s Business School. His forthcoming book, Sweatshops on Wheels, will assess the impact on trucking of deregulation. Belzer says Hoffa is "doing reasonably well considering people’s anticipation."

He is willing to give Hoffa the "benefit of the doubt" on cleaning up corruption. "It seems the union is way more pluralistic than it was in the old days," he says. "Hoffa is a long way from gaining that level of control."

But "the health of collective bargaining is the bigger question," Belzer stresses. "The carhaul contract, for example, was OK; it had some givebacks and possibly some gains. But the real question is whether the unionized sector of that industry is going to expand. The environment in carhaul is precarious because of the tremendous growth in the non-union sector — the used car market, because of leases.

"The only way you’re going to get good contracts anywhere is by having a very sophisticated, consistent plan to increase the union’s strategic bargaining power in markets where it has strength. When you look at the trucking industry, most of it is non-union. You’re not going to reach them in a traditional organizing style. You have to have something on the scale of the UPS campaign, where you capture the nation’s attention." The organizing drive at Overnite, inherited from Carey, is Hoffa’s chance to try out such a campaign. On Oct. 24, the union called a national strike over what the National Labor Relations Board says are more than 1,000 labor violations by Overnite. Over the past four years, the union had won elections to represent about 40 percent of Overnite’s 8,200 workers at 166 terminals, but had signed up no new members for some time and had not bargained any contracts. The strike is Hoffa’s attempt to force Overnite into bargaining.

The union says 2,000 workers honored picket lines; the company claims the figure is 600. By Oct. 28 the company had closed four terminals.

Despite ample time to make ready since a short practice strike in July, the union appeared ill prepared for the strike. Although union support is high at some terminals, at others, with the union election several years in the past, former union backers have moved on to other jobs.

Union spokesman David Cameron said the Teamsters were "on strike" at about 126 terminals, but "on strike" seemed to mean "maintaining a picket line." Cameron said, "There are terminals where we’ve never had an election or organized at all, and we’re on strike there. Maybe we have zero workers participating, or one worker whose father was a Teamster and he’s just a pro-union person, he’s telling the company, ‘I’m not coming to work till this is over.’ The rest of the picket line is manned by the Teamsters."

In Detroit, Teamster officers and rank and filers from other companies walked the lines and followed Overnite trucks in their cars. They did not try to stop traffic, which was substantial, in and out of Overnite facilities.

Corruption watch

What about Hoffa’s efforts toward a cleaner union? Another longtime Teamsters watcher is Herman Benson, dean of the 30-year-old Association for Union Democracy, a nonpartisan civil liberties organization that helps union members enforce their rights to fair elections and free speech. Benson condemns Hoffa’s campaign to end government oversight of the Teamsters. That oversight, says Benson, guaranteed honest elections and put in place a means to oust corrupt officers.

Hoffa has repeatedly said he wants the feds out. He has appointed attorney Edwin Stier to head an in-house anti-corruption effort. But, says Benson, Stier’s latitude will be limited precisely because he is Hoffa’s employee, answerable to ... Hoffa. He sees the appointment as window-dressing, part of the campaign against monitorship.

"He’s got a skillful PR gadget going," says Benson, noting the Oct. 7 banquet honoring Hoffa that turned out not only President Clinton but also hundreds of New York union officials. "He’s also got a wing of the Republicans on his side. If he can get rid of the monitorship he can use the full power of the executive board to undermine reform efforts."

But Hoffa is not waiting for the monitorship to be lifted to move against opponents. At the Washington meatpacking plant, Mexican-American shop floor leaders vowed to run against Hoffa-backed incumbents in the next election. They were favored to win, but Hoffa threw the local into trusteeship. According to shop floor leaders, the action was taken to keep Hoffa’s people in power.

In Detroit, Hoffa’s promise to win it for the newspaper workers — after four long years without a contract — undoubtedly raised the hopes of some. His record since may have changed those hopes to unease. Said one activist, "People look at the settlements at Busch and Northwest and they wonder, what are our settlements going to look like?"