Teamster troubles

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James P. Hoffa has been president of the Teamsters for only a month, but critics say his appeals for a united union are already ringing hollow.

In stark contrast to Hoffa’s public embrace of unity is a campaign of intimidation against reformers that recalls the bad old days in the 1.4 million-member union, alleges the group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

The alleged intimidation was detailed in an April 26 letter from TDU lawyer Paul Alan Levy to the court-appointed Independent Review Board monitoring the Teamsters. Levy described "an orchestrated campaign of threats against Teamster members and officers, blacklisting and destruction of union property."

TDU member Don Scott, president of the Atlanta local that is at the center of this controversy, said, "His (Hoffa’s) plea for unity is ‘You either join me or I’ll take you out.’ His unity plea is a crock of bull."

Teamsters officials deny the allegations.

"The Hoffa Administration will not allow the distractions of a few self-styled reformers – those that presided over the massive corruption in the Teamsters union over the last years – to move it off its course of unity and democratic trade unionism," stated a press release issued by the union.

The controversy arises from a rerun election for Southern vice president. The winner of last December’s race, Hoffa running mate J.D. Potter, was barred from office for laundering donations to Hoffa’s campaign.

With voting in the rerun election about to begin, reformers claim Hoffa and his supporters are playing hardball to ensure their candidate wins. As a result, arms are allegedly being twisted to gain the support of Local 278 in Atlanta. The local has a strong reform history, and its officers bucked a trend in the South when they failed to campaign for Hoffa.

Among the allegations outlined in the letter were claims that Hoffa and his supporters threatened to:

  • Pull some 4,800 United Parcel Service Teamsters out of Local 728 after local president Scott "refused to sign a letter endorsing Hoffa’s hand-picked candidate in the South."
  • Fire union staff who don’t donate to Hoffa’s campaign fund. One organizer has already been fired after he refused to contribute, claimed the TDU.
  • Cause some Teamsters to lose their jobs at a grievance panel "because their business agent reused to sign an endorsement and donate campaign funds to Hoffa’s candidate."

It is also alleged that the offices of a Teamster reformer were vandalized.

All these sorts of tactics were in common use in the Teamsters of the 1950s through the 1980s, and Teamster reformers are worried.

TDU leader Joyce Mims said, "We’re going to be starting from zero ground again. We’ve advanced so far in 10 years, to have to go back and start over again. … But we haven’t run out of steam yet." The federal government’s election monitor is investigating the allegations.

Chip Roth, director of communications for the Teamsters, called the charges "nakedly political and designed to embarrass the Hoffa administration. There is no threatening going on of any sort. The union is more unified today that it’s been in years."

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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