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Teamster Dennis Nazelli achieved a sort of folk-hero status among his fellow strikers for the high-profile role he assumed during the drawn-out labor dispute with Detroit Newspapers and the city’s two dailies.

That commitment was rewarded last week when Teamsters’ Local 372 handed Nazelli, a Free Press circulation manager, an upset victory over longtime union head Al Derey, who also serves as chairman of the Council of Newspaper Unions.

For Nazelli, the strike served as a sort of awakening. Before that, he paid his dues and attended the occasional union meeting, but otherwise ignored the politics of the labor movement.

“The strike was like my Vietnam,” he said. “It activated me. I was 50 years old when the strike began in 1995. I just couldn’t stand by the sidelines and watch the rights of working families get trampled. I had to act. And then I had to lead. And now I have to rebuild.”

The local victory was hailed as a triumph for the Teamsters’ reform movement, which is bitterly opposed to James P. Hoffa and his attempt to win re-election to the presidency of the union once ruled with an iron fist by his father. Nazelli’s concern now is what the future will hold should Hoffa and his pals defeat reformer Tom Leedham and retain control of the union following the national vote in November.

“They are capable of retaliating, that’s what they specialize in,” said Nazelli.

Local 372 represents circulation managers, drivers and customer-service staff at the Detroit Newspapers, the Macomb Daily and the Daily Tribune in Royal Oak. It also represents valet and parking attendants, switchboard operators and warehouse personnel at Motor City and MGM casinos in Detroit. One concern is that the local could be put in the hands of a Hoffa-appointed trustee “because we’ve been broke since 1997,” explained Nazelli. “It’s not likely Hoffa would prop up a reformer.”

There are other possible threats as well.

“I’m here all alone, like a little island of reform in Hoffa’s own back yard,” said Nazelli. “I’m already feeling like a Shakespeare character, surrounded by conspiracies.”

Et tu, Jimmy?

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette, Metro Times news editor. Call 313-202-8004 or e-mail [email protected]

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