The Chicago Syndicate: Hoffa Challenged for Boss
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hoffa Challenged for Boss

Friends of mine: Jimmy Hoffa

James Hoffa, son of Jimmy Hoffa and leader of the TeamstersFrom a remote Oregon base, Tom Leedham is trying again to unseat the heir to the best-known name in American labor, James Hoffa, for the leadership of the 1.4-million-member Teamsters Union.

Academics, labor lawyers and other specialists say that while there are issues to discuss, it might take a major scandal to rile up enough of the membership to trounce Hoffa, and that hasn't happened.

Leedham, who got 35 percent of the vote against Hoffa five years ago, disagrees. "Everything is different now because Hoffa has a record to run on and it is a record of very weak contracts, the first pension cuts in the history of our union and the biggest dues increase in the history of our union that happened without a membership vote," he said at Oregon's Labor Day picnic, a brief respite from his nationwide campaign.

When Hoffa took over in 1998, he said the union was bordering on bankruptcy with only about $3-million in assets and virtually no strike fund. He put through a 25 percent dues increase that he said revived the fund and put the union on a sound footing. Leedham said it violated campaign promises.

Pension accrual issues have cut benefits or extended retirement ages for tens of thousands of Teamster drivers, mostly in the central region extending from Nebraska though Pennsylvania, to make up for diminished pension funds.

Leedham, 55, is a low-key man who doesn't fit the usual image of a Teamster official. A top officer of Oregon's statewide Local 206 since 1984, Leedham started as a warehouse worker after one year of college. He wound up running the union's 400,000-member warehouse division under Ron Carey, who defeated Hoffa for the union presidency in 1996 and was kicked out of the union for using $800,000 in union funds for his own campaign.

Leedham has the support of the feisty, dissident Detroit-based Teamsters Democratic Union. Whether he is tilting at a well-entrenched windmill or can actually oust Hoffa will be known in November. Ballots go out in early October.

Hoffa spokesman Rich Leebove said their campaign takes all challenges seriously but sees Leedham's effort as "more of a vanity campaign." "He has no record to run on, so he is attacking the Hoffa administration," he said in a telephone interview. Leedham, Leebove said, "is just part of the old guard trying to come back in a new guise."

Hoffa is the son of the famously absent Jimmy Hoffa, who ran the union from 1957 to 1971, served prison time for jury tampering and pension fund irregularities, and was presumed murdered by the mob in 1975. He was declared dead in 1982, but his body was never found.

Under the incumbent Hoffa, the Teamsters paid millions of dollars for an investigation led by former federal prosecutor Edwin Stier into any remaining links of the union to organized crime.

Stier and his team all quit the same day in April 2004, with Stier saying Hoffa was blocking investigation efforts "under pressure from a few self-interested individuals." Hoffa called the statement "reckless and false." But overall, the younger Hoffa has a pretty good record, said Gary Chaison, who teaches labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "Many of the problems the Teamsters face are being faced by all unions, such as globalization and outsourcing," he said.

Robert Bruno, associate professor at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said there are issues Leedham can run on but wondered if they would mobilize a union with often-low voter turnouts.

Bruno said signs are that union members are becoming more defensive, concentrating on protecting what they have and worrying less about union growth. Most recent Teamster growth has come from taking in other unions, not from expanding the ranks of truck drivers, he said.

Chaison said defeating any incumbent union leader is difficult. "He has the patronage, he's the one who shakes the hands."

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