WASHINGTON (AP) _ After years of political infighting, local Teamsters officials are rallying around James P. Hoffa’s bid to lead the union his father, Jimmy Hoffa, built into a powerhouse.
Still, despite his promise to reunify the 1.4 million-member union, few figures have polarized the Teamsters as the younger Hoffa has. Opponents fear he would take the largest AFL-CIO affiliate backward.
His chief rival, Tom Leedham, has been crisscrossing the country to drum up support among members who choose a new national president this month. Leedham says the officials’ enthusiasm for Hoffa isn’t shared by the rank and file.
``The difference is, we’re out there shaking hands with Teamsters at plant gates,″ Leedham said during a recent campaign stop at a warehouse in suburban Washington. ``And there’s a huge anti-Hoffa vote.″
In another union election, a local president with Leedham’s 26 years in the organization might hold an edge over a labor lawyer from Michigan. But this lawyer is named Hoffa, and Leedham has been in an uphill fight.
Hoffa promises to ``restore the power,″ an unmistakable reference to the union’s halcyon days when his father was its president. James R. Hoffa disappeared in 1975, presumably a victim of organized crime.
The message has had strong appeal throughout the scandal-plagued union, and Hoffa speaks of his election as a foregone conclusion.
``We’re running as the unity slate, and it’s working,″ he said. ``I haven’t even been elected yet and we’ve already pulled this union together.″
On Dec. 3, a court-appointed officer begins counting mail ballots to determine the stewardship of the union at a time when labor is struggling to regain clout.
``There’s a lot at stake,″ said Ken Paff, national organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a group of grass-roots reformers who are Leedham’s biggest backers. ``The Teamsters have in the last couple years just started to shake things up in labor. ... To have that go backward would be a setback at a time when labor can’t afford a setback.″
Hoffa’s opponents point to his ties to many old-guard union leaders who have been charged with corruption. And they say he would take the Teamsters in a direction at odds with the AFL-CIO, which has been emphasizing more member involvement in organizing and politics.
But Hoffa’s supporters include some recent converts from a coalition that brought Teamsters for a Democratic Union and dozens of local officials together to back incumbent Ron Carey, until his narrow 1996 re-election was overturned because of campaign finance violations. Hoffa says he’s committed first to healing the union’s political divisions.
``We see a sea change in this union, from a union hopelessly divided brother against brother, sister against sister, to a union that is united,″ Hoffa said.
Leedham comes from the liberal wing of the union and says he would include rank-and-file members on all bargaining and grievance committees, maintain the focus on organizing, and end union donations to political candidates and parties.
The Teamsters election is held under court supervision as part of a deal struck with the Justice Department in 1989 to avoid racketeering charges and to loosen organized crime’s grip on the union.
Carey won the first such contest in 1991 and began transforming the Teamsters from an institution infamous for fat-cat officers with multiple salaries into a union that involved workers in contract and organizing campaigns. He cast a decisive vote in John Sweeney’s rise to power at the AFL-CIO, and he ran the successful 1997 United Parcel Service strike.
But three days after declaring victory over UPS, Carey’s narrow 1996 re-election over Hoffa was set aside: Investigators found that three consultants used $880,000 in union funds in a contribution-swap scheme that benefited his campaign. Carey was expelled from the union.
Top labor officials, including the AFL-CIO’s No. 2 officer, were implicated in schemes to funnel money to Carey’s campaign against Hoffa.
``We’re willing to forgive and forget their helping Carey,″ Hoffa said. ``We’re willing to move ahead with a new agenda and proactive stance at the AFL-CIO.″
Although he generally speaks only in broad terms about his agenda, Hoffa said he would file suit against Carey to recover funds used in the swap scheme and he has vowed to restore the union’s financial stability.
Squabbling among the anti-Hoffa forces left Leedham only five months to raise his profile in a union whose members are spread throughout the United States and Canada. Hoffa has campaigned for four years, and he has a strong fund-raising advantage.
For this election alone, Hoffa raised $925,000, compared with Leedham’s $237,190, before ballots were mailed to union members on Nov. 2. Hoffa is also carrying a $475,000 debt to attorneys and accountants. Both sides used last-minute mailings and phone banks.