Local Teamster aims to unseat Hoffa's son
A month ago, the federal government tried to put to rest the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa, the famously mobbed-up Teamster leader who disappeared in 1975. Acting on a tip, the FBI dug up a farm outside Detroit in a hunt for Hoffa's body. The agency made headlines but was not successful.
Today, with much less fanfare, Portlander Tom Leedham is trying to put to rest another vestige of Jimmy Hoffa - the famous leader's son, James P. Hoffa, now head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Leedham, a trim man with dark eyebrows and a trademark bushy mustache, is trying to unseat Hoffa in this year's election for the storied union's top job.
Leedham's campaign, his third try for the post, sheds light on the strange world of internal union politics as well as on the state of organized labor. Following years of declining union membership nationwide, the Teamsters are now at the heart of labor's efforts to reshape itself for the future. But at the same time, it's a union that, as Leedham's candidacy shows, is still trying to cast off its storied past. Indeed, says Leedham, 'Going to a Teamsters convention is like going back in time.'
Which is exactly what he'll do tomorrow, when he hops on a plane to Las Vegas. There, he'll spend a week at the Teamsters convention, trying to ensure he has the 5 percent of the delegates necessary to appear on the union's ballot later this year. While it's difficult for a challenger to win over enough delegates to get on the ballot, winning votes in the union's general election this fall won't be, Leedham says. The members know the union needs to transform, he says: 'They realize that flashy PR and somebody with a family name is not going to do it.' The Hoffa campaign is conducting 'an air war,' he said. 'We're going member to member.'
Reform already may be norm
If Leedham's self-styled underdog campaign wins, he will take the helm of a union that's 1.4 million members strong. The position pays a salary of more than $250,000 - a hefty raise over the $73,000-a-year salary he makes now as secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 206, which has some 2,800 members and is based on Northeast 162nd Avenue. Leedham says the hefty raise is not what he is battling for - in fact, he argues, it's one of the things he is fighting against. 'We have union officers in this country who are millionaires,' he says. 'That's not the way labor is supposed to be.'
Leedham talks a lot about reform, but his pitch has become a harder sell thanks to the surprising direction taken by the Teamsters of late. Once a symbol of old-guard, strong-arm politics, last summer the Teamsters joined with a union whose aggressive grass-roots style has been hailed by some as pointing the way for a resurgent labor movement: the Service Employees International Union. The two unions teamed with others in forming a rival group to the AFL-CIO called Change to Win, saying the labor movement needs to change itself and focus on organizing new workers to join unions to gain better pay and working conditions.
Because of Change to Win, said Richard Hurd, a professor of labor relations at Cornell University, 'many of the more progressive forces within the union are getting engaged in this new venture.' As a result, Hoffa may have stolen Leedham's thunder. 'I think that limits his potential,' Hurd added. While Leedham 'certainly is a very important voice within the organization, I think it's unlikely that he has much of a chance.'
The debate over the Teamsters has effects well beyond the union's membership. Because of the Teamsters' vast pension funds, political influence and financial holdings, if indeed corruption is lingering in the union, that 'has an enormous impact on the public,' said Edwin Stier, a New Jersey-based former federal prosecutor. Stier was hired to clean up the union but resigned two years ago claiming Hoffa had obstructed his efforts. He said the union is a lot cleaner than it used to be but still has 'pockets' of corruption.
Union long tied to Portland
Few remember it today, but the Teamsters are a union with deep ties to Portland. Organized crime featuring the Teamsters had a hold on gambling dens, the Portland Police Bureau and City Hall. As a congressional committee report said in 1958, if not for a dispute among local union leaders, 'gambling and law enforcement in Portland would now be completely under the domination of a teamster-backed (sic) underworld.' Portlanders did not seem all that worried, however - they elected Multnomah County Sheriff Terry Schrunk mayor even after he was indicted on Teamster-linked racketeering charges.
In any case, the news coming from Portland and other cities helped inspire a backlash against organized crime by the federal government as well as from union membership. A new reform-minded movement sprang up called Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
In 1991, TDU helped elect a like-minded candidate to head the Teamsters: Ron Carey, who became the darling of progressives and the Democratic Party. In 1997, however, he fell in a scandal in which his administration, in a contested election against Hoffa's son, was accused of funneling union dues through the Democratic Party and back into his campaign. He was expelled, and Leedham - then a vice president for Carey - jumped into the fray. In the 1998 election Leedham won 40 percent of the vote. Running again in 2001 he took only 35 percent.
But judging by the vehemence with which Hoffa's campaign says Leedham has no chance, it appears that Hoffa is not taking this challenge lightly.
Hoffa spokesman Richard Leebove says Leedham, who received national attention in his previous campaigns, is not getting as much media coverage today. The reason, Leebove argues, is that Leedham is not 'a serious candidate'; rather, his campaign is 'kind of a vanity thing.'
Leebove said there is no truth to the claims of Stier, the former federal prosecutor; instead, Leebove said the lawyer was just unhappy that he'd fallen out of favor with Hoffa because the federal government was not satisfied with Stier's efforts.
Hoffa has fully reformed the union, Leebove said, making it the 'most democratic union in the country,' and the reform faction Leedham represents is 'fighting for relevancy within the union. They have slayed all their dragons. Democracy has taken hold in the union. … They're like the French partisans fighting against the Nazis - well, the war is over. All Leedham is reduced to is rear-guard whining.'
As far as Leedham's talk of organizing, Leebove notes that membership in the Portland-based Local 206 has dropped about 20 percent in the past five years. 'He hasn't done any organizing,' Leebove said, adding that on the national Teamsters scene, Leedham has been 'missing in action.'
Told this, Leedham chuckled and agreed he's been low-profile. 'He's right - I've been doing my work. He doesn't understand that I have a job in a local union.'
As for his local's declining membership, he says, 'We've had companies go out of business.' The fact is, he added, under Hoffa 'the International has lost 150,000 members.'
As for democracy taking hold in the Teamsters, Leedham said, 'We have our foot in the door of democracy is more like it.'
While he supports the goals of the new Change to Win coalition, Leedham said breaking up the AFL-CIO was a mistake. Here in Oregon, he says, the discussion in the labor movement has become not about advancing forward but about restoring the movement to 'where we were' before the breakup.
Today, Leedham maintains that he has a far better chance at winning than ever, arguing that union members' pay and benefits have suffered under Hoffa even while dues have gone up. Asked what he'll do if he loses a third time, he declined to answer, saying, 'I have no intention of losing.'