The revisionist history of James Hoffa's successful candidacy for the presidency of the Teamsters is already being written. Hoffa campaigned under the slogan "Restore Teamsters Power," a not-so-subtle reminder of the days when his father made the union into the most-feared--for more reasons than one--labor organization in the country. But in his appearance on Meet the Press Sunday, Hoffa dismissed the idea that his victory was evidence of a desire to recapture faded glory. "It's 1998," he said. "People want to start over."
People may want to start over, but Hoffa's victory suggests that a significant chunk of the Teamsters do not. Although the New York Times today cited "many experts" who see Hoffa potentially giving the labor movement "a much-needed shot in the arm," exactly what that shot would be remains completely cloudy, since Hoffa's campaign was, as I've suggested here before, devoid of substance. "Teamsters Power" sounds nice, but the real question is who are the teamsters who will exercise that power?
Of course, since the Teamsters completed their two major bargaining drives--one with UPS, and one with the country's major trucking firms--in the last year and a half, Hoffa will have the luxury of not having to answer that question for a while yet. But then "Teamsters Power" was never really about getting better contracts through genuine militancy. It's always been about Hoffa consolidating power on the national level and, more troublingly, about his adherents re-assuming power in local unions.
The irony of Hoffa's victory, after all, is that although it represents a rejection of grassroots unionism and a return to a top-down model of leadership, it will also mean greater autonomy for local unions. That may seem to be a contradiction in terms. But over the last few years the Teamsters became a union where even as the international became more powerful, so did individual members. That's because a more powerful international meant restraints on the power of the many undemocratic locals that dot the Teamsters landscape.
In that sense, Hoffa was sort of the equivalent of a states'-rights candidate, since he promised to return power to the locals (or, to be more accurate, to the leaders of the locals). The reason power was taken away from the locals, of course, was that they were often corrupt, undemocratic, and in some cases allied with the Mob. But what's a little corruption between friends?
The really painful thing to contemplate here is the damage that former president Ron Carey has inflicted on this union. The fact that he ascended to power on a reform platform, cleaned up the union, won the UPS strike, and then resorted to backroom dealings to retain power only confirmed for many their doubts about the labor movement. Tom Leedham, who ran a courageous race against Hoffa and did better than he might have (especially when you consider that he was outspent four-to-one and had almost no name recognition), has helped restore credibility to the Teamsters' reformist wing. But only if that wing remains committed to internal democracy and continues to build support for real reform over the next three years will Hoffa face any real challenge to his power in the future.