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August 23rd, 2006 Don Mcintosh | Q & A
 

Tom Leedham

Why a Portland union leader thinks he'll finally unseat Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa Jr.

     
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IMAGE: AMY OULETTE
From his base in an outer Northeast Portland union hall, Tom Leedham is campaigning one more time to head the Teamsters, America's largest private-sector union.

His opponent: incumbent Jimmy Hoffa Jr., whose father mysteriously disappeared in 1975 after a lifetime as America's most famous—and infamous—labor leader.

Leedham's campaign challenges are formidable beyond facing the iconic Hoffa name: He must reach 1.4 million members at 30,000-plus workplaces. But the reward is high—a staff in the hundreds, a D.C. headquarters two blocks from the U.S. Capitol, and a $160 million annual budget (in 2005, Hoffa Jr. got a salary of $258,947, which Leedham says he'd cut if he wins).

Running against Hoffa is nothing new for Leedham, a 55-year-old progressive who headed the Teamsters' 400,000-member warehouse division during the mid-'90s presidency of reformer Ron Carey. After Carey's ouster in a campaign-finance scandal, Leedham lost to Hoffa for the top spot in 1998 with 40 percent of the vote. He polled 35 percent in a second campaign in 2001 against Hoffa and is now back for a third run in October.

WW: Why do you think you can win this time around?

Tom Leedham: The difference is that Hoffa now has a record to run on. Before, he promised he would protect the agreements and the pension. What's happened in the last few years is, we've had the first major cuts in our pension fund in the history of the union.

But the Hoffa name remains so strong. When the FBI was digging up a Michigan farm three months ago for the remains of Hoffa Sr., it seemed he's still this legend for Teamsters who long for a bygone era of power. How do you explain that?

People want a strong union, and the people that voted for Hoffa felt that electing somebody with a famous name might make a stronger union. I think now people have found out that public relations and celebrity business-unionism isn't going to make us stronger. What we've experienced in the past few years is not strength but weakness. We've lost 150,000 members in that period of time; they'll say we've grown, but what they've done is merged other unions in by making great offers to the leadership of those other unions.

Do you think there is still mob influence in the Teamsters?

Throughout the '90s, we did a lot to clean up the union. But since Hoffa got in, we've seen a lot of the same elements return. One of Hoffa's promises was to get the government out of the union. He set up an ethics panel called RISE—Respect Integrity Strength Ethics. We spent $15 million of our dues money on this program. He hired a guy named Ed Stier, a well-known crimefighter who cleaned up a corrupt local in New Jersey. Stier hired FBI agents, and they did their investigations. The more he dug into corruption in the union, his investigations started being blocked by Hoffa's office. It got so bad that Ed Stier, his entire crew of FBI agents, and the advisory committee all resigned on the same day [April 29, 2004], saying their investigations were blocked.

What could you do differently?

I would level with Teamster members. Look, the American labor movement is in serious trouble. The officers just continue as if we were in the mid-'60s. We have to roll up our sleeves, redirect our resources and organize in the core industries to support our existing contracts. Also, we have to hold politicians accountable, and limit our focus [to] those issues that are going to strengthen working people. How we organize is important, too. We can hire 1,000 Teamsters, train them as organizers and get them out in the street organizing the non-union competition. If we don't, we're not going to be able to support our existing contracts.

You've been an advocate of greater democracy in unions. But hasn't the result been that people elect leaders like Hoffa Jr.?

You're not always going to be satisfied with the decisions made, but you have an opportunity to debate the issues. People have to know there is a way to hold decisionmakers accountable. And in most unions right now, they don't have a way to hold decisionmakers accountable. That's what we need.


To listen to the entire interview, go to www.wweek.com/media/7919.mp3.

The Teamsters remain under federal supervision as part of a 1989 consent decree stemming from a racketeering suit.

Hoffa Jr. showed a thuggish side eight years ago when, as a candidate in his first race for Teamster office, he met with WW reporter Josh Feit. Hoffa refused to answer questions and knocked a notebook out of the reporter's hand.

 
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