Teamsters' Woes Slow Labor's Revival
Corruption charges dog largest union, giving ammunition to anti-organizing forces.
'Hoffa! Hoffa! Hoffa!" roar dozens of Teamsters, thrusting their fists upward as Jim Hoffa, son of the union icon, strides to the podium at Local 639 here.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Hoffa has grown well accustomed to this introduction during a four-year campaign to retake control of America's biggest private-sector union. He waits until the crowd quiets then, punching the air, shouts: "WERRRRRRR'RE BACK!"
Hoffa's return to center stage comes at a time when the US trade union movement has slowed its long decline through aggressive politicking and recruiting. Today, labor packs a stronger punch in the work place, ballot box, and on Capitol Hill than it has in decades, say analysts.
But some of the top labor leaders who led the turnaround are now mired in corruption charges. Analysts are divided over how damaging the controversy over illegal campaign funding is to the union movement.
"This is a setback for a labor movement going forward, but it's not permanent," says Kate Bronfenbrenner a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
But Leo Troy is less sanguine. "The scandal has negated and overwhelmed any [recent] accomplishments by unions," says the professor of economics at Rutgers University in Newark, N.J.
Already, three former aides to Ron Carey, former president at the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, have pleaded guilty to illegally funneling $700,000 into his 1996 campaign.
But the damage to the labor movement may not be over. A federal grand jury is hearing charges soon against three top labor officials allegedly involved in a fund-raising scheme for Mr. Carey.
The Justice Department is also investigating Hoffa's '96 campaign, examining $1.8 million in funds from unidentified sources.
And a government-appointed board last month held hearings that could lead to Carey's ouster from the union. He is on unpaid leave now and is barred from running again.
THE Teamsters scandal has tripped up a movement that had leapt forward in the past 18 months with a minimum-wage boost, a successful 15-day strike against United Parcel Service, and defeat of "fast-track" trade authority.
Some observers say that scandal is hampering efforts by the nation's labor unions to reverse the membership decline, which has fallen to 14.5 percent of the American work force. Employers can point to corruption as they try to dissuade workers from unionizing, say labor experts.
The scandal has also deepened the split in the 1.4 million-member Teamsters and further alienated the Hoffa camp from AFL-CIO leaders, who openly supported Carey.
"If Hoffa is elected head of the Teamsters, he will not forget what these guys [AFL-CIO leaders] did to beat him in 1996," says Mr. Troy. But Hoffa says, "We're not going to bear any animosity toward them, and we'll work with anyone who shares our goals."
Still, labor's biggest losses could come in the form of less political influence. Republicans can use the scandal in their efforts to prevent unions from using member dues for political contributions.