Teamsters' Woes Slow Labor's Revival

Corruption charges dog largest union, giving ammunition to anti-organizing forces.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

'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.

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.

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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.

Also, the Teamsters are likely to cut their contributions to the Democratic Party now that their coffers are depleted and a federal auditor is monitoring union books. During the 1996 general election, the Teamsters' political action committee was one of the nation's biggest campaign funders. It contributed more than $9 million, mostly to Democrats.

The loss of political clout comes a critical time, say analysts. Labor wants to rebuff a second push by Clinton for fast-track trade authority. And it will be trying to bolster the campaigns of sympathetic lawmakers during the November elections.

"The movement aims this year to raise the minimum wage, expand heath-care coverage, and strengthen pension protections," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney announced last week. It has already earmarked $15 million for the coming election.

Meanwhile, the fall of Carey is a delicious irony for Hoffa. Carey won in 1996 partly by urging Teamsters to thwart a comeback by a corrupt old guard. Now, assuming he is not excluded from the race for improper fund-raising, Hoffa eagerly awaits what he calls a "second bite of the apple." No date for the election is set but it is expected this spring.

During a recent rally here, a blue-collar crowd buzzes with the recollection of Hoffa Sr.'s success in building the country's biggest and most powerful union.

"When Jimmy Hoffa was in, the companies were scared of us, we always got good contracts, and no one was ashamed of saying he was a Teamster - they were proud of it," says Ken England, a warehouseman at Local 730.

Yet the Hoffa name also carries an undercurrent of corruption. The senior Hoffa was indicted repeatedly for charges ranging from bribery to misuse of union funds. He was convicted of jury tampering in 1964 and later sentenced to a total of 13 years in prison. He disappeared in 1975.

The younger Hoffa, a lawyer, exploits his father's success, recalling boyhood memories on picket lines. It's a legacy that helps counter his inexperience in recruitment, negotiation, and handling strikes, say analysts.

Will the scandals will hurt organized labor? "People join unions because bosses treat them like dogs," says John Steger, vice president of Local 639 and a candidate on the Hoffa slate. "That won't stop because of what happened to Ron Carey."

The Son Also Rises

James P. Hoffa, son of legendary Teamsters leader James R. Hoffa is making a bid for the Teamsters presidency. The election is expected to be held this spring.

Born: May 19, 1941 in Detroit, Mich.

Education: Michigan State University, BA Economics, 1963.

University of Michigan Law School, LLB, 1966.

Family: Married Virginia Harris, 1969.

Two children, David and Geoffrey

Career: 1968-1993 - practiced law in Michigan. 1993- became executive sssistant to Michigan Teamsters leader Larry Brennan.

Favorite Movie: "The Lion King" - "It's about the Teamsters Union. It's about the son coming back and in this case making the union right again."

Goal for the Teamsters: In the wake of declining membership and funds, intends to rebuild the union to its former position of power.

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