THE name "Hoffa" - for good or bad - remains one of the most recognized names in unionism. And that's exactly what James P. Hoffa, son of the late labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, is counting on.
The young Hoffa - known among supporters as "Jimmy Jr." (his father's name was James R.) while opponents call him "Junior Hoffa" - is running for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. With 1.4 million members, mostly truckers, the Teamsters is America's largest private-sector union.
A former labor leader from Detroit, Mr. Hoffa has built a platform on recovering some of the power the union has lost since the 1960s, when his father was Teamster president. His father vanished in 1975 in what is assumed to be a mob-linked murder - after serving a jail term for jury tampering and pension fraud.
Hoffa vows to unify the union and end declines in membership and budget. "I want to rebuild the Teamsters union to be a strong, forceful union for its members," he says in an interview.
But behind the old name is a fresh style. "He's a new breed of labor leader, which our unions are going to have to have," says labor expert Arthur Sloane.
He is running against incumbent Ron Carey, who was elected in the union's first direct presidential election in 1991 on a promise to rid the union of mob ties and corruption.
Much has changed over the past quarter century. Union power in general has declined, because of the shrinking share of industry in the country's employment and competition from foreign workers. And the deregulation of the trucking industry has made it more difficult to organize.
Whether Hoffa can garner enough support to win the top Teamsters post is debatable.
Detractors, including Mr. Carey, contend that Hoffa is an outsider with no union experience who represents the "old guard" that corrupted the union. And putting Hoffa at the helm would be putting those people back into power.
Hoffa denies any ties with the mob and his platform includes the right to a corruption-free union. "We hope we've turned the page on corruption," he says.
Others hold that Hoffa has managed to galvanize Carey's enemies who have seen their salaries cut and their allies fired.
"I suspect he's going to win because he's running against a guy who's lost ground," says Mr. Sloane, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Delaware in Newark.
The bid for the top Teamsters' post is being watched closely. Strengthening the union, labor watchers say, is crucial to strengthening the labor movement in general.
While the election isn't until November, Hoffa has been on the stump from New York to San Francisco attending rallies and raising money. "This union in 1996 faces some tremendous problems," he says. Hoffa claims Carey has nearly bankrupted the union and depleted the strike fund, divided members, failed to recruit new members, and negotiated bad contracts.
"Under Ron Carey, the union has become a shell of its former self," Hoffa says.
Carey says he inherited the union's financial problems. Before he came to office in February 1992, he says, the former delegates voted to quadruple workers' strike benefits from $55 a week to $200 a week with no way to pay for them. Eventually, assets dipped so low the union stopped paying out strike benefits for about 15 months. Last year, it reinstated $55-a-week benefits.
"He just doesn't have the facts," Carey rebuts. Carey contends that membership increased by some 4,000 in 1995 after a steady decline over the last 16 years. He also defends his efforts to launch a national organizing effort, which he says has compelled 16 terminals at Overnite Transportation Company, a national trucking company based in Richmond, Va., to join the union.
On the issue of division among members, Carey says division exists between the old-guard membership and the new members.
"When you look at the people who his father left behind ... the mob, I've had to make some tough decisions about ... putting the members first," he says."There are lots of people out there who are not happy about that."
Corruption has long been a thorn in the side of the Teamsters. In 1989, the union settled a federal racketeering lawsuit alleging Teamster ties with the mob. That led to the 1991 elections, and monitoring by a federal panel. More than 60 locals have been put into trusteeship and more than 200 Teamsters have been ousted for corruption.
Although Hoffa is trying to capitalize on his father's name, the two men are very different. His father was a seventh-grade dropout; he is a University of Michigan Law School graduate.
Many say Hoffa doesn't have the experience to win the election. Hoffa has paid Teamster dues for 26 years, but his Teamster work included stints as a truck driver before his law career - not leadership roles.
Hoffa tried to run for president in 1991, but wasn't eligible because he hadn't held a union job or elective office for two years. To qualify for the top post, in 1993, Detroit Teamster leader Larry Brennan hired him as his executive assistant.
"He doesn't have any experience," says Ken Paff, national organizer for Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group that backs Carey. "He was born on third base and now he's pretending he hit a triple."