Teamster Tattoo Politics: As Genteel as a Tire Iron

Democracy has come to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters with the subtlety of an air horn.

The annual convention here in the City of Brotherly Love offers a window on the unruly fight for control of the nation's largest labor union. On one side is a former United Parcel Service driver, trying to purge the union of "mob" influence. On the other, a lawyer and son of the late James Hoffa, the president who became both a symbol of the union's corruption and its greatest period of power.

But so far, rugby scrums are conducted with more decorum than this gathering, which is also seen as a test of the internal democratic reforms imposed by the federal government to clean up the 1.4-million-member union.

As the meeting opened, hooting and hollering tattooed teamsters, mostly supporters of James Hoffa Jr., let their political leanings be known. The booing began after the national anthem, continued through a moment of silence, and finally drove off a US senator.

"Democracy has invaded the teamsters, and with democracy comes all the problems," says Sam Theodus, a 44-year teamsters veteran and general executive board member.

Some 5,000 teamsters (including 1,880 delegates) are gathered here to nominate officers and chart the course of the union. Teamsters' president Ron Carey, who was elected on a reform platform in 1991, is being challenged by Mr. Hoffa. Hoffa says Mr. Carey is weakening the union and giving away too much in negotiations with employers.

Observers say Carey has the edge now in the campaign for the rank-and-file vote for president, to be held in December.

The teamsters' democratic teething process is being watched closely by the US government. But it got off to an inauspicious start here. Hoffa supporters tried to vote down a report on allowing 80 unelected, Carey-appointed delegates to participate. Carey asked for a voice vote. A thunder of "Nos" and a strong, but weaker, chorus of "Ayes" were heard. Carey declared the "Ayes" the winner, triggering an angry cacophony of dissent that lasted more than three hours.

As he was being hooted off the platform, US Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania shouted, "The eyes and ears of America are on you to see if the teamsters can have a civilized meeting and a civilized election." Moments later, Senator Specter told the derisive crowd that the Russians had a more orderly election process than the teamsters do.

Orderly or not, the government is particularly interested because American taxpayers are footing the bill for this meeting. As part of an agreement with the Justice Department to curb union corruption, the teamsters in 1991 agreed to democratic elections of its leaders if the federal government picked up the $10 million to $15 million cost of the convention. "That's one reason people should be interested in what's happening here," says Mr. Theodus.

Despite its internal strife, the union is an important symbol of a resurgent labor force, says Ken Paff, who heads up the reform-minded Teamsters for a Democratic Union. "It's gone from a bank-robbed and corrupt union to a dynamic union," he says.

The teamsters, in fact, are no longer just a rowdy bunch of truck drivers. Women make up 30 percent of the membership. The union now includes nurses, government workers, and clerks, among other trades. The teamsters is one of the most active unions in the country, recruiting 5,000 new members last month alone.

Some of these new members have shown up at the convention center, where a large blue plume of cigarette smoke rises from the floor. Carey's supporters wear blue and yellow T-shirts and hail mostly from the Northeast or the newer locals. Hoffa's backers are dressed in red vests and tend to come from the Midwest and West Coast.

A typical Carey backer, Ray Fletcher is a clean-cut, young truck driver from Tacoma, Wash. He's at the convention to get information on pensions and benefits for his local. He worries about the union's image as a result of the convention chaos. "The media is going to kill us," he says.

By contrast, Rene Medreno of Los Angeles is a Hoffa supporter. Mr. Medreno, who heads up a bottling-plant local, has a full beard, tattoos on both arms, and a 50-inch chest. He came to the convention to vent his unhappiness over the Carey changes.

Over the past five years, Carey has tried to centralize power at the Washington headquarters. He has appointed more than 60 trusteeships since 1991 to take over corrupt or mob-influenced unions. Hoffa wants to return control of the union back to its locals.

Carey wants to continue the cleanup. He is proposing to make permanent an Ethical Practices Committee and increase its oversight of health and pension benefits funds. But it's not clear if Carey will have the votes at the convention to proceed.

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