The New Teamsters: Rig No Longer Required

In the 1960s, when Jimmy Hoffa wanted to talk to his fellow Teamsters, he could drop by a truck stop.

Today, whoever is elected to lead the nation's largest union, will have to go to Disney World, police stations, bus depots, and salt mines under Lake Erie. It might also help to speak Spanish and be conversant about sexual harassment in the workplace.

These are some of the changes that are taking place in the nation's largest union as it begins the task of counting about 500,000 votes in a bitter battle to see who will run the shop. Preliminary results will be announced today.

The race pits Mr. Hoffa's son, James, against Ron Carey, the current president who has spent the last five years trying to root out corruption in the union.

The two men offer distinctly different visions of what the Teamsters of the 21st century should be. Mr. Hoffa, a Detroit lawyer, has combined his name recognition with a relentless campaign. Mr. Carey has tried to portray his opponent as linked to the "mob." Hoffa appeals to many of the older members who like to recall the days when the union could shut down the country. They call it "Teamster Power."

Carey is hoping to garner the votes of new members who don't want the federal government looking into the activities of the union all the time. The final results of the battle, which is expected to be close, won't be known for three to four days.

"We feel cautiously optimistic," says Richard Leebove, a Hoffa campaign consultant based in Detroit. He points to a high turnout in the Midwest where Hoffa has a lot of support. "We hope people have been motivated to vote for their candidate."

A tight race

In August, a Carey tracking poll showed their candidate ahead by 19 percentage points. Now, the Carey camp admits the race is close.

In 1991, Carey defeated two candidates with a 17-point victory. "We won't see a margin that wide," says Steve Wattenmaker, a campaign spokesman. He hopes a small army of volunteers dropping by truck stops and work -places has rallied support for their candidate.

In his campaign, Hoffa has told his followers he would decentralize the union. Carey says this would return the Teamsters to its corrupt ways. Since taking office, Carey has placed 66 locals in trusteeships. Today, there are currently 29 unions being run by trustees.

Hoffa also wants to increase the strike payments from its current level of $55 per week. After Carey took office, he discovered the former management of the union had practically depleted the union's funds. He reduced the strike fund from $200 per week and has slowly increased the assets of the union.

"Since the election is so close, each side will have to deal with the other side's issues in some way," says Michael Belzer, a labor expert at Cornell University.

In fact, no matter who wins, he will be governing a different kind of union than the Teamsters that the elder Hoffa ran before he disappeared in what is believed to be a mob rubout.

Today, only 120,000 of the 1.43 million-member union are shifting gears on 18 wheelers. Deregulation of the trucking industry has shrunk its membership in the long-haul freight business.

Those who are driving are behind the wheel of grocery, bakery, or milk trucks. The 200,000 drivers at UPS are the largest single bargaining unit.


Instead, the union has grown by organizing members such as the 10,000 flight attendants at Northwest Airlines or the 3,000 supervisors in the Los Angeles unified school district.

"It's a very diverse union," says Ken Paff, an organizer with the Teamsters for a Democratic Union in Detroit.

That diversity now means 8 to 10 percent of the members are Hispanic, and that percentage is likely to grow. The Teamsters are currently trying to organize the 14,000 workers who work in the apple warehouses in the state of Washington. Over 80 percent are Latino. They are also organizing the Salvadorian and Mexican dry wall workers in the Los Angeles area and 3,000 Mexican-American tortilla workers.

The Spanish workers have different needs. For example, the union has been trying to get employers to post notices in Spanish as well as English. Immigration issues are also important.

The Teamsters' female membership has also been growing and now makes up about one-third of the union. Many of the female members work on food-processing lines that turn out frozen pizzas or bakery goods.

"We've had to become more responsive to their issues," says John August, international organizing coordinator. For example, the union has become a significant supporter of human rights issues, particularly trying to limit sexual harassment in the workplace.

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