Teamsters: Back to Future?

By sheer force of his name, James P. Hoffa instantly becomes the most prominent labor leader in the United States. Inevitably the question arises: Will he follow in the footsteps of his famous father, James R. Hoffa, who both strengthened the Teamsters Union and brought it ignominy?

To many union faithful, the elder Hoffa's mob ties and corruption fade before the memory of higher wages and growing membership. Mr. Hoffa junior comes to the Teamsters presidency vowing to restore the positive side of that legacy. Currently, the union's finances are in shambles, and its declining membership - 1.4 million now versus 2.3 at its 1970s peak - is riven by disagreement.

Hoffa's performance will be closely watched by the rest of organized labor, which has in the past been hurt by association with the corrupt Teamsters.

His success will hinge, first, on a grasp of today's economic realities. Union membership, generally, has been slipping for years as employment shifted away from traditional heavy industry to the high-tech and service sectors. Mr. Hoffa talks aggressively about organizing more service and public employees. But his economic analysis is backwards-looking protectionism. The global economy, in his view, is the enemy. That outlook leads only to a lower standard of living and declining growth for most Americans, including his members.

Also needed: a firm commitment to continue the reforms that have rooted out corruption and mob influence. Will Hoffa's plan to reinvigorate local union leadership simply revive the bossism that bred misuse of funds? The Teamsters have been under federal oversight for a decade because of past organized-crime connections. That's likely to continue. The government's finding that the 1996 Teamsters election involved illegal use of union dues removed former president (and Hoffa arch rival) Ron Carey, making possible Hoffa's victory now.

The new union president favors an independent political path for the Teamsters. He has sharply criticized the all-but-automatic support for the Democratic Party offered by AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney. The Teamsters themselves, however, have lately been enmeshed with the Democrats in a campaign-funding controversy that may have involved illegal trading of financial resources between the party and the union in 1996.

That's one more tangle Hoffa will have to unravel as he tries to recapture the brighter side of his union's past glory.

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