- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2000

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa wants Al Gore to know it is "not an idle threat" when he says the union might not endorse him or anyone else for president.

In a new and far-more-ominous warning shot across the bow of Mr. Gore's trouble-ridden presidential campaign, Mr. Hoffa says he and United Auto Workers president Stephen Yokich will meet this month to coordinate their strategy and perhaps join in "a united front" that would deny the vice president their endorsement.

"I intend to have a lengthy meeting with him to basically discuss what the Teamsters are going to do and what the UAW is going to do" about Gore, the tough-talking union chief told me in an exclusive interview here. "There is some coordination between us," he added.

If the two unions decide to act together politically, it could be the kiss of death for Al Gore. Without the support of these two labor organizations, he has no chance of carrying union stronghold states like Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and Pennsylvania, and would thus have no chance of beating George W. Bush.

This is especially true in Michigan, where the two union chiefs know they have Mr. Gore over a barrel.

"The demographics in Michigan show that the UAW and the Teamsters comprise 60 percent of the union vote. They are absolutely essential to winning Michigan," Mr. Hoffa said. In other words, without their support, Albert Gore can kiss Michigan goodbye.

Mr. Hoffa and Mr. Yokich have been warning Mr. Gore for the past month or more that they are bitterly unhappy with his support for the administration's China trade deal, and that they could take a walk this fall. But this was the first time that one of them has publicly mentioned the possibility of joining political forces, thus leveraging their power over the Gore campaign.

In a lengthy interview in his office at Teamster headquarters overlooking the Capitol, Mr. Hoffa told me that "it's conceivable that we'd have a united front on Gore."

"It's not an idle threat. We are serious about what we're doing," he said. Pointing out that the Teamsters did not endorse any candidate in the 1996 presidential election, Mr. Hoffa added that withholding their support for Mr. Gore was "definitely a possibility."

The two union chiefs saw Mr. Gore's appointment of Commerce Secretary Bill Daley the administration's chief lobbyist on the China trade pact as his new campaign chairman as "another slap in the face" to organized labor.

With the support of these two unions in doubt, you would think that Mr. Daley would have been on the phone immediately in an attempt to smooth over differences. But Mr. Hoffa, with a steely edge to his voice, said he has received no phone calls from Mr. Daley or from any other emissary of the Gore campaign.

Despite his estrangement from the Gore camp, Mr. Hoffa admits there is widespread division within his union about the presidential race. Mr. Bush is drawing support from 40 percent of all union households, according to the latest Zogby poll, and the Teamsters are conducting several polls of their own to gauge how much support Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore have in their ranks.

While hatred for the China trade deal is nearly universal in Teamster ranks, Mr. Hoffa concedes the union's members are also divided by a number of "wedge issues" that makes Mr. Bush appealing to many Teamsters.

Like what? Well, like gun control and abortion, he says. Mr. Gore wants more gun control and is pro-choice on abortion; Mr. Bush is largely anti-gun control and pro-life. Many Teamsters favor Mr. Bush's position on these issues, among others.

Mr. Hoffa says that the union's ultimate decision on whether or not to endorse Mr. Gore will be heavily guided by their polling.

But he also has some friendly political advice for Mr. Gore to help him repair his broken relationship with the Teamsters. Mr. Hoffa suggests that Mr. Gore reach out to union households on other issues, even if he doesn't change his position on trade with China.

"He should have a broader, more populist, working-class appeal. I'd like to see him come out with a plan that keeps jobs in this country," he said.

"Gore should speak out on the bankruptcy bill that is unfair and hurts union families," he adds, referring to pending legislation in Congress that would toughen personal-debt repayment requirements. "He should be talking about how do we get health-insurance coverage for the 44 million Americans who do not have it."

Mr. Hoffa further suggests that if Mr. Gore chooses a running mate who is seen as a strong union supporter with working-class appeal, "that might affect our views."

He never mentions Ralph Nader, the anti-free-trade, anti-business crusader, and Teamsters insiders say there is little or no chance that they will endorse the fringe Green Party candidate.

Mr. Bush is off the Teamsters' endorsement list entirely because of his enthusiastic support for China trade and his plans to broaden the NAFTA agreement by means of fast-track trade deals in Latin America. Yet polls suggest Mr. Bush strongly appeals to the union's rank-and-file members, a reality that Teamster polls will no doubt confirm.

In the meantime, Mr. Hoffa is preparing for his meeting with the UAW's Mr. Yokich. Their decision could very well decide the outcome of the 2000 presidential election.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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