As the International Brotherhood of Teamsters nominated three candidates for general president at last month’s convention, Sandy Pope’s acceptance speech was noteworthy on several levels.
She was the first woman ever nominated to run for president of America’s most iconic union, a large, powerful — and highly macho — entity. But perhaps more remarkable was the language she used, bordering on contempt for a man — incumbent Jim Hoffa — who bears the most famous last name in labor history. Dispensing with courtesy or honorifics, the challenger referred to her opponent simply as “Hoffa” and argued that he had weakened the union his legendary father, Jimmy Hoffa, helped build.
This is not the place to discuss the campaign, which will be decided in November, after ballots to be mailed out in October to the 1.4 million Teamsters are tabulated. Suffice it to say that Jim Hoffa has emerged as one of the nation’s top labor leaders and an outspoken advocate for jobs, fair trade and worker safety; that Sandy Pope is a charismatic activist who has shown her moxie as a truck driver in the Midwest and as president of a New York local; and that candidate Fred Gegare, an international vice president from Green Bay, Wis., has his own impressive set of credentials.
What we will do here is marvel at the fact that there is an election at all, let alone one in which bold talk risks loud jeers, not brutal attacks.
Not long ago, anyone foolhardy enough to express doubts about the leadership wouldn’t have left in one piece, let alone been nominated.
Pete Camarata learned that the hard way. A sturdy, bearded 29-year-old delegate at the 1976 convention, he rose on the last day to tell Teamster President Frank Fitzsimmons, “Mr. Fitzsimmons, yesterday your election was declared unanimous. I couldn’t rest if I didn’t declare my opposition.”
The entire hall quieted; then anger built. Several beefy sergeants-at-arms offered to escort Mr. Camarata and a friend, Steve Kindred, outside to safety. Once outside, they knocked Mr. Camarata down, kicked him repeatedly in the head and rendered him unconscious. When Mr. Kindred came to Mr. Camarata’s aid, he also was attacked, and both his shoulders were dislocated.
Things hadn’t changed much two conventions later when Jackie Presser — simultaneously a Teamster leader, mobster and FBI informant — was carried into the hall in Las Vegas by a handful of men perspiring profusely under the strain of his 300 pounds as they held him aloft in a reclining seat like a Roman potentate. By 1986, the group of dissenters had expanded slightly, and so that night there were multiple broken arms and legs.
This pattern of intimidation, obedient delegates, mob-anointed union leaders and sham elections ended five years later in Orlando, Fla., at the IBT’s first democratic convention, where I witnessed the astonishing sight of elected delegates actually nominating competing presidential candidates, with the winner determined by balloting from rank-and-file Teamsters around the nation — all closely supervised by federal officials intent on rooting out the pernicious influence of organized crime.
For the past 20 years, IBT elections have been spirited, at times chaotic — and always democratic, with every member having a say.
Similar trends, if less dramatic, have occurred in several other once-corrupt unions. And yet, we were treated two years ago to TV ads opposing the Employee Free Choice Act that featured images of moblike unionists.
The next time corporate groups invoke outdated stereotypes, labor should acknowledge that there was a problem, show how it’s been remedied — and then ask where the recent corruption affecting average people has come from: union halls or corporate suites and financial institutions?
Meanwhile, you freight haulers and airline employees, warehouse workers and UPS drivers, Teamsters all, treasure that ballot that will arrive this fall. Your predecessors — and some of you — paid dearly to get it.
• Philip Dine, author of “State of the Unions: How Labor Can Strengthen the Middle Class, Improve Our Economy, and Regain Political Influence,” is a Washington-based journalist and a frequent speaker on labor issues.