Monday, October 16, 2006

When control of one of the country’s largest and most influential labor unions is at stake, nothing is left to chance.

So as 1.4 million North American Teamsters decide this month who will be their next president, the campaign rhetoric between incumbent James P. Hoffa and challenger Tom Leedham has rivaled the most heated political election.

Mr. Hoffa, running for a third term, has called his challenger an enemy of the union, an embezzler of union dues and — in the ultimate organized labor indignity — has accused him of ties with Wal-Mart.

Mr. Leedham, who has run two failed campaigns for union president against Mr. Hoffa, in turn has accused the incumbent of graft, incompetence and squelching an investigation into ties between the Teamsters and organized crime.

“Teamster politics is not for the faint of heart,” Mr. Leedham said.

Ballots were mailed Oct. 6 and must be returned by Nov. 13. Who will win is difficult to predict because few, if any, credible polls are available. But most organized labor analysts expect another victory for Mr. Hoffa.

“The power of incumbency works in the labor movement just as effectively as it does in the United States Congress,” said Robert Bruno, an associate professor at the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Mr. Leedham, a 29-year Teamster member from Oregon who portrays himself as a champion of rank-and-file members, long has coveted the union’s top job. He won 35 percent of the vote when he challenged Mr. Hoffa for the presidency in 2001.

Three years earlier, in a special election called after Teamsters leader Ron Carey was ousted in a scandal, Mr. Leedham earned 40 percent of the vote in a three-way race won by Mr. Hoffa.

Though initially not planning a third campaign, Mr. Leedham, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 206 Portland, Ore., said he decided last year to run because of growing discontent with Mr. Hoffa.

“Teamsters are really dissatisfied,” he said. “I’m campaigning in places where I got poor or no response in 2001 and now [the support] is really overwhelming.”

Mr. Leedham, 55, says Mr. Hoffa has bungled several contract negotiations that have cut members’ pensions and other benefits.

He accuses Mr. Hoffa of reneging on a promise to cut positions that give union officials with various jobs multiple salaries. Instead, the number of multiple salary positions has increased from 16 to more than 160 during Mr. Hoffa’s tenure, a move that has cost the union $8 million annually, Mr. Leedham says.

“All our money comes from dues. We’re not manufacturing refrigerators someplace,” he said. “We’ve been spending more money now on officers. This has become the lifestyle of the rich and famous.”

Mr. Hoffa instituted the largest dues increase in Teamsters history after promising he wouldn’t, Mr. Leedham said.

Mr. Leedham also says Mr. Hoffa undermined an internal investigation into organized crime influence in the union in 2004, citing complaints from the union’s former anti-corruption director that Mr. Hoffa interfered with his investigative duties.

“He’s got a record he just can’t defend, so he’s trying to destroy my reputation,” Mr. Leedham said.

Mr. Hoffa, son of iconic former Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa, who mysteriously disappeared in 1975, accuses Mr. Leedham of running a smear campaign.

“He’s basically desperate,” Mr. Hoffa said. “He has very little backing in the union, so he has nothing to lose. He does this every time.”

But in his own campaign literature and on Web sites, Mr. Hoffa is no less critical of his opponent.

Mr. Hoffa, 65, accuses Mr. Leedham of receiving financial support from corporate foundations that own stock in “anti-union companies” such as Wal-Mart and FedEx. He has called Mr. Leedham a “front man for anti-Teamster groups” because he received a campaign contribution from a partner in a California law firm that represents management in labor disputes.

“Tom Leedham is working with our enemies to weaken the Teamsters,” a Hoffa campaign flier says.

He also says Mr. Leedham embezzled union dues from more than 1 million members for campaign purposes.

Mr. Hoffa says the union is financially strong after almost going bankrupt when he took over in early 1999. He also credits himself with establishing a dedicated strike fund, securing a national master freight agreement, negotiating a strong contract with UPS, and merging three smaller unions into the Teamsters.

“We’re organized, we’re united, we’re [financially] secure,” he said. “Those are all the things that you look for, especially in these difficult times.”

Mr. Hoffa said a major goal of his campaign is to increase voter turnout, which was 23 percent during the 2001 Teamster election.

“Twenty-three percent, that’s very disturbing to me,” he said. “We’re the greatest democratic union in the world, but democracy is no good if nobody votes.”

He said voter apathy has been exacerbated because many Teamsters don’t consider Mr. Leedham a viable candidate.

“The perception of the candidate who’s running against me is that he’s weak and is a very minority candidate,” Mr. Hoffa said. “Obviously, we really have not had a heavyweight opponent.”

But low voter turnout will help Mr. Hoffa, Mr. Bruno said. He said he doesn’t expect turnout to be much higher than in 2001.

“It just doesn’t seem that rank-and-file members are really focused on this election,” Mr. Bruno said. “It’s still a long shot for Leedham.”

Mr. Leedham is smart to criticize Mr. Hoffa’s administration as bloated and out of touch with the rank-and-file members, said Roland Zullo, a research scientist with the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Michigan. But he added he isn’t sure he has enough support to win.

“He does talk about getting decent contracts and protecting jobs, but those are easy words to say,” Mr. Zullo said. “I haven’t seen any statements by Leedham that shows a significant deviation from Hoffa.”

Despite the accusations from both sides, this campaign is tamer than Teamster elections of past decades, when candidates would label one another a communist or a radical, and vote-buying was a common complaint.

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