Politics & Policy

The Other Big Election This Fall: The Teamsters President

Teamsters president James Hoffa Jr.

The presidential election isn’t the only big race to watch this fall. The Teamsters, whose 1.2 million members make it the largest non-public-sector union, will send out mail-in ballots in October. The results will decide determine whether James Hoffa Jr., the 18-year incumbent president and son of the infamous Teamster legend Jimmy Hoffa, will be reelected. The vote will be the first for the union since 2015, when it ended a quarter century of direct federal supervision that had been imposed to clean up the union’s corruption.

In 1988, then–U.S. attorney for New York Rudy Giuliani and other federal prosecutors filed a lengthy racketeering lawsuit against the union’s leadership. The complaint included 18 members of the Teamsters executive board and 26 alleged organized-crime members. Prosecutors said the union had engaged in “a pattern of racketeering that included 20 murders, a number of shootings, bombings, beatings, and a campaign of fear.” To avoid an embarrassing trial, in 1989 the Teamsters submitted to direct federal supervision under a three-member independent-review board charged with rooting out corruption. After a quarter century, the government announced it was satisfied that the taint of organized crime was gone, and it agreed to a five-year phase-out of its role, beginning last year. “But that does not mean the Teamsters are free of corruption or are a thriving union,” noted Gerard Di Trolio, an editor at Rank and File, a union publication in Canada.

In February, the three-member Independent Review Board (IRB) charged Rome Aloise, the most powerful Teamster official on the West Coast, with racketeering, taking gifts from employers, and negotiating a sham collective-bargaining agreement. One of the charges against Aloise includes accepting tickets (worth $9,600, to the Playboy Super Bowl party) from an employer who was negotiating with a Teamster local. It was noted by the IRB that Aloise’s official salaries and allowances in 2014 amounted to an eye-popping $346,722.

Aloise is one of James P. Hoffa’s close allies — Hoffa has been president of the Teamsters since 1998. He was selected that year in a special election after it was revealed that the 1996 balloting had been tainted by incumbent Ron Carey’s elaborate scheme to funnel $700,000 in outside money to his campaign.

Hoffa’s election was a return to power of a legendary Teamster family name. His father, Jimmy Hoffa, had taken over the union in 1958, a year after it had been thrown out of the AFL-CIO for corruption. He ran it with an iron fist until 1967, when he went to prison after being convicted of jury tampering and steering Teamster pension funds into Mafia-controlled casinos in Las Vegas. After Jimmy Hoffa’s release in 1971, he launched an attempt to retake control of the union. That effort ended in July, 1975, when Hoffa vanished from a Detroit-area restaurant after a lunch with another union official and a reputed gangster.

Then, after trucking was deregulated in 1979, the Teamsters began a slow decline in membership, falling to only 1 million members in the 1980s. In 1983, its president, Roy Williams, was convicted of bribery. He admitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer that he owed his job to the Kansas City mob. “I made no bones about it,” he told the Inquirer. “I was controlled by Nick [Kansas City mobster Nick Civella], and I think everybody knew it.”

#share#Under the federal supervision that began in 1989, the Teamsters have worked to clean up corruption, and they’ve evolved from a union almost exclusively representing truck drivers and loading-bay workers to one in which 20 percent of its members work for the government — police officers, parole officers, school-bus drivers, and transit workers. With that shift, the Teamsters union has become a leader in efforts to ensure that only union members work on government contracts. It has led the lobbying effort, for example, to transfer the federal cleanup of the West Lake Landfill in St. Louis to the Army Corps of Engineers. Ostensibly, the reason is that the landfill represents a human-rights violation. But transferring control of the project to the Corps of Engineers would no doubt mean more union involvement in the cleanup — and higher wages for the workers on the project.

The Teamsters union has become a leader in efforts to ensure that only union members work on government contracts.

James Hoffa Jr.’s gradual shift to promoting the interests of government workers has helped fuel the election challenge against him this fall. A reform slate called Teamsters United has won the backing of the grassroots Teamsters for a Democratic Union. Its main candidate is Fred Zuckerman, a Teamster from Kentucky. “I’ve been a Teamster for 37 years, and I don’t like what I see,” he told Rank and File. “Our union is weak, it’s still filled with corruption, the current leadership is more in bed with management than it is standing up for the membership.”

Despite such charges of weakness, the Teamsters will still deliver an impressive effort to elect Hillary Clinton this year. The Teamsters, along with other unions, have forced her, in exchange for union backing, to retract her support for trade deals. “The Teamsters specialize in get-out-the-vote efforts and phone banks,” Gene Giancombo, a former Teamster vice president, told me. “They are far more organized on the ground than most white-collar unions, and their absence from the Democratic coalition would hurt a lot.”

This year’s Teamster election could have a major impact on how much the union continues to battle internal corruption, and we’ll also see how big a player in politics they remain.

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