Almost 20 years ago to the day, the Teamsters signed a landmark consent decree with the United States Justice Department to avoid prosecution on Mob-related corruption. The agreement required the Teamsters to institute secret-ballot voting for its president and other senior officers to rid the union of Mob influence. Given the Teamsters’ history with corruption, it is remarkable that James P. Hoffa, the union’s current president who himself has been elected three times by secret ballot, would dismiss the importance of secret-ballot voting to free and fair elections. But last week in a press statement applauding the introduction of the Employee Free Choice Act, he did just that when he asked “since when has the secret ballot been a basic tenet of democracy?”
I encourage those with an interest in the card-check debate to review the media’s coverage of the March 1989 settlement between the Teamsters and the Justice Department, and the subsequent coverage of the Teamsters’ first secret ballot presidential election in 1991. The secret-ballot reform was widely hailed by labor experts and editorial pages as a major breakthrough in the labor movement that would make the nation’s largest union more democratic and accountable to its rank and file members. At that time, Dennis Rivera, the head of the New York health-care workers union and the current chairman of the SEIU’s health-care task force, even suggested that federal labor law be changed to require secret-ballot elections of every labor leader in the country.
Timing is everything in politics. Mr. Hoffa’s remarks on the card-check debate coincide with a very important period in his union’s history. Perhaps he should brush up on the vital role the secret ballot played in cleaning up his own union before pushing harder to take it away from millions of American workers.
— Cesar Conda is a founding principal of Navigators Global, which does communications strategy for Coalition for Democratic Workplace.