Hoffa opens new era of bargains, not bluster

Negotiations: Union leader wisely decides to be a negotiator instead of militant at the table.

June 03, 1999

THE TEAMSTERS' new president, James P. Hoffa, showed admirable flexibility rather than militancy by working to hammer out a major agreement with 17 auto-hauling companies this week -- without a punishing strike.

Mr. Hoffa decided to extend negotiations as deadlines approached at midnight Tuesday and again yesterday, and then he bargained fairly to win a contract yesterday that ultimately will benefit auto haulers and the 12,000 Teamsters involved in moving 15 million new cars from factories to dealers.

Many observers had worried that Mr. Hoffa would use his first negotiation as president to flex labor muscle rather than look for a reasonable agreement.

Mr. Hoffa, the son and namesake of a mob-linked Teamsters president of the 1950s and 1960s, is watched closely. He worried federal officials bent on cleaning up the scandal-tainted Teamsters when he promised after winning election in March to give the union militant leadership.

But Mr. Hoffa showed considerable pragmatism as the strike deadline approached. He sent encouraging messages, giving management credit for "an important move" to withdraw a demand to use Mexican drivers to deliver vehicles in the United States, which could have happened after Jan. 1, when the North American Free Trade Agreement makes that possible along the U.S.-Mexican border.

He committed to reach a "win-win" agreement, demonstrating an understanding that union jobs are most secure when the companies employing his members have flexibility to remain competitive.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hoffa gained better pensions for his members, who earn about $55,000 in salaries and $13,000 in benefits.

And union officials won a pledge from employers to reduce wage disparities.

His employees are among those thriving in a strong economy that is fueled, in part, by blistering sales of cars, trucks and vans. A strike would have sidelined his members and dampened this momentum.

Mr. Hoffa wisely dealt with the matters before him instead of pursuing a bold, new image. The perception he creates for the Teamsters will take shape one contract at a time.

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