Insurgent Teamster challenges Hoffa

August 27, 2006|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Tom Leedham, head of a Teamsters local in Oregon, is taking on the biggest name in labor: Hoffa.

Leedham is seeking to unseat James P. Hoffa, the president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the son of the nation's most famous - some would say infamous - union leader, James R. Hoffa, who disappeared in 1975.

Even though Leedham faces an uphill battle, on Friday night he was able to claim a victory in one round at least - Hoffa dodged the one debate that was scheduled between the two sides. Leedham's side was quick to claim that Hoffa, president of the Teamsters since 1999, had "chickened out" when he designated the union's secretary-treasurer, Tom Keegel, to stand in for him at the debate.

"I'm disappointed that President Hoffa couldn't take a single hour to discuss the issues with Teamster members without a script or a PR handler telling him what to say," Leedham said in the heated, one-hour debate at George Washington University. "Hoffa isn't just missing in action today. He's been missing in action for seven years."

To explain Hoffa's decision to skip the debate, Richard Leebove, his campaign manager, said: "We feel that Leedham's campaign is based on pure negativity. He criticizes everything that's going on in the Teamsters under the leadership of Hoffa. Jim Hoffa feels from a campaign standpoint that his time would be better spent talking to the members than to subjecting the union to the ongoing attacks by Leedham, which antiunion companies end up using against our members during organizing drives."

Leebove did not respond to repeated requests to make Hoffa available for an interview.

Leedham, 55, is making his third run against Hoffa, having served as director of the union's warehouse division under Hoffa's predecessor, Ron Carey, who was ousted in 1997 because of a campaign finance scandal.

"The reality of life is that Tom Leedham and Ron Carey were the most corrupt administration that we've had in many years," Keegel said. "The reality of life is they virtually destroyed our international union."

Leedham replied angrily: "Look, Mr. Stand-in, you ought to get the message: Ron Carey has been out of this union for nine years. I think it's time that we move forward to this century. I just think you should give it a rest."

This being the Teamsters, a union of 1.4 million truck drivers and loading dock workers, no one expected the campaign to be warm and fuzzy and full of politesse. The Hoffa camp has branded Leedham a "three-time loser" who "spends every day tearing down our union," while Leedham has accused Hoffa of "outrageous lies," saying, "When you can't run on your record, you lie, spin and go negative."

Hoffa, 65, who was meeting with Teamsters in Detroit on Friday night at the time of the debate, is campaigning on a platform of having turned around the Teamsters, long considered the nation's most corrupt union. While Leedham accuses him of doing too little to end bloated salaries and to wipe out remaining pockets of corruption, Hoffa boasts that he has negotiated outstanding contracts and restored the union financially.

Several Hoffa backers said Hoffa decided against participating in the debate because that would have given credibility to Leedham's campaign when Hoffa is thought to be far ahead.

At the union's convention last month in Las Vegas, Leedham received 6 percent of the votes, just enough to be nominated. When he ran against Hoffa in 2001, he received 7 percent of the convention votes but 35 percent of the votes in the election.

Leedham has repeatedly criticized Hoffa on the ground that the union has lost 150,000 members since 2001. But the Hoffa forces respond that the Teamsters are so respected that three unions - the locomotive engineers, the maintenance-of-way rail workers, and the graphic communications union - have voted to merge into the Teamsters, bringing 140,000 union members.

Under Hoffa, the Teamsters have been far less effective than several other large unions in organizing new members. But Hoffa, having quit the AFL-CIO along with several other unions, says his union is ready to undertake huge organizing drives at DHL and the UPS to attract thousands of new members.

In making his case for re-election, Hoffa told the convention that when he took the Teamsters' helm from Carey, the union was badly divided and near bankruptcy, with just $3 million in assets and its strike fund depleted.

To fix the union's finances, Hoffa pushed through a 25 percent dues increase.

In his convention speech, Hoffa talked of a revived union. "Today we are united, strong and on the move," he said. "Today we have a strong strike fund. Today we have the resources to run large-scale organizing campaigns against global employers. Today we have $100 million in the bank."

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