The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is known both for securing good wages and working conditions for transportation workers, and for its sordid past of mob infiltration that most famously played out in the 1975 disappearance of its president, Jimmy Hoffa.
This month, the union asked a federal court in New York City to end 25 years of federal oversight, raising the eyebrows of federal prosecutors and union democracy activists alike.
In a letter written on June 4, a union lawyer declared it time for the Teamsters to “reclaim control of their union’s affairs.” Union leadership maintains that the mob influence and corruption that prompted the federal oversight in the first place is gone — and others agree.
“The Teamsters today is a far cry from the union of the past when there was substantial gangster infiltration and questionable loans made from the Teamster pension fund," Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, told VICE News. "Today’s union may be headed by a Hoffa — this one the son of the original Jimmy Hoffa — but it has shown itself to be a typical general union, willing to organize everyone but not quite capable of always doing so.”
The union’s principle internal dissident group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), sees things differently. The federal oversight does little to prevent General President James Hoffa Jr. or other officers from going about their day-to-day duties, according to TDU organizer Ken Paff. But it does secure independent and open elections, which Paff says Hoffa would like to see stamped out.
'Without regulations, unions would have far more freedom. Now, they're agents of the government.'
“[Federal oversight] just says you have to hold fair elections," Paff says. "Is that draconian? It says you can’t sit around and invest in mob-run casinos in Las Vegas. The fact that it’s been [in place] a long time isn’t bad. It means it’s working.”
Paff fears that without oversight, Hoffa and the Teamsters leadership will make it difficult for others to nominate candidates in elections — so even a fair vote could still theoretically be controlled by a select few. Not that Hoffa appears to have much need to game the system; running against New York City dissident Sandy Pope in the previous election in 2011, Hoffa carried 59 percent of the vote.
Stanley Aronowitz, a sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center and a critic of American union leaders, says unions have cleaned up not because of government oversight, but because of a more mobilized and involved membership. He believes that the oversight has hampered the union's ability to organize and kept it in a more conciliatory relationship with employers, leading to losses in pay and pension benefits for workers. “Without regulations, unions would have far more freedom," Aronowitz says. "Now, they're agents of the government.”
Paff admits that the current union hardly resembles Goodfellas, but he notes that there should be some oversight to monitor collusion between the union and corporate leaders that could lead to unfavorable contracts for members. “Organized crime is down, the influence of the mafia is down,” he says. “But the influence of the Walton family [of Walmart] is up, so you have different things happening.”
It’s worth noting who is arguing the case for the Teamsters. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “The union retained two legal heavyweights who served under President George W. Bush: Paul Clement, former US Solicitor General, and [Viet] Dinh, former assistant attorney general.”
“It matters where these guys come from,” Aronowitz says. “You have to choose lawyers and work with lawyers who are essentially on your side. When the Teamsters hire these guys, they show how they’re allies of the corporate world.”
There is no timeline for the federal court to hold a formal hearing on the union’s request, but Chaison sees the action by the Teamsters as a way for the union to capitalize on Democrats' need to appeal to labor as they head into the midterm elections. “Democrats are looking for union endorsements and campaign help, and to appear union-friendly,” he says. “And what better way to do that than end federal oversight of a large union?"
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