For the first time this century, a man named Hoffa will not be leading the 1.4 million-member Teamsters union come 2022.
James P. “Jim” Hoffa began the end of an era for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, telling The Detroit News he will not seek reelection just as the nation’s largest labor union this week makes a historic exit from government oversight.
“I think it's time for the next generation to take over,” the 78-year-old labor leader told the Detroit News.
Claiming he “rebuilt this union” in 22 years at the helm, Hoffa also said, “We've rebuilt our finances. We rebuilt the spirit. We put the swagger back in the union.”
As the second-longest serving head of the Teamsters union, Hoffa Jr. trails only
Dan Tobin, who was president from 1907 to 1952. His legendary father, James R. “Jimmy” Hoffa, ran the union from 1957 until he was jailed in 1967. That’s when he entered the federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., to begin a 13-year sentence for jury tampering, fraud, and conspiracy. The elder Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and is presumed murdered.
The younger Hoffa fought for decades to clean up the union’s image. That was helped along by a consent decree the Teamsters signed with the Justice Department in 1989 to allow the federal government oversight of the union’s finances and other internal workings. That decree ended this year.
“We have enshrined that we will never, ever have organized crime as corruption in our union,” Hoffa told the Detroit News.
The consent decree with the federal government cost the union more than $100 million in legal fees and other costs over three decades, outside experts have estimated.
Hoffa called it the “final phase” of the government getting out of the Teamsters union’s internal operations and letting the Teamsters run their own affairs. He claimed “a major role” in exiting the government from Teamster affairs.
If Hoffa had a major role in that situation, he also presided over the Teamsters’ steadily declining influence in the freight industry even though the union represents approximately 265,000 workers at UPS, the nation’s largest transportation company.
But in the heavy freight sector, the Teamsters’ influence has steadily declined since the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated the trucking industry. Since then, the National Master Freight Agreement (which had covered 500,000 drivers in the late 1970s) now covers barely 80,000 workers – most at YRC Worldwide’s four operating units and ABF Freight System, the nation’s seventh-largest LTL carrier.
Those companies are in the early stages of a five-year labor contract with the Teamsters. The next freight contract will be negotiated by Hoffa’s successor.
Another area where Hoffa had limited success was organizing in the freight sector. Except for Overnite Transportation (which was bought by UPS in 2005 for $1.2 billion), the Teamsters did not organize one sizeable freight company in either the LTL or truckload sectors.
In 1999, early in his tenure after succeeding Ron Carey, Hoffa called for a organizing strike at Overnite. But Overnite CEO Leo Suggs outflanked Hoffa, successfully calling on Overnite parent Union Pacific Corp., for financial backing before the Teamsters ended the strike without fully organizing the company until it was later purchased by UPS.
The union now claims to have a $275 million strike, but it is unclear where that money might be needed in the future.
The Teamsters called themselves “America’s strongest union,” and maybe they are. But that’s only because of the decline of union power throughout. Unions in the private sector accounted for only 6.6 percent of all workers last year.
It is unclear who will succeed Hoffa in two years. In his last election in 2016, he won by just a few thousand votes with apathy being the winning slate—only 15 percent of eligible Teamsters actually voted.
Opposition to Hoffa has grown in recent years. He won re-election by a few thousand votes in 2016, a tighter-than-expected race in which only 15% of members voted — roughly half the participation of the first direct elections.
In 2018, UPS workers actually rejected two tentative agreements covering 260,000 employees. But under Byzantine Teamsters rules, the deals were eventually ratified because turnout was less than 50% and the agreements were rejected by less than a two-thirds majority.
Ken Paff, national organizer for the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), says Hoffa has “not been a strong leader in terms of building Teamster power,” and instead “traded on his father’s name meaning power.” He says there is a “big demand” for reform within the union and says Hoffa could not win another election.
Who succeeds Hoffa is anyone’s guess. TDU already has endorsed for president
Sean O’Brien, who is international vice president for the Teamsters eastern region. A food fight is expected.
Steve Vairma leads a Hoffa-backed slate and recently announced his candidacy. He is secretary treasurer of Denver Local 455, President of Joint Council 3, an IBT vice president and the director of the IBT Warehouse Division. He is working to pull together Hoffa-supporters on his slate.
Kevin Moore, president of Detroit Local 299 and an International trustee, also announced his candidacy. He is also leads the Teamsters’ carhaul division. That unit recently saw 87% of carhaulers rejected a contract in 2016 as auto manufacturers have increasingly turned to rail and non-union transport.
Hoffa disagrees with those who say he is stepping down because he couldn’t win election for a sixth time: “I think I would win again,” he told the Detroit News.