US Teamsters’ union president James Hoffa was re-elected in a closely contested six-person race, but newcomer Sean O’Brien garnered the largest number of votes. A contested leadership election of this type would not normally be considered significant for a major union in the United States. Nevertheless, it was deeply significant, as O’Brien’s win foretells a substantial change in the direction of the union and the influence that Teamsters President James Hoffa will exert on the national labour scene. The final results will be announced on 21 September 2017.
This year’s race had many unusual factors involved.
First, the election came right after a historic strike by Teamsters members in the Pacific Northwest and ahead of a historic national strike in support of workers at Boeing. The outcome of these two strikes and the election will have lasting consequences for the national labor movement.
Second, it was the first election under the leadership of the “sovereign” leadership of James Hoffa, who appointed his son and Jim Hoffa protégé Jeff Hoffa to serve as the union’s national secretary-treasurer. Jeff had previously served as the head of the OLC of the Teamsters from 2000-2007.
Third, Jimmy Hoffa endorsed and defended Jeff Hoffa in spite of Jeff’s association with the Teamsters leaders who had notoriously engaged in secret branch lines to rubber stamp contract enforcement, union-busting at the local workplace level, and Hoffa interventions that have undermined long-term solidarity and undermine solidarity within the union.
Fourth, Jimmy Hoffa was controversial in the Teamsters because he was a Jimmy Hoffa insider. Jimmy Hoffa never worked at the Teamsters (though he did in other unions), he was engaged in racketeering after being released from prison, and his mob ties were later discovered.
Fifth, Jimmy Hoffa and Jeff Hoffa have extremely divergent views of US labor politics. Jimmy Hoffa is a progressive labor leader; Jeff Hoffa is an ambitious political operator who supports free trade agreements and celebrates big business, much of which he used to lead under the former leadership of the Teamsters.
Sixth, this election could turn out to be a watershed, since Jeff and Jimmy Hoffa have very different visions of how to restructure the Teamsters. They’ve had disagreements for many years; this election is a sign that their splits are widening.
Jim Hoffa has said he doesn’t want the Teamsters involved in politics, at least not left-wing politics, and Jeff Hoffa also strongly disagreed. His approach is more centrist, but it’s still open to criticism.
He wants to reassert control over the Teamsters’ governance and weaken the power of the rank and file, even though other Teamsters, such as President O’Brien, have sought to take on a more active role as a political force.
For example, Jimmy Hoffa wants to wrest control over the Teamsters from the outside, which means delegating a greater amount of authority to national leaders like Jeff Hoffa. This approach discourages engagement with the grassroots and ensures that Teamsters leadership remains totally accountable to no one other than national leaders.
The independent approach of Jimmy Hoffa has strengthened the Teamsters in many ways. He produced an unprecedented period of rapid expansion, making the union a huge voice in national labor politics, most notably during the Bush administration when he advocated publicly for a second stimulus package and a minimum wage hike. When Jimmy Hoffa was national president, the Teamsters were so strong that they successfully opposed the imposition of the Taft-Hartley Act, which reduced free movement in the west. Jimmy Hoffa pushed for expansive overtime and damages policies.
Jeff Hoffa believes the same thing.
Jeff Hoffa would like to have the Teamsters step away from the political realm. He wants to play a more pragmatic role. He wants to play a key role in pressuring companies to comply with labor laws and has created a Committee on Legal and Corporate Fairness.
Jeff Hoffa needs to be challenged. In fact, such a challenge is long overdue. Jimmy Hoffa needs to become a little less powerful.