Commentary: If Hoffa Wins, Labor Is The Loser

Ron Carey has been a leading union reformer ever since he was first elected president of the Teamsters in 1991. But the image he cultivated as labor's Mr. Clean has been sullied. On Aug. 21, a federal court monitor found that Carey aides committed illegal funding practices during the union's elections last December and ordered a rematch against James P. Hoffa, who lost by a slim 2% margin.

Unless more damning revelations come out, however, Carey is likely to win another five-year term as the head of the AFL-CIO's largest union. And despite the new shadows surrounding Carey, that's probably the best outcome the Teamsters and organized labor can hope for from the vote. A longtime Teamsters dissident, Carey has pushed out mob-linked officials and whipped up new activism since he took office. He also has been a key supporter of AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney's efforts to revitalize organized labor. Sweeney calls Carey a "courageous labor leader."

WEAK LINKS. In contrast, Hoffa, son of the infamous Teamsters leader allegedly killed by mobsters, has no independent power base in the union. Instead, he spent most of his career as a lawyer and was propelled to prominence by Carey's old-guard opponents, who recognized the power the Hoffa name still holds. Hoffa would likely repay his allies by trying to halt Carey's cleanup, hurting efforts to improve labor's image. "If Hoffa wins, it would be a big setback for the Sweeney revolution," says Michael H. Belzer, a labor-relations professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Scandal in any form is the last thing labor needs right now. During the recent United Parcel Service Inc. strike, the public sided with workers rather than management--for the first time in years. That's an indication not only of America's frustration with an economic expansion that has not benefited many workers but also of how the Teamsters have cleaned up their act. The union has been operating under a 1989 consent decree with the Justice Dept. intended to rid it of decades of gangsterism.

Now, Barbara Zack Quindel, the federal monitor who oversaw the election, has determined that Carey's campaign illegally used money from the union and from employers. Carey has made similar allegations about Hoffa's campaign, which Hoffa denies. Quindel has proposed a rematch between the candidates after a 112-day campaign period. The federal judge overseeing the consent decree is expected to approve her plan at a mid-September hearing.

Quindel's ruling gives Hoffa the second chance he sought. But Carey's victory in the UPS strike leaves Hoffa on the defensive, and he's doing all he can to delay, hoping that the memory of the UPS triumph will fade. On Aug. 26, his lawyers asked the union's Independent Review Board to bar Carey from running again because of his aides' abuses. Hoffa also wants Congress to overrule Quindel and delay the election. On Aug. 26, Representative Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), who heads the House subcommittee on labor affairs, said he plans to hold hearings. "Quindel is tilting the field to help Ron Carey," Hoffa charges. "Her election schedule is obviously loaded against us."

GOOD WILL. Quindel says she decided to void the election right after the UPS strike started but postponed her announcement so as not to interfere with the negotiations. Even Hoffa's supporters concede that the successful strike has shored up Carey's quotient of good will. "What was done was absolutely wrong, but I don't think members care about campaign fund-raising," says Carey.

Carey will also get a boost from the way he stood up to UPS on a key issue: the company's wish to pull out of the union's multi-employer pension plan. Carey argued that such a move would cripple a pension plan that covers many Teamsters. Truck drivers, who switch companies frequently and count on the union's pension, are likely to be grateful. "There's no question that Carey is very popular with members because of the UPS settlement, especially in trucking," says Chuck Mack, head of Local 70 in San Francisco, who ran unsuccessfully on Hoffa's slate last year.

Still, a bitter election campaign may well tarnish Carey's image further, making it even more difficult for reformers to embrace him. But with Hoffa, the Teamsters are likely to get no reform at all.

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