Jimmy Hoffa doesn’t have a presidential candidate he and his powerful Teamster’s union is backing, but he praises Democratic candidate John Edwards for making strong appeals to labor a centerpiece of his campaign.
Since James P. Hoffa, the son of the legendary Teamster’s boss, took the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1999, he has energized his 1.4 million membership, making the country’s 4th largest union once again politically relevant and influential.
At 66, Hoffa is not only busy building union membership – conducting recruiting efforts among workers at UPS, FedEx, and solid waste companies – but also using the Teamsters clout to influence U.S. trade policies, block unfettered access of Mexican trucks into the U.S., and push for Iran divestment. He is even making a mark in the world of cyberspace – the Teamsters Web site, teamster.org, buzzes with blogs, commentaries, and the latest news for union members.
Hoffa’s main obsession today is making sure his union can adapt to a rapidly changing political landscape and help Democrats retake the White House in 2008.
“The Republican Party has destroyed itself,” Hoffa recently told NewsMax in an exclusive interview. “I don’t know what else they could do that’s worse or how they could come to labor and ask for our support. And I don’t see how working people, or labor, could give them that support.”
Hoffa once flirted with endorsing the GOP in the 2000 election. His union backed Reagan in 1980. But Hoffa has little sentimentality toward the Republicans.
He says the Republican Party “isolated itself from the labor unions and from working families” by pushing pro-business policies that are simply anti-worker.
“They’ve advocated terrible trade policies that have cost this country thousands and thousands of jobs. They’ve tried to get rid of Social Security. They have gotten us into a very unpopular war and they’ve alienated us from the rest of the world.”
To fight his battle, Hoffa has even turned to the byzantine world of liberal bloggers.
This August he ventured to the 2007 YearlyKos blog convention in Chicago and made a highly choreographed entrance.
The hard to please bloggers were impressed.
“I went because I was hungry and somewhat curious since Jimmy Hoffa Jr. was going to speak,” one liberal blogger wrote recently on DailyKos, referring inaccurately to Hoffa as “Jr.” (His middle name is Phillip; his father’s was Riddle).
“When I got there I was impressed. Music, hamburgers, a bar and two Teamster-owned big trucks on display. What’s not to like? Then came the big event – a 3rd rig rolled in honking and out of it came Markos [Moulitsas] AND Jimmy Hoffa. Big hoopla, very impressive.”
The Democratic Primaries
Three years ago, Hoffa put his muscle behind a longtime ally, Congressman Dick Gephardt, in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Gephardt’s campaign crashed and burned in Iowa and he quickly quit the race.
Hoffa is apparently intent on not making the same mistake again and wants to make Big Labor, with the Teamster’s at the fore, a Democratic kingmaker.
Hoffa has yet to pick a candidate and is withholding the Teamsters’ support until two key developments occur:
First, the political landscape firms up, giving him a clear sense of what it would take for his candidate to win.
Second, candidates start to give a clear picture of how they would advance his union’s ambitious agenda as president.
In his interview, Hoffa singled out former Sen. John Edwards.
Edwards “has done a very good job articulating a more populist message, and that’s one that resonates with the members,” Hoffa said.
Hoffa said Sen. Hillary Clinton, who leads by wide margins in most national polls, is “obviously out front” and is running a “smart, controlled, very professional” campaign.
As a senator, Clinton has developed strong ties with New York unions. Her campaign has tapped Mike Monroe, a former president of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades, as senior political adviser for labor outreach.
Monroe’s work has apparently started to pay off. Hoffa and other labor leaders have largely forgiven Clinton for her past membership on the Wal-Mart board of directors during her time in Arkansas, and for her selection of chief campaign strategist Mark Penn, whose firm has a subsidiary that helps employers fight union organizing drives.
Still, Hoffa said his reluctance to support the former first lady’s 2008 campaign instead stems more from her failure so far to focus on issues important to his members.
“I would hope that she would speak out more on the issues that resonate with the average American,” he said, ticking off a list of labor priorities, including trade, “affordable” health care, and so-called “pension protection.”
“You can’t talk about these issues enough,” he told NewsMax. “All of the [Democratic] candidates are missing the boat by not talking about them more.”
Sen. Barack Obama, he said, “is the real surprise candidate so far. He’s running a very interesting race.”
Obama’s campaign has recruited Temo Figueroa, a former deputy political director of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, as the campaign's national field director.
And yet, Hoffa remains unconvinced -- and uncommitted. “There’s just no one candidate that stands out yet,” he said.
Though union membership has been falling – dropping from 20 percent of eligible workers in 1983 to 12 percent last year – unions remain a potent force in politics. That’s especially true in the Democratic primaries, which rely on union activists to do the political grunt work – such as manning phone banks, door-to-door canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts.
For Hoffa and his union allies -- specifically Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, with whom he formed a breakaway chapter of the AFL-CIO called “Change to Win” -- the 2008 campaign will be a key test of whether, by dramatically “changing” their approach to political and campaign activism, they can still win on a national playing field.
Recently Hoffa has taken on another major cause that endears him to foreign policy hawks: In late August, he formally joined the Iran divestment movement by urging his union’s pension funds to shed all shares they own in companies doing business in Iran.
His goal: sponsoring an Iranian version of Solidarity's Lech Walesa, whose leadership in the 1980s transformed Poland's workers into an invincible political force.
“It’s amazing that with all the potential for that country, they would chose to become such a rogue state, denying the Holocaust and adopting bizarre policies toward everyone,” Hoffa told NewsMax. He said he advocates pension funds and business divesting because “Iran has got to be brought in line until it becomes a responsible citizen in the world, and they’re not that right now.”
During the interview, Hoffa said he doesn’t see parallels between his efforts to work with the federal government on national security priorities and American unions during the Cold War that strongly supported a hawkish foreign policy.
“America has to have an assertive foreign policy, we recognize and support that,” he said. “We have to have a policy that makes sense. You’re attacking us, doing things that are against the general good. This is a new and current threat.”
He also expressed concern about new federal regulations that would allow Mexican trucks unfettered access to the United States. He said the “known” risks to the American public -- especially in border states like Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas -- are “unbelievable.”
“There’s almost unanimous consensus that they’re not near our standards,” he said.
“They don’t have training for drivers licenses, drug testing, physicals for their workers. They’ve done nothing, despite the fact that NAFTA was passed 13 years ago, to bring themselves up to our standards. There’s a tremendous environmental problem. The only ones who are for the idea are George W. Bush and some business people who think they can make a lot of money off it.”
On Aug. 29, the Teamsters union sought an emergency injunction to block the Bush administration from allowing Mexican trucks to operate freely throughout the U.S.
While this and other administration moves have made the prospect of the union backing a Republican candidate next year “very remote,” Hoffa also acknowledged some frustration with the Democratic field for failing to address one of the Teamsters’ top issues: illegal immigration.
The Teamsters strongly oppose the guest-worker program included in the bipartisan “compromise plan” President Bush proposed earlier this year, which many Democrats supported, and Hoffa charged that the Bush administration has failed to stem the flow of illegals in large part to keep wages down in the U.S.
“Illegal immigration is one of the major problems facing the U.S.,” he said. “We have to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. I do think we have to find a way to integrate the people who are here and control our borders.
“The AFL-CIO and Teamsters have come out against the guest-worker program. We want to find some way for a path to citizenship for the 15 million who are here but we don’t want a guest-worker program.
“It’s a matter of supply and demand. Part of the plan for Bush pushing for unlimited people coming across the border, it’s basically designed to compress wages.”
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