Tom Leedham is used to playing the role of insurgent. Twice he’s unsuccessfully challenged James P. Hoffa for president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, in 1998 and again in 2001. It doesn’t look any more promising this time around. But that’s not preventing him from raising issues over whether Hoffa has delivered for union rank and file – even if as a result some of his supporters might be in harm’s way. Late this June, the 1.4 million-member union held its national convention in Las Vegas. The five-day confab at Bally’s hotel-casino produced debate, jeers and even a sucker punch or two.
Leedham managed to become eligible for the general election this fall by winning 107 delegates, or about 6 percent of the total. He needed at least 5 percent to have his name printed on ballots to be mailed to rank and file nationwide in October. Delegate support at nominating conventions for the IBT general presidency and other offices doesn’t necessarily foretell win-loss margins among membership. In 2001, for example, Leedham got a mere 7 percent of the convention delegates, yet 35 percent of the general vote. He tried to make a convincing case in his acceptance speech, pointing out that Hoffa had prevailed over the biggest pension and health cuts in union history, despite a large dues increase. “The International Union doubled its annual budget as a result of that dues hike,” Leedham stated. “Has Hoffa doubled the union’s power where you work? Or has he just doubled the PR he sends to your home?”
Hoffa, in turn, had an ace up his sleeve. He announced to the convention that UPS Freight had agreed to recognize the Teamsters if and when the union acquires the requisite number of signatures in its card-check organizing campaign. It was a double dose of revenge for Hoffa. UPS Freight had been known as Overnite Transportation until United Parcel Service recently bought the trucking giant. During 1999-2002 Hoffa led an unsuccessful and highly violent strike against Overnite; the union eventually signed an agreement with the Justice Department to refrain from engaging in various acts of assault, threat and vandalism. But a new day has dawned. “UPS Freight workers all over the country are telling UPS and freight members that they want to be Teamsters,” stated Hoffa.
Some of Hoffa’s supporters at the convention seemed as menacing with Leedham’s people as they were with nonunion Overnite drivers years ago, heckling and booing Leedham supporters as they spoke. Meanwhile, a court-appointed election officer ruled that a Leedham-slate candidate was assaulted by a prominent Hoffa supporter. The assailant was stripped of his delegate credentials, ordered to keep away from the convention site, and fined $1,000. In a separate incident, alleges Leedham campaign spokesman David Levin, a Leedham supporter was cold-cocked as he sang in a karaoke bar. In the Teamsters, old habits die hard. (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/1/06).