||Robert Novak is a nationally syndicated columnist.
The rise of Hoffa
CNN's John King sits down with President Bush. (Part 1)
CNN's John King sits down with President Bush. (Part 2)
WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- The barons of the American labor movement gathered January 10 at the AFL-CIO fortress across Lafayette Park from the White House, with doors closed to the public as usual. The AFL-CIO Executive Committee's agenda prepared by President John Sweeney allotted 30 minutes for reform of the labor federation. But James P. Hoffa of the Teamsters insisted much more time was needed to debate badly needed changes.
As Hoffa desired, more than two hours were spent on proposals by him and Andrew Stern of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). They would diminish the influence of the AFL-CIO, returning power to individual unions. Hoffa would cut in half money the unions give to Sweeney, suggesting that his presidency has failed in the basic task of signing up new workers.
No final decisions were made, but Sweeney cannot stand up to the Teamsters and the SEIU -- the federation's two largest unions. Preferring to operate by consensus, Sweeney is unlikely to resist. Decentralization of power would mark labor's most important organizational change since the AFL and the CIO merged in 1955. Whether it ends the movement's long decline, it means Jim Hoffa and Andy Stern will eclipse Sweeney or whoever succeeds him.
A Hoffa-Stern alliance hardly seemed likely last summer when Stern, in an interview with the Washington Post, stunned the labor movement. He said a John Kerry presidency would hurt chances at internal labor reform and expressed doubt that organized labor "would survive with a Democratic president." "Ridiculous," Hoffa responded. Stern promptly asserted support for Kerry but still warned that he would take his huge union out of the AFL-CIO if reforms were not enacted.
The new factor is the entrance of Hoffa as reformer, backed by Stern. No two labor leaders seem less similar. An early supporter of Howard Dean for president in 2004, Stern is on the far left wing of the labor movement. Hoffa is viewed as a political moderate who made a serious bid for alliance with George W. Bush. He drew back when he concluded that the Republicans were unwilling to make policy concessions in return for Teamsters support of oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).
What Jim Hoffa and Andy Stern have in common now is dissatisfaction with Sweeney's nine-year tenure running the AFL-CIO, during which union membership continued to decline and now represents just 12.9 percent of the work force. Hoffa is particularly unhappy about the growth of an unproductive AFL-CIO bureaucracy and its duplication of functions performed by individual unions.
Hoffa's arrow, shot directly at the heart of that bureaucracy, is a proposal to "rebate" one half of the "tax" that the AFL-CIO collects from each union based on its number of members. Those funds would return to the unions, if committed to organizing. In the case of the Teamsters, that would cut in half the $9 million tax. All told, the AFL-CIO receives $90 million annually in such funds.
These and other reform movements will come up for a vote at the AFL-CIO's July convention in Chicago, when Sweeney (at age 71) may seek a fourth term as president. If he does not, his heir normally would be AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, but he may be derailed by Hoffa ally John Wilhelm of the Hotel Workers.
However, Hoffa has little interest in who runs the AFL-CIO. He wants to march to his own drummer, and that means he is not wholly committed to the Democrats. The Teamsters were an early supporter of Mel Martinez's successful run for the Senate in Florida, one of five Republican Senate candidates backed by Hoffa. But Hoffa's primary concern is organized labor's declining share of American workers.
The rise of Hoffa represents a stunning reversal of power within the labor movement over less than a decade. Hoffa was narrowly defeated for Teamsters president by Ron Carey in a 1996 election that was voided by a federal special adjudicator for fund-raising abuses. Much of the union establishment, including Trumka and Stern, was implicated in the Carey scam. Now Hoffa is a power who threatens to shatter the comfortable life at AFL-CIO headquarters.