WORLD

A fabled name at the Teamsters

TOM FENNELL December 21 1998
WORLD

A fabled name at the Teamsters

TOM FENNELL December 21 1998

A fabled name at the Teamsters

WORLD

UNITED STATES

Diana Kilmury chain-smoked cigarettes in her small east Vancouver home as she took phone call after phone call from worried colleagues. Over the last 22 years, her battle to clean up corruption in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has become legendary. Last week, the tough-talking former trucker suffered a major setback when the Teamsters turned their backs on reformers like her. Instead, they reached out to the old guard, electing as their president James Hoffa—son of former Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, one of the most notorious labour leaders in U.S. history. He was imprisoned for fraud from 1967 to 1971, and in 1975 he vanished. Most observers, including his son, believe he was murdered by the Mafia. A still-defiant Kilmury fears the mob will now regain control of the union. James Hoffa, she charges, “became

a millionaire from his daddy’s ill-gotten gains. He wants to turn back the clock.”

The election deeply divided the 1.4 million Teamsters, the largest private sector union in North America. Reformers like Kilmury, 52, who lost her $116,000-a-year job as a Teamster vice-presiJames Hoffa: dent at large, fought a bitter campaign against Hoffa’s forces, who won 54 per cent of the vote across Canada and the United States. The Teamsters’ 94,000 Canadian members, apparently disenchanted with both sides, narrowly elected a slate of independent candidates headed by incumbent Canadian president Louis Lacroix of Montreal. Noah Meltz, a labour relations expert at the University of Toronto, believes Hoffa’s victory reflects a strong desire by

the American rank and file to resurrect the union’s glory days. ‘There are those in the union,” says Meltz, “who can still recall an era where the Teamsters were feared.”

The organization was once so intimidating that a 1957 select committee of the U.S. Senate, headed by then-Senator John F. Kennedy, described the union under Hoffa as a “conspiracy of evil.” Every Teamster president since then has run afoul of the

law in some way, and in 1989 the U.S. justice department finally intervened to oversee the union’s administration. It purged 200 corrupt Teamsters but failed to end the sleaze. Earlier this year, president Ron Carey, who along with Kilmury had promised to clean up the union, was expelled over allegations that his campaign accepted illegal contributions.

Jimmy Hoffa was accused of far worse crimes. According to the U.S. Senate committee, « he channelled union pension i money to well-known Mafia o figures who were building ho3 tels in Las Vegas, Nev. Even in S prison, Hoffa was such a powerful figure that president Richard Nixon felt compelled to commute his sentence in 1971. But when Hoffa tried to retake control of the union, the Mafia, which had already installed another leader in his place, allegedly murdered him. His body has never been found.

While Jimmy Hoffa ran the Teamsters, his son was attending the University of Michigan, where he graduated with a law degree in 1966. He practised labour law in Detroit, and was put on the Teamster payroll in 1994.

Senator Ed Lawson of Vancouver, who after 20 years in the Teamsters was defeated in 1991 as its first international vice-president, knew both Jimmy Hoffa and his son and sees many similarities. “His father was a hard-nosed union man,” says Lawson. “And his son is decisive—a talented young person.” Lawson also believes the younger Hoffa has been unfairly accused of mob connections by people who offer no evidence.

Hoffa is now trying to step out of his father’s long shadow, arguing that it is time for the justice department to end its control of the union. He also vows that the Teamsters will regain their old militancy and that the union will be run for the benefit of its members and not its management. “We are free of organized crime,” Hoffa maintained last week, “but we have to be vigilant.”

In addition to the union’s credibility, Hoffa will also have to shore up its finances. Under Carey, the Teamsters increased the union payout to striking workers from $55 a week to $200. As a result, the union is all but bankrupt. As well, the Teamsters are no longer dominated by militant truck drivers. The union now represents a more moderate cross-section of workers that in-

cludes airline flight attendants and clerks.

Yet Murray Ballard, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 31 in Vancouver, speaks for many Hoffa supporters in hoping the new leader will make the union more aggressive. “If James Hoffa does half the job his father did we will be in good shape,” says Ballard. “There was no crap happening when his father was around.” In Canada, though, the infighting isn’t over. While Lacroix promised to work with Hoffa, Ballard claimed that Hoffa’s Canadian team was defeated by what he termed “voting irregularities.” Ballard is nonetheless pleased with another aspect. “We’re very happy,” he says, “that Kilmury is gone.”

The Teamsters, however, « may still pursue her. Kilmury confirmed that she has been interviewed by union investigators over allegations that she may have improperly charged personal expenses to her union credit card. Hoffa himself faced criticism when his campaign was fined $167,000 over improper campaign donations. As ever, it seems, leading the Teamsters invites strong official scrutiny—especially when your name is Hoffa.

TOM FENNELL