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Aug. 26 — Candidates for leadership positions in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters squared off in a debate about pensions, corruption and the next chapter for the 1.3 million-member labor union.
Fred Zuckerman, head of Teamsters Local 89 in Louisville, Ky., seeks to unseat incumbent James P. Hoffa as national president by running on a platform of reform.
Hoffa, who has been at the helm of IBT for 17 years, touts past membership gains and strong collective bargaining agreements while also seeking ways to improve pension plans.
Both sides had a chance to make their case Aug. 25 during the only IBT candidate debate, which was held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Ken Hall is seeking re-election for general secretary-treasurer on a slate with Hoffa and spoke for Hoffa, who wasn't present.
Teamsters election rules allow presidential candidates to send another member of their slate to the candidate forum. This marked the fourth general election in which Hoffa has exercised that option. Zuckerman immediately took note of Hoffa’s absence during his opening remarks, referring to him as a “coward.”
“Again President Hoffa is a no show,” Zuckerman said. “He has never debated in front of the membership during an election. You may not know this, but this is the third debate that he has ducked this year. It is time for him to stop being a coward and stand in front of the membership and answer members' questions.”
Hall defended Hoffa’s decision to skip the debate. Hoffa was “out doing what he’s supposed to be doing and that’s representing members,” Hall said.
“The fact is that Jim Hoffa has been in office for 17 years. Our members have seen him walking picket lines, and they’ve seen him make his speeches at rallies, supporting people and trying to organize,” Hall said.
“They’ve seen him on picket lines, they’ve seen him in negotiations, so they know who Jim Hoffa is and they know what he stands for and there’s frankly no good reason for Jim Hoffa to be standing here and letting an angry local union officer just run down this union. He has more important things to do than that,” Hall said.
Zuckerman countered by saying that “there are big issues” in the union and Hoffa should be present to describe what his solution will be going forward.
Hall questioned the truth of Zuckerman’s allegations and said that he supported Hoffa’s policies in the past. Zuckerman's slate, known as Teamsters United, is backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has long opposed the Hoffa administration.
The 90-minute debate was moderated by Thomas Burr, press club president and Washington reporter for the Salt Lake Tribune. Michael Rose of Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, Harold Meyerson, editor-at-large of the American Prospect, and Kimberly Atkins, a former labor lawyer and current Washington reporter for the Boston Herald, posed questions during the debate.
Zuckerman said the union needs to increase its membership, bolstering core industry segments such as trucking. He criticized the union’s 2005 decision to leave the AFL-CIO and questioned the accuracy of Hoffa’s claims of IBT membership growth. Some new members have come from mergers with existing labor unions such as the then 35,000-member Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen in December 2003, he said.
“We are not organizing,” Zuckerman said. “All we do is steal members or merge with other international unions.”
Hall said the IBT continues to work with the AFL-CIO on political action issues and that the IBT has organized 220,000 members in core and new segments within the past decade.
Hall addressed growth in the core trucking industries, such as FedEx Freight. The IBT has had a mixed record of success in the campaign. For example, the union lost a representation election in May 2015 at a facility in Chicago Heights, Ill.
The Teamsters kicked off a series of election wins in October 2014 when 47 drivers at FedEx Freight’s East Philadelphia terminal voted for representation by Teamsters Local 107. The IBT also successfully organized 222 drivers at FedEx Freight facilities in Charlotte, N.C., and 113 drivers at Monmouth Junction, N.J.
“Some of the naysayers said it wouldn’t happen, but we are now sitting across the table from FedEx Freight,” he said. “A lot of people said this would never happen, but we are in negotiations with them.”
Zuckerman and Hall both suggested that the Central States pension fund needs improvement. The fund, which serves IBT members and retirees, has struggled financially in recent years. Zuckerman pinned some of the fund’s hardships on the IBT leadership, citing the loss of participation from United Parcel Service Inc.
“I feel that we have to organize in the core industries and put participants into the fund,” he said. “When Ken Hall took UPS out of Central States, that collapsed the fund.”
The “fund would be healthy today” if the IBT organized more people to add participants into the fund, Zuckerman said.
Hall said Zuckerman had backed the action. “The facts are that in January 2015 Central States submitted to the Treasury Department that if the economy had not collapsed in 2008 and 2009, the $6 billion it got from UPS would have made the fund fully funded by 2028,” Hall said.
The two sides also talked about stamping out corruption within the IBT. They agree it remains but are divided on how to address the issue.
Zuckerman alleged that IBT leadership hasn't addressed actions against Rome Aloise, an IBT vice president close to Hoffa, who earlier this year was accused of corruption. Aloise is alleged to have received tickets to a Super Bowl party sponsored by Playboy magazine from an employer negotiating with the union.
Hall said the issue is being addressed by federal prosecutors and that the “Teamsters union does not condone violence nor does it condone corruption.”
“In the case of Rome Aloise, we are going through the system and not delaying anything,” he said. “We followed our constitution and his hearing is scheduled.”
Both candidates also addressed an ongoing issue of low voter participation within the IBT. Hall said he was disappointed with the low membership participation in the election, but that there could be a good reason.
“I think a lot of the issue is, quite frankly, that if a member is satisfied with their contract, and satisfied with the way things are going, they don’t bother to get involved in the process, and that’s unfortunate,” Hall said.
Zuckerman said the low turnout indicates that members “are angry and they’ve lost hope.”
“They want something different, and that should turn out the vote in this election” he added. “Last time people were shielded from the election, but this time it’s not. We are getting the word out and make sure they have an opportunity.”
After the debate, Zuckerman told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 26 that he was disappointed with the outcome, adding that Hall stopped short of “addressing issues important to members.”
“They wanted to throw out a bunch of lies and attacks and that did not help membership,” he said. “We have some problems in the union and we need to get down to the issues.”
Zuckerman added that he was planning to continue shoe-leather campaigning in the coming weeks to “take our message to the membership.”
Richard Leebove, a Hoffa-Hall spokesman, didn't respond to Bloomberg BNA’s request for comment Aug. 26.
The IBT election ballots will be mailed to members Oct. 6. Vote counting is expected to start Nov. 14.
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