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Teamsters chief James P. Hoffa won't seek re-election

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

James P. Hoffa on Friday signaled the end of an era for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, telling The Detroit News he will not seek reelection just as the labor union this week makes a historic exit from government oversight.

"I think it's time for the next generation to take over," the 78-year-old labor leader said. "We rebuilt this union. We've rebuilt our finances. We rebuilt the spirit. We put the swagger back in the union. ... I'm very proud of what we have done, but I also realize maybe it's time for the next generation to take over."

James P. Hoffa, the second-longest serving head of the Teamsters union, says he will step down in 2022 after 23 years.

Hoffa, the second-longest serving Teamsters president, will leave behind a complex legacy when he steps down in March 2022 after 23 years, experts said. The Detroit native now says he feels confident in the finances, unity and momentum of one of the country's largest unions — and its restored integrity.

"We have enshrined that we will never, ever have organized crime as corruption in our union," Hoffa said.

The Troy resident said it is too early to make a decision on whom to endorse as his successor. Only Dan Tobin, president from 1907 to 1952, has served longer than he in the union with deep Detroit roots.

Hoffa's departure from the leadership of the Washington, D.C.-based organization sets up a battle for candidates in November to compete for delegates' support at the union's convention. Those who receive at least 5% of the support there will appear on the general election ballot next year.

Although Hoffa says he looks forward to retirement to spend more time with his children and grandchildren, he cannot imagine abandoning the union in which he grew up walking picket lines and attending union meetings.

"I intend to make a contribution to the union in any way I can," he said. "I intend to be active in the community here in Michigan in any way I can. I’m not going away when I retire."

When he steps down, the Hoffa family — James P. Hoffa and his father, Jimmy R. Hoffa — will have led the Teamsters for 37 years of the union's 118 years.  

'Watershed' moment

On Monday, the Teamsters celebrated the conclusion of more than three decades of federal government oversight. U.S. prosecutors in 1988 filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the mob-tied union alleging racketeering activities from embezzlement to 20 murders. Hoffa's father, former Teamsters President Jimmy R. Hoffa, in 1964 was convicted of jury tampering and sending Teamster pension funds to Mafia-controlled casinos in Las Vegas. He later disappeared, a mystery that remains unsolved.

The Teamsters in 1989 avoided a trial and agreed to a consent decree that instituted direct elections of international officers, government oversight of elections and independent disciplinary officers to investigate corruption and take action as deemed necessary.

"Without that, there wasn't going to be the institutional change there needed to be," said David Witwer, a professor who studies union corruption scandals at Penn State Harrisburg. "The Teamsters are arguably in a much better position structurally in terms of integrity."

For a time after the government took over, however, corruption persisted. James Hoffa, at the time a regional administrative assistant and former labor attorney, was first elected to the presidency in 1998 during a special convention. The year prior, his opponent, incumbent and "reformer" Ron Carey, was found to have accepted $700,000 in campaign funds from outside sources.

In 2001 under Hoffa, the union codified "one member, one vote" elections into its constitution along with a pledge against organized crime. The Final Order in 2015 instituted a five-year transition period, declaring organized crime’s influence over the Teamsters “has long been expunged."

"Each one of those things are watersheds in the union," Hoffa said of the federal agreements. "It's the final phase of the government getting out of the Teamsters union and letting the Teamsters run their own affairs. I have played a major role in exiting the government from Teamster affairs. We have done that, and we are in the final steps of getting the government out because the Teamsters union can run itself and should not have government supervision."

Hoffa in that respect has demonstrated the union is stable and a strong force for its members, said Harley Shaiken, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley who studies labor issues.

"It's not a small achievement; they spent three decades or so with the oversight," Shaiken said. "It does mark a new era to put this in the rear-view mirror. Whoever the successor is will have to be vigilant in these areas."

Getting to this point was a difficult journey that cost the Teamsters millions of dollars, Hoffa said. His most significant accomplishment, he said, was providing the leadership to reunite the union — as shown in his five consecutive election victories.

"When I took over, it was brother against brother, sister against sister, local union against local union," he said. "I reunited everybody. I said I believe in the big-tent philosophy of bringing everybody together under one tent to say we cannot win the battle against employers if we ourselves are divided. We must be united to accomplish our goals."

That, he says, has resulted in growing membership, which totals more than 1.4 million Teamsters. Despite economic recessions and other challenges, that is about the same as when Hoffa was elected in 1998 and up from 1.2 million a few years ago. It was a rough start for Hoffa after he called in 1999 a national strike to organize Overnite Transportation that failed, but Teamsters more recently have had success among school bus drivers and casino and port workers.

Hoffa also is proud of the $275 million strike fund the union has built up. It was empty when he took leadership.

"I’ll never forget when we had the Detroit newspaper strike (in July 1995), it was horrible," he said. "We had no strike fund. All the other unions had strike funds. It was so embarrassing.

"I think that was the biggest accomplishment to get everybody thinking as one union, one strong union organizing together, rebuilding their finances together, fighting corruption together, doing things together. Today, we are truly a juggernaut and the top union in North America."

Hoffa also led the Teamsters' exit of the AFL-CIO in 2005 for the founding of the Change to Win Federation. Additionally, he has advocated for fair trade by opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement and supporting President Donald Trump's use of tariffs.

'World is changing'

Opposition to Hoffa has grown in recent years. He won against his competitor by a few thousand votes in 2016, a tighter-than-expected race in which only 15% of members voted — roughly half the participation of the first direct elections.

And in 2018, UPS Inc. workers rejected two tentative agreements covering 260,000 employees by 55% and 63%. But the deals still were ratified. Since the turnout was less than 50% and the agreements were rejected by less than a two-thirds majority, Hoffa under the Teamsters constitution was able to accept it anyway.

"The implementation was just by following the constitution, which mandates that," Hoffa said. "It brings a good contract to a lot of people who want that contract. It was the right thing to do.

"People today are making excellent wages, excellent health care, excellent vacations, excellent pensions, and it’s a wonderful contract that deals with all of the challenges we face in regard to e-commerce and all the things going on in the changing industries. The world is changing, and that contract anticipates those changes."

But critics point to such events as reasons why he fails to live up to his early campaign rhetoric that "the Hoffa name means power."

"He has not been a strong leader, not in terms of building Teamster power," said Ken Paff, national organizer for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform-minded movement that already has endorsed for president Sean O’Brien, international vice president for the eastern region.

Hoffa "traded on his father's name meaning power," Paff said. "The members haven't felt that power. Increasingly, there is big demand for a new direction in the union. ... There is no way he could get reelected."

Hoffa disagrees: "I think I would win again," he said. "The union is in great shape. The people are happy with our leadership and very happy with what we have done and making sure their family has an excellent life and they live the American dream."

For now, Hoffa said he is focused on his final years in office. His top priority is saving the hundreds of thousands of retirees' pensions that are at risk. The Central States Pension Plan, which covers 400,000 Teamster retirees, is expected to run out of money by 2025 after more than 10,000 employers shuttered following deregulation of the trucking industry and recent economic recessions.

The Teamsters have advocated support for the Butch Lewis Act to loan money to failing pension plans to remain solvent. The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives has passed the bill, but it faces a harder fight in the Republican-controlled Senate.

"It’s introduced in the Senate, and we’re trying to get it through with the Republicans," Hoffa said. "It’s very difficult, but we think we’ll do it. Those people were made promises. We have to make sure those promises are kept. It is our biggest challenge we face right now."

He hopes his final years will bring certainty to those families and to his members as his departure opens a new chapter.

"Stay united; stay strong," he said. "We have rebuilt this union. Keep it on this path. Keep growing. Stay strong financially, and stay united."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble