Thursday, March 13, 2008

Hoffa soft on Obama and vice versa

By Herman Benson

There must be more to it.

If in quest of change the Democratic primaries had not lifted affairs into the loftier realm of statesmanship, we would have to conclude that this was simply another example of the tired old horse trading politics that so debases life in America. “Obama has indicated willingness to end federal oversight of the Teamsters.” So reported Robert Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times on February 24. In contrast, Bill Clinton indicated that under Hillary, the monitorship would continue. What followed was “The unexpected endorsement of Barack Obama by Teamsters President James Hoffa.” A spokesperson for the Obama office, confirming the accuracy of Novak’s report, told one reporter that the Teamsters Independent Review Board has run its course, that organized crime influence is down, and that the Teamsters are being held to a higher standard than other unions.

The IRB, empowered by court order to act against corruption in the Teamster union, has been an effective force against organized crime. It is true that, on corruption matters, the Independent Review Board has held the Teamsters to a high standard --- that difficult task has been its finest achievement, one that no other agency, government or private, law enforcement or civil, has been able to do before. But not exactly to a standard higher than expected of other unions. The Teamsters are required only to meet anti-corruption standards we should expect --- at least demand --- of other unions. If some other unions fall short, does that give the Teamsters a free pass? Senator Obama proposes to lift the moral standards of the nation’s politics. Could he begin by lowering standards for the Teamsters union?

Is organized crime influence down so far that it is time to jettison the Independent Review Board? That raises an interesting question. Valid or not, how did the Obama team reach that conclusion? It is a fair question, because there is no reason to believe that, in their busy days, they themselves ever had occasion even to think about it. They have been so preoccupied with other pressing matters. Surely they have not had time to consult the IRB itself or its investigating arm which is still busy eradicating ties between Teamster officials and organized crime. Surely they never took time to question the Department of Justice or the presiding federal judge who are giving the IRB full support and have rejected every demand that they suspend their efforts. Surely they never consulted Ed Stier, the man whom President Hoffa himself retained to come up with proposals that could demonstrate that the union would effectively combat corruption if the IRB would only go away.

Ed Stier did his part. After many months of effort, he did design a program which --- if honestly carried out --- could have served as a possible substitute for the IRB. Stier even tried to implement the proposed plan by actually acting to expose crooks in the IBT. Once Hoffa, obviously surprised, realized that Stier took the job seriously and would not serve as a mere PR prop, he lost interest. In breaking with Hoffa, Stier charged that Hoffa was actually sabotaging the anti-corruption campaign. With Stier gone, Hoffa is obviously looking for a new prop for the old PR campaign against the IRB. Along comes the Obama team in the search for votes; whoever it was that decided to go easy on Hoffa must have confined research to the Hoffa PR team.

What is involved here transcends the IRB’s responsibility to act against corruption in the Teamsters union. The Independent Review Board is a pivotal part of a federal monitorship that has given working Teamsters the right to elect their international officers in a fair election. After generations of mob control, intimidation, and murders in the union, the federal monitorship stands as a defense of the right of members to elect international officers by direct membership vote in an honest count, to the right of candidates to equal access to the union magazine during elections. Undermine that system and you undermine the right of Teamsters to control their own union.