Hoffa’s Empty Populism

The most telling thing James Hoffa Jr. has said about his campaign for the presidency of the Teamsters Union was this criticism of his chief rival in the race, Tom Leedham: “My opponent can’t draw a crowd.” In part, Hoffa simply meant that Leedham was not popular enough to represent a serious challenge. But on a deeper level, Hoffa’s appeal to the importance of the “crowd” is an important comment on the nature of his candidacy and of the kind of politics he’s offering the 1.4 million strong union. Hoffa’s candidacy represents substanceless populism, the promise of a return to glory days that are gone forever.

Although Hoffa is heavily favored in the month-long election, which began on Monday when ballots were mailed out, signs in recent weeks suggest that Leedham’s candidacy is gaining steam. While Hoffa planned all along to do no polling, his campaign manager told the Associated Press on Monday that a poll had been taken, but then refused to release the results. And Leedham, who picked up the reform banner dropped by deposed Teamsters president Ron Carey, has been able to tap the still formidable grassroots energies of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the movement that helped clean up the union for the first time in its history. Still, Hoffa gets nearly unwavering support from local leadership, and obviously has tremendous name recognition, both of which may be too much for Leedham to overcome.

Hoffa has centered his campaign on a slogan of “Restore Teamsters Power.” But figuring out exactly what that means is incredibly difficult. It was Carey, after all, who led the Teamsters to victory in the UPS strike, perhaps the most important labor triumph of the decade. And aside from somewhat vague plans to restore power to local unions that have been taken over by the international–taken over because of corruption charges–and to make the union less democratic, Hoffa hasn’t done a very good job of explaining what that “restoration” would entail.

To be sure, we all have an idea of what that slogan means. It means a return to the days when the Teamsters was the most feared union in the country, seemingly able to shut down the country in a flash, and when truck drivers found themselves comfortably ensconced in the middle class. Those days were never quite as golden as Teamsters now remember them to be. But it would be a mistake to downplay the concrete achievements that Hoffa’s father won for his members, just as it’d be a mistake to downplay the disastrous impact on American attitudes toward organized labor that the Teamster’s Mob connections had. (Before Carey, three of the previous six Teamsters presidents had gone to jail while they were in office, and a fourth, Jackie Presser, died while under indictment.)

What Hoffa’s tough talk obscures, though, is the fact that the trucking industry has changed dramatically since the late 1950s. Then, it was a heavily regulated business dominated by a few major players. As a result, it was easy for an industrial union to apply pressure at a few key chokepoints. It was also, not coincidentally, easy for Teamsters locals to cut sweetheart deals with employers, and for the threat of Mob violence to have a material impact on contract negotiations.

The deregulation of the trucking industry, though, changed all this completely. There are many more trucking companies, and they tend to be smaller and harder to organize. More to the point, it’s no longer as easy to paralyze business with a few well-placed strikes. The harsh reality of competition in the industry also means that the salaries Teamsters drivers enjoyed are no longer as easy to come by, especially in an economy in which raising prices has become nearly impossible. And the Teamsters’ failure to make a major commitment to organizing in the wake of deregulation has left the union smaller and weaker than it was before.

Faced with these concrete realities, it’s perhaps not surprising that Teamster workers have been drawn to Hoffa’s promise that everything will be returned to the way it was if he’s elected. And his rabble-rousing, crowd-centric rhetoric plays potently upon his father’s image. But it’s an appeal without substance, because nothing James Hoffa can do can change the material conditions under which Teamsters work today. (If anything, the weakening of democracy in the union–which will be a consequence of restoring power to often corrupt locals–will make successes like the UPS strike less likely.) In the end, Hoffa is most reminiscent of figures from the 1930s like Father Charles Coughlin, who combined a kind of class-based populist appeal with crackpot economics. Hoffa’s candidacy is built around a promise he’ll never be able to keep, because it’s a promise to make the world 1955 all over again.