For almost a month now, postal balloting has been under way in a government- supervised election of a new leader for the 1.4 million-strong Teamsters. And with just three days to go before the voting closes, the incumbent president, Ron Carey, the man most credited with cleaning up the union - is in peril of losing his job.
Mr Carey's opponent is James P Hoffa Jr, son of the former Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa, who vanished outside a suburban Detroit restaurant in July 1975, presumed kidnapped and murdered by the Mafia. By deftly exploiting his father's name and the deep resentment among the union old guard of Mr Carey's high-handed methods, Hoffa Junior has given himself more than an outside chance of victory.
Results will be declared next weekend. But the Carey forces, once confident of winning, can now bank on only two of five Teamster regions. The biggest, covering the industrial Midwest, is considered solid Hoffa territory while the remaining two, in the West and the South, are toss-ups.
James Hoffa, a Detroit labour lawyer, insists he has no links with organised crime - "Let's Clear the Air," proclaims his campaign poster, "The Mob Killed My Father ... There will be no place for the Mob or its Agents, THEY WILL BE RUN OUT OF THIS UNION." Unabashedly, however, he vows to bring back the old decentralised structure of the Teamsters' glory days under his father, when local officials wielded immense power and could paralyse truck deliveries for a targeted company, coast-to-coast.
Since then the labour universe has been turned on its head. Deregulation, new information technology and the virtual demise of the closed shop have vastly weakened unions. Their membership has plunged, sapping their ability to stand up to a new breed of national and multinational companies able to call on non-union labour at will.
The Teamsters themselves have, moreover, changed, with less than a third of the membership accounted for by truckers and freight workers. All these problems Mr Carey has sought to tackle, but at a price. A generation of local bosses has not forgiven him for wresting authority back to the centre, and for closing down more than 60 locals, or branches, suspected of links with organised crime. Neither have Mr Carey's decisions to trim perks for senior officials and raise dues done anything for his popularity.
But despite a vigorous effort by his foes to tar him with the brush of corruption, Mr Carey has undoubtedly cleansed the Teamsters' reputation. All this, leaders of several unions now fear, could be jeopardised by a Hoffa victory, at the very moment a revitalised AFL-CIO, the central labour organisation, is beginning to improve its image and attract new membership. Some even advocate expulsion of the Teamsters from the AFL- CIO should Mr Hoffa win.
Much will depend on turnout, already certain to eclipse the 424,000, or 28 per cent, who voted when Mr Carey was elected in 1991. Normally a higher turnout would favour the incumbent. This time the magnetism of the Hoffa name makes any such calculation impossible.Reuse content