James P. Hoffa
By Michael Howe
Note: This feature was originally written for one of the trucking industry publications I write for, but due to unforseen timing issues it is not able to be printed as planned. So, I share it here.
“President Obama, this is your army. We are ready to march….Everybody here’s got a vote…Let’s take these sons of bitches out and give American back to an America where we belong.” That was how James Hoffa concluded his speech at a rally for President Obama in Michigan on Labor Day 2011. It was in that speech where he was speaking of the battle, the war on workers, the challenges of the economy, and he called out the Tea Party for many of the challenges facing America.
With a dynamic personality and an instantly recognizable name, James Hoffa invokes an instant reaction from anyone that hears him or hears of him. He is both unifying and polarizing. And, whether you love him or hate him, his voice is one that matters because he has significant influence on policies that impact many industries. As the leader of approximately 1.4 million current Teamsters, 500,000 retirees, and 1900 Teamster affiliates throughout the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico, James Hoffa is someone to watch.
As the son of James R. Hoffa, James P. Hoffa grew up on the picket lines and in union meetings. When he turned 18 he received his own union card and was sworn in by his father. His Teamster career began in the 1960’s when he was a Teamster laborer in Detroit and Alaska where he loaded and unloaded freight from ships, drove trucks and buses, and operated heavy equipment. From there, he served as a Teamster attorney from 1968-1993 where he represented members in workers compensation cases, Social Security, and personal legal matters. He also represented Teamster joint councils and local unions.
Moving up the organization, Hoffa served as the Administrative Assistant to the President of Michigan Joint Council 43 from 1993-1998. He was first elected General President of the Teamsters in 1999 and has served in that position ever since, and was in fact re-elected in 2011.
In any discussion with the General President of the Teamsters (www.teamsters.org) it is difficult not to ask the general question about the state of the labor movement and what the future holds for the labor movement. One thing is for certain from this discussion with Hoffa – he feels it is strong, but threatened. “The labor movement and working families have been under a constant and calculated attack from the radical far-right forces and big business – but as everyone has seen this past year, we aren’t going to be pushed around,” says Hoffa.
Referencing legislation in Ohio that was designed to remove collective bargaining rights from public employees, Hoffa speaks of victory for labor. “We fought back and won in Ohio,” says Hoffa. He also speaks of victory other areas, especially when working against “right to work” legislation. “So-called “right to work” legislation was filed in 13 states this year, and labor fought back and defeated every attempt,” says Hoffa.
Like those in the Occupy Movements, Hoffa sees this as a battle between the haves and the have not’s. For him, it’s a battle against the top 1 percent. “The “1 percenters” in this country think that they can keep getting rich on the backs of the average American. They have an agenda, but the labor movement isn’t going stand by and watch every gain we have bled and died for be taken away,” says Hoffa. “If anything, these attacks on working families have galvanized our movement.” He says that is what the country saw in 2011 with protests in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, and that it’s also what the nation is seeing with the Occupy Wall Street protests across the country.
Hoffa’s schedule is busy and his plate of issues is full. But, throughout his Teamster career he has never lost sight of his roots or his appreciation for the workers on the front line. It’s only natural then that he hold a great deal of respect for the American truck driver and the work they do. “American truck drivers are the hardest working people in this country,” says Hoffa. “We have thousands of members that get behind a wheel for a living.”
Hoffa is also cognizant of the professionalism required to drive a truck, and wishes more people would take time to thank truckers for the work they do. “These men and women are skilled workers who are held to stringent safety and health regulations. Most people don’t realize that everything they buy gets to where it’s going thanks to American truckers,” says Hoffa.
Issues facing the trucking industry are frequently the same issues Hoffa and the Teamsters are working on. Anyone who has followed the Cross Border Program with Mexico or has read my “Driving Through DC” columns in Challenge Magazine knows that Hoffa and the Teamsters are staunch opponents of this program and continue to fight it. “Our union has been fighting this same battle for 16 years and there is one thing that has remained true that entire time – Mexican trucks are not safe,” says Hoffa. “They do not meet U.S. safety standards.” On this specific issue, Hoffa sees more issues than just the safety as trucks as a problem though. In addition to safety issues he is quick to cite the drug war in Mexico and the current economic situation in the US. Similar to past “Driving Through DC” columns, Hoffa sees the need to protect American jobs as a priority. “And here in the United States, we have an unemployment rate of around 9 percent. It makes no sense with regard to safety, security and keeping good-paying jobs here at home,” says Hoffa.
Hoffa also points out that there is a lack of support for the program in Congress, where in the past Congress has voted overwhelmingly to shut down this program and legislation has been filed to do it again. “The American people do not support opening our border to unsafe trucks from Mexico,” says Hoffa.
Interestingly, Hoffa has found many allies on this issue that are often on the opposite side of other issues, and he finds this appealing. “This is not about red or blue – this is about American jobs and safety. I was just down at the border in Otay Mesa, California, in October to protest the cross-border pilot program. I was joined by hundreds of Teamsters from across the West, Todd Spencer from the Owner Operators Independent Drivers Association and Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA). We all agree – the border must stay closed to Mexican carriers.”
This non-partisan issue does not mean, however, that Hoffa won’t take a political stand. In fact, he makes it very clear that he wants President Obama to be re-elected. In fact, it was his 2011 Labor Day speech that really set the tone for the 2012 election. Hoffa says it is crucial that President Obama be re-elected. “There’s no other way to describe it. The war on workers will only gain momentum if there is an anti-worker Republican in the White House,” says Hoffa. “President Obama is a friend to organized labor and the middle class, and I expect that labor will turn out to support his run for re-election.”
Just to be clear, Hoffa has never backed away from the comments he made in his Labor Day speech, despite some suggesting he should. He continues to stand by his comments. What is most interesting is that he is a supporter of President Obama’s re-election bid, yet he is also not afraid to criticize certain policies – like the cross border program reinstated under Obama’s leadership.
Throughout Hoffa’s travels and meetings he is constantly presented with issues the American worker is facing. Given this is one of the most difficult economic periods in US history, his perspective and the perspectives of those he meets with is worth noting – especially in this election year.
“As part of my job, I constantly travel to speak with our members across this great country. Many of them are concerned about the direction this country is taking. Working Americans are under attack at every turn while the rich get richer on the backs of the middle class,” says Hoffa. This is a sentiment popular among the workers and the Occupy movements. How it might impact the 2012 elections will be interesting to watch, but there are definite concerns among the public.
“They are afraid that their children will grow up in an America without opportunity. One without good jobs that pay a fair wage and benefits that will allow them to provide for their children,” says Hoffa. “They worry that their children won’t have a real shot at the American Dream.”
It’s that American Dream that we all pursue. Even as the economy struggles the pursuit of that dream is still important and relevant. For many truckers, the dream is of owning and operating their own truck, and then perhaps expanding a little – essentially developing a small fleet. Hoffa appreciates this dream, but also believes the larger companies need to do more to help drivers succeed and achieve the dream.
To the carriers, Hoffa offers some advice. “Treat your drivers as you would want to be treated. Pay them a livable wage and provide affordable benefits and you will have drivers that will stay with your company,” says Hoffa. “Experience and loyalty are keys to providing a dependable, quality service.”
He isn’t speaking from just emotion either. Hoffa cites an example of how one company has succeeded, even in these challenging economic times. “UPS is a great example of what can happen when you have an experienced and efficient workforce. We have 240,000 workers at UPS and they have a strong contract that helps them provide for their families,” says Hoffa. “Detractors will say that a unionized workforce hurts your bottom line. Tell that to UPS. They have had a phenomenal year so far, and project as much as a 48 percent jump in profits over last year.”
Hoffa acknowledges that times are tough and many are struggling to make ends meet. He does see some cause to be optimistic though and offers some parting comments to truckers everywhere. “Don’t lose faith. We are going through a rough patch right now, but if we just stand together and keep our eyes on the road and our foot on the gas, we’ll get through it and win back our country,” says Hoffa.