Crossing Hoffa

Jimmy Hoffa disappeared near Detroit 32 years ago today, and his name still is associated with that city. But Steve Harper, author of the new book "Crossing Hoffa," says the controversial Teamster leader's connection to Minneapolis is equally "strong and deep."

In "Crossing Hoffa," Harper tells of how his father, Jim, led an insurrection at Minneapolis Teamsters Local 544 from 1959 to 1961 that brought the senior Harper face to face with Hoffa. "My dad got a tip from someone he trusted that the leader of (Local) 544, Fritz Snyder, was misusing union dues," Harper said in an interview from his home in Wilmette, north of Chicago, where he is a partner in a law firm.

Jim Harper, who believed Jimmy Hoffa wanted clean locals, put together a slate of candidates to run against Snyder's picks in an election. "To my father's astonishment, all three of his guys won," Harper said. "He became the center of a gigantic cause that made front-page news in Minneapolis and St. Paul. He didn't realize this was not what Hoffa wanted. Hoffa came to town and told him to stop the insurrection. My father refused. For 18 months, he and my mother were on the receiving end of death and murder threats."

These were not false threats. Jim Harper's truck was tampered with twice, and only his driving skills saved him from being killed. Later, Harper and his wife, Mary, were confronted at a Minneapolis restaurant by a mysterious guy with a gun who warned Jim to back off.

Steve Harper was 7 years old when his dad was fighting this union battle, and he remembers Jim buying a guard dog and building a firing range in the basement of the family home. But it wasn't until Jim Harper's death in 2001, at the age of 73, that Steve began looking into this extraordinary period in his father's life.

"My search for answers to two questions drove this book," Harper said.

"On my father's side, I wanted to know why a man who had a wife, four kids and a dog would persist in a crusade like this after the most dominant figure in labor at the time told him to stop. On Hoffa's side, why would this gigantic figure in the labor movement, with millions of things on his mind - including federal prosecutors wanting to send him to jail - care about some inconsequential insurgency in Minneapolis? I wanted to trace each of their lives to the moment of their collision."

Harper thinks his father's refusal to back down can be traced to struggles early in his life.

Jim Harper grew up in Minneapolis, son of a strong-willed mother and a depressed alcoholic father who was a fine musician.

After serving as a paratrooper in the Army, Jim ended up in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison for passing $50 in bad checks. He spent 13 months surrounded by vicious offenders in what then was America's worst prison. When he got out, he had learned not to show any fear.

By 1954, Harper was working his way up as a driver at Werner Transportation and had joined the Minneapolis Teamsters local.

"I think my dad saw this union insurgency as his opportunity to atone for what he regarded as a life of failure to that point," Harper says.

But Jim Harper also was truly offended by misuse of union money collected from hard-working members, and he mistakenly thought this would offend Hoffa, too.

Jimmy Hoffa first walked the streets of Minneapolis in 1937, when he was 24 years old. He'd been sent to Minnesota to recruit over-the-road drivers after the labor strikes of 1934, which were organized by Socialist Workers Party member Farrell Dobbs.

"Hoffa was extremely successful in helping organize the locals," Harper said. "Several years later, he was sent back by the Teamsters' leadership, who were afraid Dobbs and his people were getting too big for their britches. This propelled Hoffa into the national Teamsters spotlight."

By the time Jim Harper became a Teamster in the early 1950s, Hoffa was on his way to becoming the most powerful man in American labor. He was elected Teamsters president in 1957, promising to clean up the union.

"People look back now and say Hoffa was a crook and into organized crime, but while he was Teamsters president the organization was growing at the rate of a thousand members a week," Steve Harper said.

"He was one of those people, based on my father's description, who had personal charisma. He was fearless and had gone through tough times in his early years. The working man could look at this guy and say, 'He's got guts. We need somebody like this.' Even when he was being investigated, as far as working-class guys were concerned, the government was making the guy a martyr, throwing unprecedented resources at him to put him in jail."

By the time Jim Harper spearheaded the Local 544 insurrection, Hoffa was in trouble. The Teamsters were being watched by a government-mandated Board of Monitors, and Hoffa was worried about fallout from complicated financial deals involving a Teamsters retirement village he wanted to build in Florida. The deals involved Minneapolis retailer Ben Dranow, some banks and Teamsters pension money. The last thing Hoffa needed was media coverage of Jim Harper's challenge to the leadership in Minneapolis.

Hoffa ultimately succeeded in suppressing the Local 544 audit Jim Harper had pressed for, which showed misuse of funds. Then, the union's General Executive Board ruled, "The evidence presented did not support the charges" Harper had brought against Fritz Snyder.

With the battle over, Jim Harper was frozen out as a union driver at Werner and eventually went into management as a supervisor at the Minneapolis terminal of an Iowa-based trucking company. Meanwhile, Hoffa went to prison in 1967 for misuse of the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund.

Although Jim Harper lost his union fight, he never blamed Hoffa.

"To the end of my dad's life, I'm not sure he thought the bad things that happened to him were Hoffa's fault," Steve Harper said. "He always had great respect for the man. My father was big on people who had flaws and made something of themselves anyway."

Jim also had mixed feelings, later in life, about the value of unions.

"He thought they had positive aspects in terms of working men, but he was always worried the leadership wasn't going to do what was in the best interests of the members," Harper said.

Jim Harper outlived Jimmy Hoffa by 26 years. Jim was watching television in 1975 when news broke that Hoffa was missing.

"They'll never find him," the old Teamster said.

He was right.


UAW'S Delphi givebacks cause Big 3 to drool

The United Auto Workers union battled to get a new contract with Delphi and is now beginning tough negotiations with the Big Three automakers, Ford, GM and Chrysler. The Delphi contract includes the closure of 10 UAW plants, with the company keeping four in operation. Seven additional plants will be sold.

Delphi had previously enacted wage cuts of approximately $10 an hour for most of its employees. The new agreement will extend the wage cuts to about 4,000 workers who were at Delphi when it was spun off by General Motors. Their pay will drop from $27 per hour to between $14 and $18.50. These former GM workers will be offered $105,000 over three years in exchange for taking the lower wages or buyouts of between $70,000 and $140,000. The contract was approved by 68 percent of the workers, despite the painful takebacks. The settlement points to the problems of workers fighting multinational corporations in an era of globalization.

When Delphi filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, its chairman, Steve Miller, only accounted for the company’s U.S. operations. He purposely excluded Delphi’s foreign factories, which employ 115,000 workers and operate in low-wage countries such as Mexico and China. These are moneymaking operations, but U.S. bankruptcy laws allow the super-profits made at the expense of low-wage workers in countries throughout the world to be excluded.

Delphi sought court approval to dissolve the union contract, throw out the pension plan and cut wages and benefits by up to 75 percent. While demanding big concessions from the union, Delphi asked the bankruptcy court to allow it to reward its top managers with hundreds of millions of dollars in salary and stock options. “Hogs slopping at the trough of corporate greed” was how UAW President Ron Gettelfinger referred to the Delphi brass.

Since the Delphi concessions were forced on the union in June, GM stock has risen 23 percent. It is hard to read anything into this other than that investors are looking for similar concessions from the UAW in September. Ford’s stock, too, has risen, though not as dramatically since the Delphi deal.

Still to be fought out are the local agreements. One bone of contention will be GM’s and Delphi’s language in the national contract stating they want more flexibility to have skilled workers do production work and allow more outsourcing of union jobs.

GM’s “willingness” to grease the skids and help forge the deal by offering buyouts and buy-downs works in their favor. A strike would have been crippling for GM (GM is Delphi’s biggest customer) and GM has been subsidizing Delphi by paying higher prices for parts. With more Delphi plants closed, they will be freer to look for cheaper foreign parts. The Big Three have been telling their suppliers to leave the country to remain competitive.

Anti-labor forces would like to use the agreement with Delphi to bludgeon the rest of the labor movement. For example, comments have been posted on the web calling on Michigan teachers to also “face reality” and accept contract concessions.

At the same time, a recent analysis in the Detroit Free Press showed that 80 top executives at Ford, GM and a dozen auto suppliers had an average income of $4.2 million in 2006, a 22 percent increase over 2005.

As the UAW begins negotiations with GM, Ford and Chrysler, all who are not multimillionaires have a stake in the autoworkers’ struggle.


SEIU hungers for Wackenhut workers' dues

Wackenhut Services Inc., one of the nation's busiest private security providers, is fighting City Hall in Los Angeles and on Capitol Hill to hang onto contracts worth billions of dollars. But one of its toughest foes may be the labor organizers behind the Justice for Janitors strike in L.A. seven years ago.

The Service Employees International Union has Wackenhut in its sights as it organizes security guards across the country. The company, based in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is the largest contractor working here that has refused to recognize the union. "Wackenhut has been pretty hardball in seeking to prevent unionization," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of social and cultural studies at UC Berkeley. "The union is indicating there's a cost to that."

In March, labor leaders, members of the clergy and social activists wrote to the L.A. Public Works Department suggesting that Wackenhut wasn't qualified to continue doing business with the city under the responsible contractor policy, which requires companies to maintain records of "satisfactory performance" in all work, including work done under contacts with other governments.

The letter cited Wackenhut's "well documented record of racism, discrimination and poor security." Wackenhut is a subsidiary of the global security contractor G4S, which is under fire from international human rights groups and trade unions for alleged racist practices against black employees in South Africa, Malawi and Mozambique.

In April, according to Wackenhut, the city downgraded the company's initial score in the bidding process based on its answers to a routine series of questions each of the companies in the final round had been asked, dealing with their labor relations and performance history. Wackenhut's answers also prompted the Public Works Department to launch an investigation — the department wouldn't disclose exactly why — and the company's three-year, $14.2-million security guard contract with the city wasn't renewed after it expired in May.

The work went to three other companies. Only one of them, Securitas, has recognized the new SEIU security guards local, and just for commercial, not public-sector, work.

Two weeks ago, Wackenhut sued in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming that "the city abused its discretion by treating Wackenhut materially differently" from the other bidders," placing it at a "competitive disadvantage."

The suit doesn't name the SEIU but does charge that the union was behind the city's decision to dump Wackenhut.

"The SEIU continues to interfere in competitively bid public contracts … demand[ing] that Wackenhut be deemed 'non-responsible,' " the suit says.

On Friday, the city filed a motion in the case and called Wackenhut's allegations false. Jono Shaffer, an SEIU deputy director, said he hadn't seen the lawsuit. Wackenhut's reputation was under the magnifying glass in Washington earlier this month, where the House subcommittee on government management, organization and procurement heard testimony about the company's labor relations and supposed performance lapses. The committee was examining flaws in the federal procurement system that let contractors with poor performance records renew contracts or sign new ones.

Federal investigators and a former company employee testified that Wackenhut failed to provide guards assigned to sensitive government facilities with adequate training or equipment. Its guards work at federal nuclear weapons sites, Army bases and Department of Homeland Security facilities. Wackenhut has collected $1.3 billion on federal contracts since 2004.

A delegation of labor and human rights activists visited Africa in April to investigate G4S' work record, including allegations that managers referred to guards as "monkeys" and required black and white guards to use separate toilets, and that the company had failed to pay overtime and back wages owed to its guards.

Lawrence Brede, a Wackenhut senior vice president, defended the company, testifying that it had "consistently been awarded high performance ratings" during its more than 40 years as a federal contractor.

In Los Angeles, the SEIU is hoping to repeat with security guards the success that it had in 2000 with the Justice for Janitors campaign. Los Angeles cleaning companies agreed to a contract that gave janitors a 25% raise and fully paid health benefits.

Nonunion security guards make as little as $8.50 an hour with no benefits, according to SEIU officials. Pay for unionized guards ranges from $12 an hour to $27 with health insurance and other benefits.

The union represents 50,000 security officers nationally, with significant memberships in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere.

In Los Angeles, an SEIU local established in May represents guards in 700 buildings who work for five contractors.


Carpenters union: shameful, decadent

Our society has reached a new level of decadence. While the journalist Hunter S. Thompson may have thought the Kentucky Derby was decadent and depraved, hiring the homeless for eight bucks an hour to picket for union members too busy to walk the line, is a surer sign of the complete breakdown of society.

I can’t even imagine what my grandfather, a Teamsters union member who worked in a brewery, would say about hiring somebody to do your picketing. According to a story last week in The Washington Post, hiring out the picketing to the homeless, students, retirees and others is a common practice by carpenters unions across the country. The union doesn’t pay union wages, though, the picketers in D.C. make $8 an hour with no benefits.

Not that the hired placard-toters don’t get the message across.

“Hey, baby,” is the greeting thrown out by some of the male pickets to women happening to pass by, said the Post story. But mostly, the pickets put on a good show, getting so loud that non-appreciative office workers sometimes complain about the loud chants of “What do we want? Fair wages. When do we want them? Now.”

The hired pickets rove from one non-union job site to another during a given week, making the view of the union about non-union labor clear. Luckily, their haven’t been any clashes between the pro-union pickets and the non-union workers. If a tussle did break out, you wonder if the union would begin to offer and extra buck or two an hour for hazard pay.

Of course, it’s not only the carpenter’s union. This story is a reflection of the trend of hiring someone to do everything for us, even those things most near and dear to our hearts. One anti-war group pays a homeless shelter resident $30 a day to hold a sign against nuclear war, the Post tells us.

Perhaps hiring people to go to church or synagogue for us, or even say our night time prayers, isn’t far away. Most of us already pay someone else to prepare the vast majority of the food we put in our mouths each day.

Can we do nothing on our own anymore? It used to be common for people to at least grow some of their own food. Now, if the need developed, how many people would have a clue about how to grow a few vegetables and can or freeze them for future use?

Is it any wonder we have so many immigrants, legal and illegal, willing to do the work many of us have neither the time, or interest, in doing? I hear complaints as much about legal immigrants as I do about illegal ones, especially those who speak Spanish. First of all, if they’re legal immigrants, what are you complaining about?

Illegal immigrants are here for a reason, too, and the economics of their presence shouldn’t be a major objection to most of us. They are here to better their lives and that of their families. We can’t criticize them for that. Many of the illegal immigrants are also taking advantage of, and being taken advantage of by, business bad apples who want to use cheap labor.

Many of us rightly oppose illegal immigration and think the federal government should do more to stop the problem. The economic reasons for illegal immigration, though, is something many of us support, even unwittingly.

It may seem like a small thing, but hiring other people to do all the dirty work is a sign of decadence, and most decadent societies are on the decline. Perhaps dirty work is a misnomer, because picketing isn’t normally dirty, although it can be messy especially during a nasty strike.

The pickets are hired to defend someone else’s livelihood and wages. Livelihood and wages ought to be something very important to people. If all of us are becoming lackadaisical about making sacrifices and doing the job to protect things important to us, you have to wonder if things are going downhill.

We should all take a look inside and realize there are some things too important to leave in the hands of others, even if we do pay them a few bucks an hour.


NoCal scabs go home

Nine hundred East Bay garbage workers beat back one of the biggest scabbing operations in decades, defeating Waste Management’s attempt to break their unions. Waste Management (WM) raked in over $1 billion in profit last year, earning it a reputation as the Wal-Mart of garbage. “All these corporations care about is their multi-billion dollar profits,” Bob Kuykenball, who has been with Local 70 for 30 years and worked for WM for the last seven, told Socialist Worker. “If they could, they’d chain us to a machine or a truck and make us work for minimum wage.”

Starting on July 2, WM shipped in over 300 scab employees and hired another 350 security guards, locking out Teamsters Local 70, Machinists Local 1546 and ILWU Local 6 members. The company claimed the lockout was about safety, but their scabs ran over union picketers, drove broken down trucks through the crowded streets of Oakland, started a grass fire next to a school and let piles of rotting garbage fester in poor and working class neighborhoods, while they picked up the trash in the well-heeled hills.

WM budgeted at least $10 million on their little scab army and they planned to run roughshod over any resistance.

They ended up with a bloody nose.

Locked-out workers organized pickets 24-7 at every WM facility, and despite police harassment, kept them strong.

While the picket lines never stopped the scabbing operation, every day between 4am and 8am, dozens of pickets confronted every single scab truck and security vehicle.

The pickets slowed down the company, demoralized the scabs and built unity between locked-out workers and other community and labor supporters.

As negotiations came down to the wire, Oakland City Attorney John Russo, announced to the newspapers that police would clear out the pickets on 98th Ave.

The next morning, Local 70 Secretary-Treasurer Chuck Mack was there at 5am with beefed up picket lines telling the police that if they arrested anyone they’d have to start with him.

The police backed off and the pickets stayed up.

Local 70 also spread its picket lines to other cities, including Walnut Creek and Stockton, if only for a few days.

The solidarity shown by ILWU Local 6 recycling workers and IAM Local 1546 mechanics threw another wrench into WM’s plans.

WM had hoped that the recycling workers, who make just $12 an hour, and the mechanics, who are still negotiating their own contract, would cross the picket lines and leave the Teamsters to fight on their own.

Instead, they faced a solid wall of support.

The recycling workers of Local 6 deserve special recognition in this fight as the predominantly Latino and female workforce held out for a month without pay.

Dozens of other unions and community groups pitched in holding the line by walking the picket lines and raising over $100,000 for a hardship fund for locked-out workers.

The 26-day lockout ended when Teamsters voted 363 to 3 voted to accept a new contract.

The five-year contract includes an initial 5% raise plus a guaranteed cost of living adjustment of at least 3.4% per year starting in 2008 as well as increased contributions from Waste Management to workers pensions.

Better still, WM conceded extra raises to the lowest paid Teamsters in order to equalize with the higher paid drivers.

The Teamsters also defended their right to honor the picket lines of fellow Teamsters and other unions on strike or locked out.

WM desperately wanted to take away this basic form of union solidarity.

The contract did contain several concessions.

The Teamsters gave up company maintenance of health benefits, meaning that workers will now be responsible for paying the increased cost of their health insurance if it rises more than 12% per year.

Also, the new contract gives up the right to strike over grievances, committing to binding arbitration in its place.

At the heart of the contract was Waste Management’s desire to impose draconian new disciplinary procedures that would have allowed them to fire a driver after two minor safety violations.

The Teamsters fended off this union busting tool, but were forced to accept new progressive disciplinary procedures that give the company new power to victimize individual drivers.

However, all disciplinary matters will be grievable, setting up a test of strength on the shop floor in which the union will pit workers’ unity against management’s new rules.

Finally, Local 1546’s WM mechanics are still negotiating their contract and the unions will have to make sure WM doesn’t take out its frustration on them.

Some workers criticized these concessions, as well as the fact that they were only allowed to see the contract an hour before they had to vote on it.

These concerns are certainly justified, but it’s also true that beating back WM showed that working people aren’t powerless in the face of corporate greed.

And these days, that lesson is worth a lot.

“They want it like it was before the first railroad strikes back in 1877 that build the unions in the first place,” explained Kuykenball.

“We did this for the public. It’s not always about the money. You’d be surprised how much you can get paid in spirit if you do the right thing.”

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