An interview with James P. Hoffa

LG: I’m curious about growing up in Detroit in a union family and what memories you have about dinner table conversations.

JH: I had a wonderful childhood. I had a wonderful father, a wonderful mother, great sister. My sister is a circuit judge in St. Louis. My early memories are talking union over the table, but also I remember in the ‘50s the whole family getting in the car, going to eat dinner somewhere and then going for a Sunday drive. UAW used to have a radio program, and we’d listen to it in the car. Invariably we’d end up on a picket line where my dad would say, “How’s the picket line going?” We’d end up pulling our car up and visiting with the pickets. I’d get out at 8 or 9 years old and be walking a picket line. I remember going to union meetings at an early age, sitting in these smoke filled meetings back in the late ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. I remember at 18 years old my father swearing me into the union.

LG: Our readers are people in the machining business and people on machining floors, small and large manufacturers of the precision parts industry. I’m interested in how you see the intersection between the interests of the Teamsters and manufacturing.
JH: I think there’s tremendous intersection, because the Teamsters Union is one of the most outspoken unions with regard to the unfair trade practices going on. The fact is that American manufacturing is being eliminated by unfair trade deals where you have exports from China and Japan, South Korea, the Far East, India – driving the American manufacturers out of this market. That’s because of the trade policies being pursued by this administration and the Clinton administration. Both have one thing in common – basically unfair trade. Open the markets to everybody in the world and let them have trade barriers where they can create export economies that basically attack American industry with unfair exports into this country.

Teamsters march in Atlanta. Photo: Jim Saah Photography

NG: We certainly see it.
JH: You see it every day, whether it was NAFTA or whether it was WTO, which Clinton did. To ship auto parts into China you face a 30 percent tariff. You can’t ship auto parts into South Korea. They have completely protected economies, but they have complete access to our economy. They ship stuff over by boatloads. Hyundai ships from South Korea, they put ramps down and drive thousands of cars off a ship in Baltimore. Now there’s no ship of Ford Focuses going over to Seoul, Korea, because they won’t allow it. Because of the trade bills they’ve been able to sucker us into, and we’ve been stupid enough to do, these companies have created an atmosphere where American manufacturing is at a disadvantage.

LG: What would you do?
JH: I would completely change the way we trade. It’s very simple. The first thing you do is scrap NAFTA. There’s a 60-day termination. You write a letter and end it and negotiate it all over again.

LG: What would be fair?
JH: The answer is equal access. Let’s take South Korea and equality; you trade with me; I trade with you. If you have access to my economy, I have access to your economy. The trade deficit is crazy, and it’s getting worse because we have the wrong trade policy. And the answer is: Anytime we have a trading partner that’s getting out of line, we basically cut him off. Right now China’s great idea is to flood our markets with a cheap car. It’ll probably be a pretty good quality car called the Chery, and they’re going to start shipping these in. Thousands of these cars will come here and they’ll sell them for $6,000. Americans will buy them and they’ll devastate our already hurting auto industry. There should be a $4,000 tariff on those cars. You’ve got a $6,000 car; it should go for $10,000 so they don’t have an unfair advantage over our products. Number one, they won’t let our cars into their country. They’re smarter than we are. They go to General Motors and say, “Oh, you want to do business in this country? Build a factory.” GM has to build a factory and put all the Chinese people to work and then they’re going to have a Buick Century. Oh that’s great. Great for them. Who won that battle? Did General Motors win? What are they going to get, a small piece of every car sold? How does that benefit our economy?

NG: A lot of people take the consumer point of view and say, “Oh, we’re thrilled to get that $6,000 car.”
JH: That’s the Wal-Mart theory.

James P. Hoffa with presidents of rail unions that merged with the teamsters. Photo: Jim Saah Photography

LG: Can I move the topic slightly? You talked about UPS, your largest company you deal with. I saw today that UPS showed smaller earnings this past quarter because they said manufacturing was off in the United States. You have a contract coming up in 2008. With 250,000 UPS workers, how do you prepare for the negotiations?
JH: We have a UPS division and a UPS director by the name of Ken Hall, who is the lead negotiator. We’re in negotiations right now. We polled the members and said, “Are you interested in early negotiations?” And about 98 percent came back and said, “Yes.” We think we’re going to get an excellent agreement. UPS is an extremely well-run company. They are heavily unionized and yet make incredible profits. What does that say? It says, “Good management.” Working with a good union, with the right flexibility, it can grow, and we are growing our membership at UPS every day. UPS bought a number of companies including Overnight, which is now UPS Freight. We’re looking forward to having a Card Check agreement with them and getting 20,000 new members. We have a very good relationship with UPS. They are making a lot of money, heavily unionized, paying good wages, good health care and good pensions. It can be done in America.

LG: When would you get involved in UPS negotiations?
JH: When we get to the end, I’ll be there, sure. I get a daily report of what’s going on. They’re negotiating out by Dulles Airport right now.

LG: FedEx is not union?
JH: FedEx is not union, but the pilots are. UPS is under the National Labor Relations Board. For some reason FedEx was able to get in on the Railway Labor Act. The only way you can organize that company is do to it system-wide. With the turnover in that company, it would be difficult, but not impossible. One area that the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) cut out is FedEx Home Delivery. At FedEx Home Delivery we just won an election, I think, of 100 people. It’s the first time we’ve organized FedEx, so I was really excited about it, and we’re getting a lot of interest from people in this area.

NG: Could you explain the Card-Check Bill?
JH: The Card-Check Bill is what we call the Employee Free Choice Act. If the workers come and show that they have 51 or 58 percent of the cards, you’re recognized. Makes sense to me. Why is that good? There’s so much intimidation of workers, so much fear in workers. The way they do things right now at the NLRB is not working. Number one, a large corporation with an unlimited budget can take on some local union that wants to organize a 100 people at a warehouse. They have so much money, they can tie that up in the NLRB forever. The other thing is the intimidation. If it’s a manufacturing company, they tell me, “If you guys don’t get rid of the union, we’re going to move to Mexico. We’re going to move to Cambodia.” They actually say that.

LG: The counter to that is the argument that there will be intimidation of the workers who vote against the union.
JH: Well, I wouldn’t buy that. Either they sign a card or they don’t sign a card.

NG: I interviewed a non-Teamster, independent operator truck driver who owns his own truck. We asked him, “If you got a chance to talk to Mr. Hoffa, what would you ask him?” And he said, “What would I gain by being part of the Teamsters?”
JH: Well very simply, he would have an organized life. He wouldn’t have to be working 60-70 hours a week with all kinds of unpaid down time. If he owns his own truck and gets in a wreck or the truck breaks down, what happens to him? What if he still has a truck payment? Disaster. What if he gets in a terrible accident and can’t work for two years? What happens to his mortgage payments, his car payments, his truck payments, his insurance payments? Does he pay workman’s compensation on himself? It’s a tremendous burden. I know independent truck drivers, and there’s a certain type of people that think that life is romantic. But the reality is they have a tremendous dislike of being dictated to. A driver will be called at 2:00 in the morning, drive all night to pick up a hot load at 6:00 a.m. in Richmond, Virginia. Then he gets there and hears the load’s not there and won’t be there until 8:00 at night. He’s got to wait. He doesn’t get paid. He only gets paid by the mile when he’s running. Now there’s a cowboy-type of person who says, “That is the life for me.” We certainly see them as brothers of the road with our Teamsters. I have the ultimate amount of respect for independent truck drivers. But their life is fraught with peril because if they have one thing go wrong, they are really in trouble. I have a relative who started driving a truck that way who finally said, “It’s not for me because it’s just too much down time. When I compute the cost of my truck, the amount of hours I spend, I’m not making much money. After I pay for my truck, pay for my fuel, pay for the tires, pay for the oil, pay for workman’s comp, I worked 70 hours and I made a relatively small amount of money.”

LG: Why do you think the over-the-road trucking business has gone virtually all to the owner/operator?
JH: Well it’s just deregulation. But you do see the JB Hunts, the Swifts, the Werners, those really big companies rolling down the highway. You’re working on the highway, but the truck is owned by the company. There are variations; you can own your own truck or just lease the truck. Or you’re completely independent, where you own the truck, and you do everything. The other variation is you are non-union but working for Swift. They give you the truck, but then you run mileage.

NG: It appears most of organized labor has lined up with the Democratic Party. Traditionally the Teamsters in their history have been aligned with Republicans. Do you think it’s wise that virtually all of organized labor is walking with the Democratic Party or is it in your interest to play both?
JH: I think that’s one of those things that made sense 20 years ago. The Democratic Party basically follows ideas that are more oriented towards the middle-class and workers. You have seen a change in the Republican Party as just this party of rich people. They basically are the cheap labor boys, the WTO people that want to move capital around the world. They are completely devoted to that. The terrible tax cuts that Bush enacted have gutted our ability to pay for services. He’s privatized most of the war in Iraq. Today we don’t have any cooks anymore. He goes to Halliburton to make food for people. The Republican Party, especially since Ronald Reagan, is so pro-business, so anti-labor, so anti-worker that they no longer can compete for the loyalty of working people.

LG: Tell me about getting your first union card.
JH: I worked at a military base in Alaska back in the 60s on a ballistic missile system Ford Philco had just put in. It’s still there – they had three giant screens, each one the size of a football field, and we could see the missiles coming over the horizon. The job was in the middle of nowhere, but it was the greatest job I ever had. We had 24 hours of daylight up in Alaska in the summer, so we worked nine hours a day, six days a week, 54 hours a week. They had an airplane there, so on our day off everybody put in $50 and we would fly this airplane to go fishing. We’d catch huge rainbow trout. When I think about it, these guys didn’t know how to fly. It was unbelievable. Those are the great memories I have.

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2 thoughts on “An interview with James P. Hoffa

  1. jimmy hotsinpiller

    i think we need to bring back job in in usa not over sea,and i was raise in detroit , my father work for gm and me too and family we was happy usa jobs, but thing went wrong when they made deal to over sea trade, bad for usa and saw it coming end of usa jobs,i lost my job at gm in 75 /76. wish i was still there , james do usa a favor fight for our right for jobs here at home in good old of u.s.a, and remove obama from office


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