Hoffa & Obama: The Labor-Latte Alliance

Now divorced from the mob, the Teamsters choose a Bobby Kennedy type for president

If you wanted to conjure up an unlikely photo op—something along the lines of George W. Bush in a loving arms-around with Dennis Kucinich—you might try putting skinny Barack Obama in a happy embrace with burly Teamsters union leader Jim Hoffa Jr.

These are not exactly birds of a feather. But there they were last week, grinning and gripping in San Antonio, as Hoffa vowed to put DRIVE—the union's powerful political-action committee—in gear for Obama in the upcoming campaigns.

It's an odd-bedfellows alliance that represents a major shift for the union, as well as one more indication that Obama-mania can jump all divides.

soul brothers: hoffa and obama last week
Jim Saah/International Brotherhood of Teamsters
soul brothers: hoffa and obama last week

Just a few months ago, the surest way to find a passionate Obama supporter was to head for the nearest WiFi-enabled coffeehouse. If there was a Teamster around at all, he was probably out back delivering a truckload of latte cups. Hoffa's 1.4 million members wear the bluest of America's collars. They're freight drivers, warehouse workers, trash haulers, even cops. If they went looking for a Democrat in the early primaries, they were more likely to go for John Edwards, who at least tried to speak their language.

And when it comes to Teamsters, the Democrat part is hardly a given. This is the union that backed Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. A short-lived liberal era under ousted reformer Ron Carey ended abruptly with Hoffa's election in 1998. The new union chief made a big point of saying that the Teamsters would no longer be an "ATM for the Democratic Party."

Hoffa gave a late and half-hearted endorsement to Al Gore in 2000. But by Labor Day 2001, Bush and Hoffa were chummy enough for the president to chow down some ribs at a big Teamsters Labor Day barbecue in Michigan. There, Bush praised the union leader, who was helping lobby Congress for a pet GOP project to allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

But that was then. Bush's refusal to heed the union's complaints about allowing low-paid Mexican truckers to haul NAFTA-spawned goods across the border soured relations badly.

Hoffa went looking for a winner in 2004 with his friend, ex-Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt (whose old man was a Teamster milkman), then signed on with John Kerry after Gephardt faltered. But again, there was no full-court press by the union.

This time, with an endorsement right on the eve of crucial primaries in blue-collar-heavy states, the Teamsters finally seem to have settled on someone they actually like. And wouldn't you know it, the union that's long served as a national stereotype for beer-drinking Archie Bunker types has picked a jug-eared black lawyer from Harvard who looks like he couldn't find the air brake in an 18-wheeler.

And if that kind of irony gets you giddy, consider that Obama's most constant comparison these days is to the Kennedy brothers: That would be Robert F., who once tried to take a swing at Hoffa's dad outside a Senate hearing room and later helped send him to prison, and John F., whose assassination, according to claims by Hoffa Sr.'s own late lawyer, was co-engineered by the late Teamsters big.

Not that anyone believes that stuff.

Whatever the unlikelihood of this labor-latte alliance, Obama's 10 straight wins and his rock-star rallies have made Hoffa a believer. "He is the candidate in the best position to lead our movement to restore the American dream to working people in this country," said Hoffa last week.

An unspoken factor in the endorsement may also have been some lingering suspicion among Hoffa and his aides from the days when the Clintons were closely aligned with Carey, Hoffa's hated predecessor, who was forced out in a campaign-funding scandal. There was also pressure to make a clean sweep of the big unions that, along with the Teamsters, broke away from the AFL-CIO three years ago to form the rival group Change to Win. SEIU, the service employees' union, has already gone for Obama, as has UNITE-HERE, the clothing and hotel workers' union, along with the United Food and Commercial Workers.

But Hoffa insisted that the endorsement followed the results of internal union polling that showed Obama was well-liked by his members. The union declined to give specifics, but several people familiar with them said the surveys found that local officers went heavily for Obama and the membership gave him more than 60 percent approval ratings. Both McCain and Clinton registered substantially lower.

Still, the decision wasn't easy. "I gotta tell you, there was a fierce debate on the executive board," said Dan Kane Jr., who heads a Bronx trucking local. "It wasn't anti-Hillary—she's our senator, and we've supported her before and will again. It was just who we thought could win." Kane, a second-generation Teamster whose father is a close Hoffa aide, said he wrestled with his own vote in last month's primary, ultimately opting for Obama. "I am thinking the only times the Democrats have won has been when someone energetic ran. I think we need some excitement now. If the young people show up for this one, I think we have a good chance."

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