Hoffa & Obama: The Labor-Latte Alliance

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

Gregory Floyd is the new leader of Local 237 in Manhattan. His is the largest Teamster local in the country, with 24,000 members, many of them city employees, and another 8,000 active retirees. As with most New York labor unions, Hillary Clinton looms large in his world, but he said that his local was still going with Obama. "We know that we need to defeat the Republicans and turn the country around," said Floyd last week. "The endorsement of Barack Obama is a good one. We are going to be a political powerhouse in this fight."

The endorsement has also bridged the Teamsters' long-standing divide between those who once backed Carey and the Hoffa forces. Sandy Pope, leader of a Queens-based local that represents warehouse workers, ran two years ago on an anti-Hoffa slate. But last week, she praised his endorsement in the presidential primary. "I think it's great," she said. Pope noted that Obama had proved himself with wins in states like Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota where the Teamsters have many members. "My argument to Teamsters is that when you see the states Obama took in the Midwest, it makes a stronger argument for winning our members in places like Ohio and Pennsylvania."

The union is no small presence in those battleground states. It has some 60,000 members in Ohio, which votes on March 4. Assuming that the race is still on by April 22, when Pennsylvania votes, the union has 80,000 members there, along with a long tradition of playing a big role in local and statewide races.

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

Despite the union's endorsement, Clinton still retains the loyalty of New York's most powerful Teamster, Gary LaBarbera, who heads both the council overseeing local Teamsters affairs as well as the million-member New York City Labor Council. "He's sticking with Hillary Clinton, who he thinks is a great leader," said Carolyn Daly, a council spokeswoman.

Members of LaBarbera's Local 282 haul construction material and debris, and last month, the union's name surfaced in the big Gambino crime-family case in Brooklyn. Some of the schemes charged in the indictment stem from trucking employers who allegedly used mob muscle to scam the union out of benefits owed on behalf of employees.

But unlike the bad old days when John Gotti's gang ruled the roost at the local, LaBarbera helped squelch the scammers. He did so by retaining an independent, court-supervised investigator who helped break the case. The investigator, Robert Machado, was first to spot the schemes, tipping off federal investigators at the Office of Labor Racketeering. "I got nothing but cooperation from LaBarbera," said Machado.

Like this year's presidential race, it's another one of those things that would baffle Bobby Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa Sr. if they were around to watch.

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