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Disputations: Obama and the Teamsters

It is unfortunate to see John Judis recycling discredited allegations by the controversial government "watchdog," the Independent Review Board (IRB). The IRB was installed to root out mob influence in the Teamsters, but with the mobsters now out of the picture, this lavishly paid unit uses its unchecked authority to take sides in internal politics, curtail free speech and ride rough shod over due process against any union official they target. Although I have never been accused of a crime or associated with mobsters--indeed I am glad they are gone--the IRB targeted me in 1996 and placed Chicago Local 714, which I helped build and lead, into trusteeship, amid unspecified charges of corruption. Yet, the trustees who took over the local for two years were unable to find any corruption, not a dime misspent. Out of 13,000 members, not a single member showed up at a well publicized hearing to make a complaint against the former leadership of the local.

But the IRB, which must justify its obscene salaries--Chief IRB investigator Charles Carberry was paid nearly $400,000 in a single year--does not let facts get in the way when it targets someone for expulsion. Judis refers to a "sensational" IRB report that I sought to undermine a Las Vegas local by negotiating "non-union, low-wage" agreements with a management company. Sensational for sure, and false in every respect. Because of my experience representing convention-show workers, I was invited by an international representative assigned to the local to help organize temporary members into the Teamster union, rather than leave them unorganized or to competitors such as the Carpenters union. Unfortunately, Judis parrots the IRB charges of "collusion," and claims that management "hatched the Las Vegas scheme," but management was reluctant to provide the wage increases we sought, and no agreement was ever signed, nor would I have had the authority to sign it. Some collusion.

The IRB, which is composed of former law-enforcement personnel, knows very little about how the collective bargaining process works, yet this group, which operates outside normal checks and balances, repeatedly substitutes its judgment for that of the union membership. Those who criticize the IRB run the risk of being expelled for life from a union many of us have dedicated our lives to serving. Those who have been expelled on trumped up charges are not allowed to speak to any union member, or he too will find himself expelled for life. The IRB has had a chilling effect on union democracy and free speech. The misnamed "consent decree" that authorized the IRB was imposed by the Justice Department in 1989 by breaking a written promise by the US Attorney's office in the Southern District of New York that the union membership would have a right to accept or reject it.

Mr Judis's observation that Senator Obama's promise to close down the IRB suggests a "Bush-like contempt for the customary relationship between government and the judicial process," is absolute nonsense. When the Justice Department pushed for the consent decree that established the IRB, the Senate Permanent Investigations Committee found this to be a misuse of the civil RICO statute. A bipartisan coalition of 264 members of congress sent a letter to then-Attorney General Edwin Meese warning that such government control over a union is "inherently destructive of the ability of workers to represent and speak for themselves through their union." Moreover, a 2005 report by Ed McDonald, who headed a Justice Department-organized crime task force, fully discredits the baseless, McCarthyite allegations of continuing corruption by Ed Stier whom Judis quotes at length. A recent Detroit News editorial supporting the removal of the IRB, notes "a 1999 congressional report, a Harvard study and an internal audit commissioned by the union all found that the Independent Review Board appointed to keep watch on the Teamsters is no longer necessary."

John Judis never attempted to contact me, nor does he quote anyone critical of the IRB for his one-sided and highly misleading article.

William Hogan


John B. Judis to William Hogan:

Let’s start with the very first sentence. Mr. Hogan accuses me of “recycling discredited allegations by the controversial government ‘watchdog,’ the Independent Review Board.” And the question to ask is: “Discredited by whom?” In 2002, the IRB, which was created by agreement between the Teamsters and the Justice Department to root out corruption and organized crime influence in the union, barred Hogan and his close associate Dane Passo from any future association with the Teamsters.

The IRB found that the two men tried to get the Teamsters local 631 in Las Vegas, which provided workers to convention shows, to allow Richard Simon, a Chicago labor broker, to provide non-union workers to conventions. The workers, which would be provided by Simon’s United Temps, would not receive benefits or overtime. All in all, they would earn less than half of the Teamster workers; and under the labor agreement that the Teamsters had with the conventions, Simon’s cut-rate contract could then become the standard for all convention employees. The Teamsters would be screwed, but Simon would come out ahead, and so would Hogan’s brother Michael, who was the vice president of Simon’s company, and also the head of a convention company that would be hiring Simon’s workers. No agreement was signed because the IRB began an investigation and Ed Stier, the head of the Teamsters’ internal oversight group, warned that Simon might be “involved with some crime figures in Chicago, that he was a bad guy.”

In its decision, the IRB concluded that “Passo and Hogan colluded with Simon to enable Simon to profit from paying his workers below the rate the governing Teamster contract required. Passo’s and Hogan’s actions, which Local 631 officials fought, were designed to benefit United and the trade show contractors, including Hogan’s brother’s company, There was no benefit to Local 631, its members or the United employees.” Hogan, of course, disputed these findings. Advancing arguments similar to those in his letter, Hogan appealed the IRB’s decision to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. When that court ruled against him, Hogan appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but it, too, rejected his arguments against the IRB ruling. “Having carefully reviewed the hearing record,” the Appeals Court wrote, “we concluded that the IRB’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, are not arbitrary or capricious, and plainly demonstrate that Hogan and Passo were negotiating a contract that they knew would have harmed the union.” So the question remains: allegations discredited by whom?

In 2002, when I was writing about Hogan and Passo in Las Vegas, Hoffa and other Teamster officials were insisting that the IRB was unnecessary because the union had set up its own internal oversight group, RISE, under Stier. I heard nothing but praise for Stier. But when Stier began investigation the Chicago Teamsters, including Local 714, which Hogan had headed and which was still controlled by his family, he came under pressure to desist. Hoffa shut down RISE and Stier and twenty staff members quit in protest in April 2004. In the private report they produced, which was later obtained by The Chicago Tribune, Stier and his staff charged that Hogan was trying to shut down their investigation. They reported allegations that Hogan, who remained active in Teamster affairs despite the IRB ban, was being used by the “Chicago Outfit” (the name for the Chicago mafia) to shut down Stier’s investigation.

After Stier resigned, and RISE was shut down, Teamster officials hired a New York lawyer to investigate Stier’s charges. Stier, who feared that the Teamsters would exact retribution against his sources, refused to give his files to the New York lawyer, who nonetheless produced a report disputing Stier’s findings. Stier did, however, hand his files over to the government, and during the last three years, the IRB has issued charges against Chicago Teamsters that follow up on Stier’s report. It can’t be determined, finally, whether, as Stier’s sources suggest, organized crime remains influential in the Chicago Teamsters, but given the high regard the Teamsters had for Stier and the history of the Chicago union, these charges certainly cannot be dismissed out of hand as “McCarthyite.”

Should the IRB also be shut down, as Hogan and Barack Obama advocate? There has always been a good argument against government oversight of unions. A conservative administration, for instance, could use oversight to discourage militant trade unionism. But the Teamsters were a special case. As the Justice Department suit against them stated, they had virtually become “a wholly owned subsidiary of organized crime.” The alternative to the IRB was even worse--a government takeover of the union. Certainly, the IRB has succeeded in reducing the influence of organized crime, and at some point, it does need to be disbanded. But has the time come? Stier’s ouster and the continuing charges against the Chicago Teamsters suggest that there is still work to be done.

Obama is entitled to his opinion, but it is surprising that a Chicago politician, who should be familiar with Hogan and the Chicago Teamsters, would blithely support disbanding the IRB. And it is especially surprising that Obama, who has based his campaign on a pledge of good government, would make at least what appears to be a sordid bid for the Teamster’s endorsement. Either he is guilty of willful ignorance about a powerful segment of the Chicago political scene, or he is, for better or worse, another example of that well known species, politicus hypocriticus.

By William Hogan and John B. Judis