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He grew disenchanted with the union his father had dominated for so long as it drifted away from some of its past radicalism. Teamsters had flirted with Republicans for years. President Nixon commuted the father’s prison sentence for jury tampering and fraud. The union alienated others in the labor movement by endorsing Ronald Reagan for president in 1980 and 1984 as well as his successor George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Teamsters had embraced Republicans decades before in an act of self-preservation when then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, a Democrat, went after corruption in the union in the early 1960s.
But by 1995 the younger Hoffa was urging Teamsters to return to the Democratic fold. “American labor is confronted by a crisis — a crisis of lack of militancy, and what we want to do is to get our union moving again, to start rebuilding it from within.”
By 2005, Hoffa led the Teamsters out of the AFL-CIO and into the more radical breakaway labor federation, the SEIU-endorsed Change to Win Coalition. A key criticism of the AFL-CIO was that it was not aggressive enough in recruiting new members. “In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers’ rights in this country,” he said. “The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach.”
In fact the AFL-CIO had become increasingly radical in the years leading up to the split. Then-president John Sweeney, a member of the neo-communist group Democratic Socialists of America, rescinded a longstanding rule preventing Communist Party members from holding leadership positions within the federation and the unions belonging to it. Sweeney also instituted the “Union Summer” training program which required its young participants to regurgitate Marxist boilerplate “that we produce the world’s wealth, that we belong to the only class with a future, that our class will end all oppression.”
But none of this is radical enough for James P. Hoffa.
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