In-Depth Q&A With Nation's Most Powerful Union

As you might have seen on TV, Karen Finerman sat down with Teamsters president James Hoffa and asked the union chief some pretty tough questions.

And he answered every single one quite candidly.

Keep reading to find out about the major issue that has Hoffa ready to do battle in the Senate.

And on the following pages learn:
-Why unions are not to blame for the collapse of the auto industry.
-How unions may increase shareholder value.
-If the union has substantial influence at the White House.
-Why Hoffa calls his trip to China “eye-opening.”
-The first words that come to mind when Finerman says power and greed.

Hoffa’s Number One Priority:

“Employee Free Choice Act”

FINERMAN: So you talk about free choice. And one of your biggest legislative priorities has been the Employee Free Choice Act. And there’s been a lot of spin and a lot of confusion as to what is it really. Tell us in your own words, what is the Employee Free Choice Act?

HOFFA: Well it’s basically ‘card check’. It’s basically if you get a majority of people signed up – just like Canada, just like 70 other democracies in the world have ‘card check’, you take that to the employer – he recognizes you. You also have a provision in there with regards to arbitration on the first contract to make sure that the employer can’t stonewall you, you get a contract. This is basically what it is. They have it in Canada, it works. It works everywhere. So, why don’t we have it here?

FINERMAN: Well I ‘ve been seeing recently there are articles in the press saying that labor might be willing to compromise on some aspects of the Free Choice Act. Is that true? And if so, why now?

HOFFA: We’re not feeling that way. There was a certain article where it said other labor leaders are doing that. We think we’ve got to hold the feet to the fire of the people in the Senate. The battle’s in the Senate, it’s not in the House. If we don’t get it done this time, when are we gonna get it done? Next year it will be an election and they’ll say ‘This is not the time to do it.’ So we want to keep the feet to the fire of the politicians involved and try and get something that’s very very meaningful. And we’ll see where we’re at. But every day we’re working on this, and this is the number one priority of labor.

Are Unions To Blame For The Collapse Of The U.S. Auto Industry?

FINERMAN: To many people the UAW has become the scapegoat for the collapse of the U.S. auto industry. Tell us why that’s not right.

HOFFA: Well its not true. Basically we have mismanagement of the big three over many years. They bought Jaguar, they bought Volvo – they did everything wrong when they had money. They didn’t invest in their product. And that’s really the problem. It’s not hard working men and women in the UAW. But they’re the ones who have been the brunt. I mean the UAW has seen hundreds of thousands of people laid off, many of people have lost their jobs, plant closings. You know, that’s a scapegoat thing. Uh basically the problem is mismanagement not being able to basically be competitive with the imports that have come in from Japan and from Korea.

FINERMAN: They would argue that being competitive is really being a labor contract that is expensive let’s say relative to their competitors is preventing them from being competitive. How would you address that?

HOFFA: Well I don’t think it's true because basically the cars – they have basically stolen the ability to have a car that people want. And now, look at Toyota: coming out of nowhere, basically it sells as many cars as Chevrolet. Look at Hyundai. They just came in the last 8 years and they’re dominating and getting more and more of the market. Why? Smart deals, 100,000 mile warranties, doing things that the Big Three never thought of. New innovative things, new financing, you know – new different ways to do things. And they’re basically, the Big Three have been behind the curve. And that’s why they’re behind, not the UAW.

FINERMAN: So now the UAW owns a meaningful stake, they’re a big shareholder. Can they have some influence over the management of these companies?

HOFFA: Basically, they’ve got to get with it. They’ve got to come up with cars that the American people want. And basically that’s what they’ve gotta do. They’ve gotta come up with how to sell cars – to come up with longer warranties, all the little things that they see that all the other competitors are doing from Japan or Korea. Do those things – innovative things – and they will basically be able to get back into the market.

Wall St. vs Teamsters: Are Unions Good For Shareholders?

FINERMAN: Let’s talk about the unions and Wall Street. Are unions good for shareholders?

HOFFA: Absolutely because we’re out there making sure they have good and fair conditions for their workers. This idea that you – look at all those years we had strong unions. And then all of a sudden there was this idea of taking-on the unions. And I think that’s really hurt everybody. Now we have this adversarial position. I mean we should be like Europe, where people work together. Where they have people on the boards, which we are starting to have now. Where we have an influence, where labor and management work together for the benefit of the company. To say ‘We have to have a better product. How can we get that done? How can we make sure the work rules are a little different so we make cars more productively without sacrificing good wages and health care.’

FINERMAN: You guys are big shareholders, in fact, of many many companies. How can you use that power as a shareholder to more effectively get your message across?

HOFFA: We’re basically very active in proxy fights, shareholder proposals, to go to the shareholders meetings and be heard. We’ve had good success with going to shareholder meetings and actually changing management’s policy. We did that with a European company, we flew to Scotland and attended a shareholder’s meeting and actually changed the way they do business with regards to Teamsters.

Hoffa Grades Obama

FINERMAN: You were the first union leader to back Obama in his campaign for President. Has he earned that support?

HOFFA: Absolutely. He is a breath of fresh air after 8 years of George Bush. George Bush was dedicated to destroying unions. He [Obama] believes in unions. You know he has the great quote where he says ‘Unions are not part of the problem. They are part of the solution.’ And that’s what he believes, and he’s very receptive to the teamsters and all of labor and our input to his ideas about how we shape our new economy and our new country. We’ve had a great response, we’re not disappointed in him. We realize it’s a hard fight, we’re all gonna have to fight. We’ve got a great partisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill right now. And we’ve got to fight through this and make sure we win.

Hoffa’s ‘Eye-Opening’ Trip To China

FINERMAN: When you went to China yourself in 2007 – which is sort of an unusual trip for a labor leader – tell me what you saw there and what did you tell your members back home?

HOFFA: The trip to China was very eye opening. They’re moving very fast. They have our money, actually trillions of dollars of American dollars and because it’s a communist system, they’re reinvesting in back in there. They’ve basically put together a whole new type of economic program that I don’t think everyone’s talked about or seen. When I went there, I came back and was very startled by the fact that they’re moving very fast, they’re building tremendous projects, they’re building skyscrapers, they’re building bridges. They’re investing in their country because its really a country that’s growing. And they’re doing things that we’re not, and we have to wake up and say ‘China really is a giant that’s on the move.’ We’ve got to change our economy so it’s investing in America, we have plants here, we have jobs here and we have to get away from this outsourcing of sending every job overseas. If we do that, we’re going to see America start to bloom again.

Hoffa Plays ‘Word Association’

FINERMAN: Let's play word association. I'll give you a word and you tell me the first thing that pops into your head.

HOFFA: Power? Teamsters!

HOFFA: Greed? American business.

FINERMAN: Free trade.
HOFFA: Free trade? Loss of jobs.

FINERMAN: Health care.
HOFFA: Health care, we need it right now.

HOFFA: Obama? A great president.

HOFFA: China, a real threat to America.

HOFFA: FedEx? Gotta organize it.

FINERMAN: Wall Street.
HOFFA: Wall Street… greed, basically depression – all the things that have happened came out of Wall Street. The great crash is horrible. All because of Wall Street and because of greed.

FINERMAN: One last one: Wal-Mart
HOFFA: Wal-Mart! Don’t shop there. (They laugh)

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