Monday, August 27, 2007

Hoffa's Lead

Following the recent presidential debate hosted by the AFL-CIO, we lamented the decline of organized labor's commitment to a strong foreign policy in the mold of Lane Kirkland, George Meany, and Thomas Donahue. But one labor leader is finally reversing course and taking the type of stand on a foreign policy issue that is needed. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters recently urged its pension funds to sell its shares in companies that do business in Iran. The directive was written by the Teamsters president, James Hoffa, and sent to more than 170 fund managers.

The letter notes that Iran has treated union leaders particularly harshly. One, Mansour Osanloo, president of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs (Vahed) Bus Company, was kidnapped, beaten, and imprisoned in the Evin prison, a jail that cages political prisoners. Another, Mahmoud Salehi, founder of the Saghez Bakery Workers Association, was sentenced to a year in prison for trying to mobilize and organize workers. He is now far from his family, incarcerated in Kurdistan. Mr. Hoffa also claims that the Iranian government "persecutes any Iranian citizen who dares to organize a trade union."

These abuses are similar to the intimidation that the Soviet Union used against labor unions during the Cold War, and Mr. Hoffa's letter goes beyond Iran's mistreatment of labor leaders and strikes a much broader tone. As part of his justification for the divestment campaign, he points out Iran's destructive role in Iraq, saying that Iran "supplies weapons and training to Shia militant groups that attack our troops in Iraq." He also mentions Iran's uranium enrichment and funding of -- in his words -- "terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah."

The free trade union movement played a heroic role in the Cold War, standing up to the Communists and taking a harder line than even some in the business and banking communities did. In the current battle, according to the American Enterprise Institute's Web site on "Global Business in Iran" (, American based-companies continue to invest in or conduct business transactions with Iran, a startling development given the Mullah's attitudes toward the West. Mr. Hoffa's letter shows that at least one important union is prepared to lead.

It may be that Mr. Hoffa has inherited one of his father's better personality traits, an independent streak that enabled him to stand apart from the rest of the movement when he felt it was wrong. In 1972, when big labor was locked out of the Democratic National Convention that nominated Senator McGovern, the AFL-CIO stood neutral in the general election but Hoffa senior and the Teamsters endorsed President Nixon for re-election, largely, although not only, because of the anemic foreign policy of Senator McGovern. We'd like to think that the younger Mr. Hoffa is demonstrating that a strong foreign policy from labor in the mold of Kirkland, Meany, Mr. Donahue, and even his father is still possible.

The thing to watch is how all this plays out in the context of the 2008 general election. Where will labor leaders like John Sweeney and Andrew Stern be while the working men and women of the non-democratic Middle East are denied their right to organize? It's not a question of party politics; Lane Kirkland challenged President Reagan from the right. Mr. Hoffa concluded his letter on a note of patriotism, saying, "What I am concerned about, though, is that Teamsters' hard-earned money would support in any way an enemy of the United States of America. No Teamster should ever have to worry that his or her retirement money is used to support terrorism in any way."

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