Teamsters, UAW Play Hard to Get This Election Year

By Justin Torres | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - Teamsters union leader James Hoffa defended his appearance at a reception Monday at the Republican National Convention, giving further indication that the support of the nation's largest industrial union was still up for grabs.

"The Teamsters Union is committed to working across party lines to protect the rights of America's working families," said Hoffa in a statement.

"As the duly elected president of the largest democratic labor union in the world, it is my job to represent the interests of 1.5 million Teamsters - Democrats, Republicans and Independents alike. The issues that are important to working families are not the sole property of one party."

Hoffa has received criticism from other union leaders for his appearance. An official at the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Vice President Al Gore several months ago, said Hoffa's appearance "sent the wrong message. . . . One candidate has a good track record on supporting union issues, and it's not [Republican nominee] George W. Bush."

In a interview with CNN on the floor of the Republican convention Monday, Hoffa also indicated the union would make an endorsement some time around Labor Day - September 4, just two months before Election Day.

A spokesperson for the Teamsters said Hoffa's appearance was not meant to indicate that Bush would necessarily win the Teamsters' endorsement.

David Rohde, a professor of political science at Michigan State University, said he doubted the Teamsters endorsement would sway huge numbers of voters.

"Union voters are not the monolith they used to be," said Rohde. "They have disparate concerns, like any segment of the electorate. They aren't captive to the leadership."

The 1.5 million member Teamsters and the powerful United Auto Workers union, both of which have a large presence in key electoral battleground states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, declined to join the AFL-CIO in endorsing Gore because of his support for Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, which unions bitterly oppose.

After the US House vote on PNTR, UAW head Stephen Yokich, blasted Gore's support for the bill, and indicated the union may back alternative candidates such as Green Party nominee Ralph Nader.

"It's time to forget about party labels and instead focus on supporting candidates . . . who will take a stand based on what is right, not what big money dictates," said Yokich.

Local union organizers say they are ready to make a difference in the year's congressional and White House elections.

"We're not going to sit home this year," said a UAW organizer in Cranberry Township, PA, indicating that union indifference after the 1993 vote on NAFTA led to many pro-union incumbents being swept from office.

Still, many union members say they haven't yet made up their minds.

"I don't like either Bush or Gore, and Nader can't win, so I don't know what I'm going to do," said Thomas Burns, an electrical workers union member in Chicago, IL. When asked if he planned to vote, however, Burns answered, "Hell, yes."

The reception honoring Hoffa was hosted by several prominent GOP elected officials, including Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell (R-CO), Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA), National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Davis (R-VA), Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-MI) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R-PA).