Teamsters leader James P. Hoffa has dealt with the fallout of hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the global economic meltdown of 2008, but nothing comes close to the wholesale devastation he’s seeing as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“This is about our health, our communities and our well being,” said Hoffa , who has served as general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters since 1999. I caught up with him via phone (he was at his Oakland County home adhering to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order). We talked about the crisis, the road ahead and his future.
Hoffa’s been associated with the American labor movement like few others, having been weaned on it by his late father, storied union boss Jimmy Hoffa, who ran the same union decades ago.
The Teamsters is one of the largest unions in the nation with 1.4 million members. It includes workers critical to all of us particularly now with truck drivers, nurses, nursing home workers, American Red Cross workers, respirator specialists, pilots and more among their ranks. They’re the ones helping to keep groceries and commerce going in and out of our communities, and their members include first responders and medical personnel who are godsends for Covid-19 patients.
Hoffa’s navigating various issues as many companies and industries have been hard hit while others are busier than ever.
Case in point, Teamsters Local 337 in Detroit just placed 200 members from US Foods, Sysco and Caramagno Foods — who had been laid off— at companies operating at full strength: Kroger, Penske, Frito Lay and Nabisco.
Regardless where folks work, they are concerned about the safety of their environment. It’s a far greater concern among the 50,000 health care workers he represents.
Sounding like Gov. Whitmer, he laments the need for more personal protection equipment.
“We’re behind the curve in this,” Hoffa said. “Our members are telling us they don’t have masks or gowns or gloves or respirators. We’re the richest country in the world. This is something we should have seen coming and planned for.”
In recent weeks, General Motors, Ford, FCA and others are rushing to make ventilators and personal protection equipment. So, too, an army of small businesses making hand sanitizers, face masks and more.
I asked Hoffa if President Donald Trump should enact the Defense Protection Act in a more comprehensive way than he has to force corporations other than GM to make ventilators on a grander scale.
“Trump should use it only when it is necessary to ensure national security.” Hoffa said.
The 78-year-old is winding down his time as head of the union as he announced several weeks ago he would step aside when his terms ends in 2022. “It is time for a new generation to take over,” he added.
Until then, he knows the road ahead will be rough.
The crisis has shuttered most non-essential businesses in Michigan and other states as over 16 million Americans applied for unemployment in recent weeks (817,000 Michiganders are among them).
“So many good companies are closed and laying off people,” he said.
Keeping workers safe remains a priority. The Teamsters reached a deal with UPS for its workers on dealing with COVID-19. It calls for a 10-day paid leave for workers who are diagnosed with the coronavirus and required to be quarantined. It also covers employees who are quarantined because of a family member who contracted the virus.
UPS also will no longer require customers to sign for packages to minimize direct contact.
Hoffa was critical about new guidelines released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that reduce safeguards for essential workers, including health care workers and sanitation workers exposed to a colleague or family member diagnosed with COVID-19.
The CDC’s updated guidelines, which were adapted to ensure continuity of essential functions, state someone working in an essential capacity who has been potentially exposed (either through contact with a household member with COVID-19, or having come within 6 feet of someone who has a confirmed or suspected case at work) should remain at work, provided they don’t show any symptoms.
“It makes no sense for the CDC to change direction now after previously siding with these front line workers who are keeping America running during this moment of crisis,” Hoffa said. “We need to protect these workers so they can do the job of protecting the rest of us.”
Hoffa lost a colleague to the disease when Michigan State Rep. Isaac Robinson died. Robinson, D-Detroit, had served as the Michigan Teamsters political director before that.
“I was devastated to learn of his passing,” said Hoffa. “He was only 44. He was also on the front lines of the coronavirus fight and had already drafted legislation (in Michigan) to protect low-income workers and those in need from the economic impact of the pandemic.”
Hoffa knows more heartache and economic pain is ahead. But he’s optimistic its grip will eventually lesson and the long journey to get the region and country back on healthier ground will begin.
Contact Carol Cain: 313-222-6732 or [email protected] She is senior producer/host of “Michigan Matters,” which airs 11:30 a.m. Sundays on CBS 62. See Larry Alexander and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha on this Sunday’s show talking about the Covid-19 pandemic.
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