That was the battle in Seattle," says Teamsters president James P. Hoffa, poking his finger proudly at a picture of himself with a young woman dressed up as a sea turtle. The two are smiling over a banner that reads TEAMSTERS AND TURTLES TOGETHER AT LAST. The photo on his office wall is a testimonial to Hoffa's willingness to join with anyone to protect his 1.4 million members. He will make that point again this week when he works with the turtle's archenemies to push for drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which he hopes will create jobs. "We have no permanent friends," Hoffa says, using a well-worn phrase, "only permanent interests."
With Congress closely divided, everyone in Washington wants to be wooed as the key to legislative victories. By shifting alliances and presenting an aura of unpredictability, Hoffa has transformed the oft-troubled union into a premier political force. In the coming weeks, the White House needs his help to convert the five to eight Senators required to start drilling in Alaska. Democrats are counting on the Teamsters to fight the Administration's plans to let Mexican trucks operate in the U.S. and Bush's push for trade-negotiating authority. "They are not a lock for us, and that is their strength," says a senior Democratic Senate aide.
Although the Teamsters are still in synch with the Democratic agenda, the Administration sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between labor and its traditional allies. The courtship is not limited to the Teamsters, whom the President will address this week. Carpenters will also get a stop. Two weeks ago, Bush spoke to members of the steelworkers union. "This is all a part of playing on the Democrats' turf," says a senior Bush adviser, "or making them defend it."
Massaging the Teamsters started before Bush was in the White House. The President's chief strategist, Karl Rove, has known Hoffa for years, and the labor leader is quick to mention the help Rove offered during his race against Ron Carey back in 1996. That gratitude didn't win Bush the Teamsters' endorsement, but when the two sons who hold their fathers' jobs met last year, they hit it off. "We told [Bush] we wanted to work with him if he became President," says Hoffa.
Rove met with Hoffa early in the Administration and made sure he had access to Vice President Dick Cheney and chief of staff Andy Card. The union credits those meetings with gains in protecting some labor agreements and its pension system. Another Cheney meeting is scheduled for next week. The coddling happens in small ways too: Hoffa is likely to start getting invitations to White House social events. "This White House pays more attention than the last one did," says Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell.
On promoting Alaskan drilling, the union and the White House have worked like old shift mates. Environmentalists had convinced many lawmakers that rigs would damage the wilderness, but the White House credits the Teamsters with changing minds. When the issue came up for a vote a month ago, House Republican Whip Tom DeLay marveled at the Teamsters' approach, which included posting envoys by wavering members' offices as well as by the House floor. The vote passed. "They say, 'This is jobs for us and votes for you,'" says senior adviser Mary Matalin of the union pitch. "There's no tap dancing. They deliver."