"You take the name away from him and he never worked as a Teamster," said Bob Ryder, 52, a former bread-delivery driver who now heads Teamsters Local 463 in Fort Washington. "People believe you can't beat him."
It might seem that union politics do not really matter, given the ever-shrinking percentage of working people represented by unions.
But the International Brotherhood of Teamsters is not an ordinary union, and the influence it wields goes well beyond its 1.4 million members. Its clout is political and economic, all wrapped in a storied history that is legendary in organized labor.
Teamster politics came Saturday to the Fort Washington Holiday Inn, where Ryder, who leads a local of 2,100 bakery-truck drivers and dairy workers, hosted a fund-raiser for Hoffa's opponent, a disenchanted top lieutenant and Teamsters' vice president named Fred Gegare, who is from Wisconsin.
Breaking ranks with other Philadelphia-area Teamsters leaders, Ryder is running on Gegare's slate to represent Teamsters on the East Coast.
The campaign puts Ryder at odds with Hoffa running mate Bill Hamilton, head of Teamsters Local 107 and Pennsylvania's most powerful Teamster.
"That's got to get tongues wagging," said Joseph Brock, a former Philadelphia-area Teamsters official who now helps companies improve their workplaces to keep Teamsters out.
"Ryder has [guts]," Brock said, using a slang word for a different body part. "If Hoffa tells you something, you better do it. If you buck that, all his yes men are going to gang up on you."
Hoffa has been influential in Washington. He "was pivotal helping Obama win Ohio and Pennsylvania," said labor expert Philip Dine, author of the book State of the Unions, published in 2008.
Hoffa "met with white conservative union members and said, 'You have to vote your economic interests, not your fears - racial or otherwise,' " Dine said.
The union's economic clout stems from the workers it represents. Truck driving cannot be outsourced to another country, nor can it readily be automated. "No one has figured out a machine that can drive a truck, or unload," said Ken Paff, national organizing director for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, another group that is opposed to Hoffa.
The TDU, a persistent and vocal opponent of the Teamster establishment, hopes that Gegare's slate of disenchanted insiders, including Ryder, will draw enough votes from Hoffa to allow TDU's self-styled reform slate - headed by Sandy Pope, a female truck driver from New York - to win the election.
Ryder and Paff share the beliefs that the Teamsters under Hoffa have been too concessionary in bargaining and that Hoffa has too readily agreed to allow employers to get out of pension plans.
Meanwhile, the Independent Review Board, a group appointed by a federal court to keep the Teamsters free from organized crime, found Hoffa's campaign guilty of some election violations in Memphis.
In the Philadelphia area, Ryder has a lot on his plate.
His local has been trying to organize truck drivers at troubled Tasty Baking Co. Interstate Breads Corp., which makes Wonder Bread, wants more concessions. Stroehmann's, now Bimbo Bakeries USA, is laying off and consolidating delivery routes. Fifteen contracts are up this year - at companies such as Keller's Creamery Inc. in Harleysville and Amoroso's Baking Co. in Philadelphia.
Ryder said he fully expected retribution for bucking Hoffa's organization. Within a week of trying to get drivers to sign campaign petitions last summer, the review board notified him that it would be auditing his local's books.
The review board, which is separate from the union, would neither confirm nor deny the audit.
"The idea that the IBT had anything to do with that is preposterous," said a Teamsters headquarters spokesman, Bret Caldwell.
No one from Hoffa's campaign staff responded to a request for comment.
Ryder's take? "There are no coincidences with the Teamsters," he said.
Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-584-2769 or firstname.lastname@example.org.