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Teamster Reform Movement Survives Carey’s Debacle

Jane Slaughter is a labor writer in Detroit.

What’s remarkable about the aftermath of Ron Carey’s removal as a candidate for Teamsters president is the staying power of the reform movement. Most predicted the union would quickly fall back into the hands of the mobbed-up Old Guard, personified by James Hoffa, Jr. But in recent local elections rank and file members have chosen to carry on with the business of reform, without the man who once symbolized those changes in the Teamsters.

In November, 10 thousand workers at Northwest Airlines voted 3-1 against the pro-Hoffa incumbents and for the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) slate. In Dallas and Columbus, Ohio local races, reformers became president and Hoffa’s guys finished third. In December, members in 18,000-member Chicago Local 705 rejected Hoffa’s spokesman in his bid for the local presidency, and re-elected the incumbent reformer, Jerry Zero. Even in Hoffa Sr.’s home Local 299 in Detroit, where Hoffa Junior campaigned personally for his buddies, members voted for the Carey loyalists.

The will to continue the battle was manifest at TDU’s annual convention—the largest ever—held in November just four days after Carey’s disqualification. Although shocked and hurt, and maintaining strong feeling for Carey, member after member rose to remind each other, “It was never about one man.”

Members rejected the notion, raised by a few, that TDU’s priority should be to rally around Carey’s appeal of the charges against him. Instead they vowed to continue their work: organizing for the Master Freight contract, winning local elections, finding a new reform candidate for president. The 600 people present pledged $65,000.

TDU could survive Carey’s downfall because the movement had never put all its eggs in the presidential basket. Unlike the Miners for Democracy in the 1970s, who faded away after the insurgents elected Arnold Miller to head the United Mine Workers, TDU kept its organization alive and active after Carey took office, pushing here and prodding there. TDU maintained its own network, getting information out sometimes in advance of the International. The union’s mobilization plan for UPS was adopted from TDU’s earlier contract campaigns. It was TDU that pushed the line “ready to strike” early on at UPS, when Carey was silent.

The relationship was a coalition between parties that didn’t agree on all points. Carey certainly maintained his independence as well. He never joined TDU, because he just didn’t get its notion of bottom-up control. His use of the November Group consultants in his 1996 re-election campaign was no anomaly; throughout his term he had turned sometimes to TDUers, sometimes to Old Guard types, sometimes to middle-of-the-road unionists, and sometimes to consultants without a drop of unionism in their blood.

The consultants’ inside-the-Beltway-type functioning was the opposite of TDU’s rank-and-file approach. Their arrogance led to the scheme to use members’ dues money for the Carey campaign’s expensive mailings, and to thinking that they could get away with it even though the union was under government supervision.

Government Intervention

There’s been a lot of talk on the left, in the wake of Carey’s disqualification, about the evils of “government intervention” in the union. But let’s look at what that government intervention consisted of. In the late 1980s the President’s Commission on Organized Crime held hearings about Mob involvement in the Teamsters. The Justice Department was threatening to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act to put the union in trusteeship. TDU “intervened” to argue that the best way to begin cleaning up the union was not trusteeship—government control—but to give members the right to vote for their top officers (a right, then and now, enjoyed by only a minority of U.S. union members). This proposal quickly gained the moral high ground. A majority of Congresspeople, the influential newspapers, and the AFL-CIO all pressured the Justice Department not to trustee the International. Some of these (though not the AFL-CIO) strongly advocated TDU’s plan. The Justice Department gave in, and got Teamster officials to sign a consent decree.

Thus “government intervention” meant that union officers were pressured to agree to a democratic constitutional change that reformers had championed in the Teamsters, and other unions, for years (plus official oversight to make sure that that election, and the next one, were not stolen). Without one-member-one-vote elections, the Old Guard would still be running the Teamsters; mobsters would not have been cleaned out of seventy locals; no volunteer organize-the-unorganized campaign would have been set up; no caravans would have gone from city to city to protest NAFTA; there would have been no strike at UPS.

Democratic elections for the top jobs didn’t solve all the Teamsters’ problems; one member said, “We’ve landed a helicopter on the mountaintop, but the enemy still controls the rest of the mountain.” But the elections did set in motion, unevenly, to be sure, a momentum of member involvement and union activism that will be hard to reverse. “They can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” said Teamsters Vice-president and TDU Co-chair Diana Kilmury.

It’s likewise tempting, but likewise ahistorical, to believe that Carey’s disqualification was retaliation for the UPS strike. Certainly Rep. Peter Hoekstra’s circus-like hearings on the Teamsters are a direct result of his business backers’ dismay at the strike and the public support it received. But, as explained above, the government gained the right to monitor elections back in 1989, when the union’s leaders had long been lapdogs for the employers, not militants. The investigation of election finances began in early 1997, long before the August battle at UPS. The illegalities were uncovered because they were there to be found—and they were none too subtle.

TDU Organizer Ken Paff told the group’s November convention, “Bringing consultants whose specialty is razzle-dazzle and political connections into the Carey campaign was a monumental blunder. It was the opposite of rank and file power. It was the opposite of a grassroots campaign…it was about finding some kind of shortcut…. If you are going to take on corporate America, if you are going to win major strikes, if you are going to start turning the labor movement around, you had better make sure you are not vulnerable.”

Carey’s campaign made itself vulnerable when it chose the dirty-money shortcut over crusading at the barns with the rank and file. Carey’s disgrace is a tragedy, the fall of a good but flawed man. His mistake, the mistake that brought him down, was not to put his faith in the rank and file.