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Nov 2001 • Vol 1, No. 6 •

Teamsters Notebook

After Ron Carey’sAcquittal—
What Now For TDU?

by Charles Walker

Before former Teamsters president Ron Carey’s acquittal of baseless (in fact, phony) government charges of perjury, there were three readily identifiable watersheds in the twenty-five year history of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). With its verdict, a New York federal jury has created another.

The first turning point was reached in 1987-88. Teamsters in the union’s then three most vital jurisdictions heeded TDU’s call and voted down freight, United Parcel Service (UPS), and carhaul contracts recommended by the union’s top officials. Afterwards, TDU could no longer be characterized as a smallish sect of malcontents, dissidents, and leftists. TDU was a contender for political power. Both corporations and Teamsters bureaucrats were forced to recognize TDU’s influence and leadership, which had been slowly growing since TDU’s founding in 1976.

The Teamster bureaucrats imposed the UPS contract (53% no votes) and the freight contract (64% no votes) under the union’s undemocratic two-thirds rule enshrined in the Teamsters Constitution. By that time, the bureaucrats were fighting among themselves over who would take over following the death of Teamsters President Jackie Presser.

In November 1989, TDU reached another turning point when its annual convention endorsed Ron Carey’s campaign to replace what some rightly called the “old-guard misleadership.” Not all TDUers backed the decision—there was debate. But in the end, not only was Carey endorsed; TDU did not suffer a split. (In fact, TDU has never experienced a split, though there have been individual defections.)

Carey’s candidacy was made possible by an agreement (called a consent decree) between the Teamsters Executive Board and the Justice Department. The top Teamsters leaders thus escaped costly personal litigation under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute (RICO)—and potentially heavy fines, if convicted. The decree mandated unionwide nominations and elections for convention delegates from local unions and the union’s highest officers. Up to that time, delegates at conventions held every five years had elected those officers.

Most delegates were officers who might have gained their ex-officio status as long as three years before the convention. Some delegates were appointed by many of the same officers standing for election (most usually, reelection). Only a small number of delegates had been directly elected as delegates, and few of them were rank-and-file members; and in turn, few of them were opposed to the bureaucracy. At the 1986 convention only 26 of the 1,800 delegates dared to take the floor and openly vote against Presser, who had ruled against a secret ballot. After the vote, Presser declared that TDU was dead, little knowing that a cancer would take his life before the next convention, at which the TDU-backed candidacy of Ron Carey, a New York local union leader, would set the stage for one of U.S. labor’s thrill-packed periods.

Open-ended monitoring of the union

But the decree also provided for an open-ended “monitorship” of the union, long plagued by mob infiltration. The mob’s interest in the union was thought to be behind the mysterious (to some) disappearance of the famed one-time Teamsters president, Jimmy Hoffa, father of the current president, James P. Hoffa.

Under the consent decree of March 14, 1989, the government overseers banished many officers accused of mob ties. They also banished some officers who, in principle, had violated their oaths, though their infractions were minor. For example, a Carey supporter who was both an international vice president and the head of the UPS division was found to have bought a virtually discarded boat from a boss that he, as a local union officer, negotiated contracts with. He paid a small sum for the boat, which the monitors said was under the market price. He was ousted. Carey did not publicly object, nor did TDU.

Although there had been warnings that the government monitors would intervene on the bosses’ side in bargaining conflicts, that never happened; at least not before the end of the 1997 UPS strike. Carey adopted aggressive bargaining positions and often backed up his bargaining with strikes and the mobilization of the directly affected ranks. Carey struck the carhaul corporations, called the first national strike against freight companies since Teamsters president Frank Fitzsimmons allowed a two-day strike in 1976 (many Teamsters do not know that Jimmy Hoffa never led a national freight strike), and called a health and safety strike against UPS, even though the contract hadn’t expired. Most local officers, who in some cases walked their members into the UPS facilities, opposed the safety strike. Then in August 1997, to back up the demands the union was pressing in negotiations, Carey called the first national UPS strike since the Teamsters first organized some UPS workers early in the twentieth century.

Carey had opposed the deal that allowed the government to “oversee” the union. He took the floor at the 1991 Teamsters Convention and denounced the bureaucrats who opened the door to the government to save their own skins. TDU delegates said much the same thing, as did some local union officers. If any TDU leaders thought differently from Carey about the government’s new role in the union (and I doubt that any did), they were silent.

TDU opposed the government’s threatened trusteeship of the entire international union. TDU said that the answer to mob corruption as well as bureaucratic domination over the ranks was rank-and-file democracy. TDU campaigned for and won wide support in the ranks for its demand that the ranks have the right to directly elect the union’s highest-placed leaders. TDU leaders could not halt the government’s move against the union, but they were able to win inclusion in the consent decree of the members’ right to vote for the top officers. Some veteran labor analysts, among others, were rightly suspicious of the government’s motives. After Carey’s election they asked why the feds would allow the ranks the right to vote knowing that someone like Carey might be elected? The answer is that perhaps only one person thought that Carey would win the 1991 election and that was Carey himself!

A stunning upset

To all observers close to the union, including the feds, the obvious candidates and winners of the 1991 elections would come from the entrenched bureaucracy. To observers with their “feet on the ground” it was obvious that Carey didn’t have the name, money, and connections to turn an evidently quixotic race into a stunning upset. Still, Carey won; “stunning” was not hyperbole. TDU activists and the membership’s anger over concessions bargaining made the difference.

This was a third major turning point in TDU history—the winning of the top posts in the union by a TDU-backed reform-minded and militant trade union leader. As we have seen, Carey, with TDU’s support, went on to wage major strikes in carhaul, freight, and finally, UPS, winning a watershed victory over UPS management in August 1997. Within days after that great victory the government overseers annulled Carey’s election and required a rerun. Soon they would also rule that Carey could not be a candidate in the rerun—even though his popularity in the ranks after the UPS strike virtually assured his victory over James P. Hoffa if he had been allowed to participate in the rerun.

Now TDU was approaching another turning point. At TDU’s invitation, Carey spoke at the TDU convention just days after the election officer’s ruling in November 1997 denying Carey the right to participate in the rerun. Carey received a tumultuous response when he spoke. It was clear that no one in the reform movement, in or out of TDU, had Carey’s preeminence. Many TDUers shouted that Carey should fight the draconian edict that would rob the movement of its most popular leader. Surprisingly, Carey chose not to fight. In fact, a few days later he surprised his most ardent supporters when he took a leave from office to prepare a legal fight against his removal from the new election. That election was held later in 1998, and Hoffa won with nearly 60 percent. The membership voted by mail, with 25 percent fewer members than in the 1997 election participating. Still later in 1998, Ron Carey was barred for life from the Teamsters union on charges that were essentially the same as those that the New York jury rejected three years later, in October 2001.

Back in November 1997, even before Carey reached the TDU Convention, TDU central leaders were looking for a candidate to replace Carey. Shortly after the convention the leaders endorsed Ken Hall, at the time a Carey appointee who headed the UPS division; and then they endorsed Tom Leedham, also a Carey appointee, after Hall dropped out (for medical reasons, he said).

Nowadays, TDU leaders seem to view government “oversight” as a lesser evil. TDU leaders once said that they “use” the government, but rely on the ranks. But more and more they say something else. They say that the government’s role in the union is not over, and the feds should not get out at this time. Their position is clearest when they challenge Hoffa’s efforts to rid the union of the feds’ oversight.

Of course, TDU is right when it says that Hoffa’s interest in getting the feds out is to restore the bureaucracy’s traditional self-serving powers. It’s self-evident that Hoffa is not aiming to address the ranks’ need for a union independent of the bosses and their political stooges, in and out of the White House.

Hoffa’s moves might lead to the Teamsters’ nominal independence, but at what price to the ranks? Hoffa would probably be required to agree to a promissory note (hidden from the ranks) that would, at best, constrict the union’s bargaining independence and political freedom. Hoffa may be making some progress toward nominal independence. President Bush recently all but endorsed the way Hoffa is running the union and apparently would like to see Hoffa win this year’s election.

Clearly, the ranks are between a rock and a hard place—the case-hardened bureaucracy on the one hand, and the bosses’ government on the other hand. What the TDU leaders have always wanted for the ranks was not government oversight, but elections that accurately reflect the will of the ranks. The consent decree seemed to give the ranks fair elections. Indeed, most people would not have heard of Ron Carey, were it not for the government-conducted elections. To keep supervised elections the TDUers are willing to pay the price of the feds’ intervention.

Today their position goes beyond a tactical use of the nation’s formally democratic laws, which civil rights leaders, among others, have used to promote and protect minorities’ interests. (The use of courts and laws is most successful when it is backed by mass actions in the streets or in the workplace, as strongly evidenced by the sit-in strikes of the 1930s that gave new life to a dwindling labor movement, and by the post-WWII civil rights boycotts, sit-ins, and marches of the 1950s and 1960s, which rolled back Jim Crow in employment, public schools, transportation, restaurants, movies, and the like.)

TDU should be more critical

Ron Carey’s ouster should have led the TDU leadership to a more critical view the feds’ role in the Teamsters. But it didn’t. Recently, the monitors declined to punish a major Michigan Teamster official and Hoffa mentor who TDU thought was guilty as charged (a campaign contribution scam); but as TDU said, the official was “let off the hook.” Before the monitors’ decision, TDU often publicized the case. After the decision, TDU printed a small account, but said not a word about the injustice of the decision. In light of the severity of the penalty Carey and the Teamster ranks were wrongfully forced to endure by the exact same monitors, TDU should have raised hell and subjected the government body to damning criticism.

It’s been said that the jury’s acquittal of Carey undermined the credibility of the court-appointed monitors. The same can and must be said about the credibility of the TDU leaders who since 1997 have consistently refused to take Carey’s case to the ranks, to fight against the government’s undemocratic ouster of Carey. Instead, the TDU leaders have shrugged off the government’s determination to have the last word about whom the ranks may or may not elect.

The government’s high-handedness on this issue was not contemplated by TDU in 1989 when the consent decree was announced. In fact, the consent decree does not specify anyone’s right to overturn an election, or remove candidates other than in compliance with those labor laws and regulations that have been on the books for decades. From time to time even a monitor or two has called attention to the undemocratic use of the consent decree in some election cases, but that didn’t stay their undemocratic decisions. Moreover the monitors have not been even-handed in their findings and penalties. TDU and Carey expected that Hoffa might be removed from the 1996 ballot for what they said were egregious fund-raising violations. They were wrong. The monitors slapped Hoffa’s wrists. Carey was ousted, but Hoffa stayed on the ballot.

Now that the jury has acquitted Carey, no matter what TDU does, it faces another turning point. TDU can lose members and influence as the grievous degree of its failure to take the lead in defending Carey’s innocence and the members’ right to elect him sinks in. Or it can admit its misleadership and begin a campaign to mobilize the ranks to restore Carey’s membership in the Teamsters, along the lines of the successful 1997 UPS campaign. At the same time, of course, it must campaign to end the government’s intervention, and the bureaucrats’ deadly domination of the ranks. Both aims go hand in hand. The corruption of Hoffa’s coterie only serves to provide a cover for the government’s undemocratic role inside the Teamsters. The recent scandal involving close Hoffa power brokers’ betrayal of working Teamsters in Las Vegas to a casual labor outfit owned partly by an interested relative of one of the accused is sure to be repeated in other local unions and other cities as long as the easy-money guys are pulling the strings.

TDU had a wonderful beginning, arising out of the celebrated 1976 wildcat freight strikes. TDU can enrich its history and correct its past by embarking on a joint effort with the ranks to fight for real Teamsters democracy, free of the mob, the bureaucrats, and the government. To do otherwise is to court irrelevancy and demise.

Oct. 12, 2001





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