Who Reformed the Teamsters?

Against the Current, No. 37, March/April 1992

Kim Moody

“Reform candidate Ron Carey yesterday appeared headed for a stunning victory in the first direct election of a Teamster union president, completing a historic three-year government effort to transform the union into one of the most democratic in the nation.” (emphasis added) —Frank Swoboda, Washington Post, December 12, 1991

Mr. Carey, president of a Teamsters local in Queens, is the insurgent victor in an election that the Federal Courts are supervising in a settlement of an anti-racketeering suit the Justice Department brought against the Teamsters three years ago. (emphasis added) —Peter T. Kilborn, New York Times, December 13, 1991

The Carey candidacy, though promoted by the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union, was really spawned by the Justice Department’s takeover of Teamster affairs twa years ago under a consent degree signed by the union’s leaders. (emphasis added) —Albert R. Karr, Wail Street Journal, December 12, 1991

FOR THE MAINSTREAM media, the story of the election of Ron Carey and the slate of 15 reform candidates to the General Executive Board of the Teamsters was simple: A government-supervised election allowed Carey to defeat old guard candidates R.V. Durham and Walter Shea. The history of the Teamsters, in this view, extends back only three years when the Justice Department filed its Racket-Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) suit.

While few went as far as the Wall Street Journal in denying an active role to the rank and file or the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the subliminal message in most media accounts was dear Reform came from above from a government cleaning up corruption and introducing democracy,

Whether this media version stems from journalistic shortsightedness, editorial “line,” or simply ignorance, it accords well with the major myths of our time. Among these are: 1) the U.S. government is a force for democracy everywhere in the world 2) government intervention is best limited to clearing the way for more natural market forces, including when unavoidable, normal [gangster-free] labor-capital relations; and 3) positive change is best accomplished by the orderly process of negotiations and elections within a stable world or national balance of forces.

It would be unseemly to suggest that something untoward had occurred at the very center of the new world order To hint that the workers in the U.S.A. are restless and capable of effective “dissident” organization would be to concede too much to the outlived ideas of the left Class struggle? Movements from below? Not here. Not now.

But, in fact, something has happened in the heart of American society that defies both the liberal and conservative versions of the mythology of the American state’s democratic intentions: The Teamsters’ active rank and file has imposed some of its terms on a state that originally had a very different idea. It has produced an outcome that no one expected.

The state did not enter this arena with the idea of creating, as the Washington Post put it, “the most democratic union in the nation.” When the Justice Department met universal opposition within the Teamsters and organized labor to a full trusteeship, it made concessions. Having given ground, it fought a rear-guard resistance in which its hostility to the reformers was almost as great as that to the agents of organized crime.

A Problem That Wouldn’t Go Away

Since 1957 every president of the Teamsters, save Billy McCarthy, has been convicted and sentenced for one or another federal offense. Such politically diverse personalities as liberal Democrat Robert Kennedy and Republican Rudolph Guiliani have tried to launch political careers from exposing organized crime’s links to the Teamster leadership. Both the political opportunities to be exploited and the potential danger to society seen in Mob control of the Teamsters stemmed from the central place of this huge union in America’s post-World War U economy.

Whether in ascendancy or crisis, American industry grew, faltered and restructured along the black-tops of the U.S. Interstate Highway System. And Teamster members loaded, unloaded and drove the trucks that carried the bulk of industry’s output along those roads. Furthermore, in an industry composed, until recently, of many firms, the giant union stood out as a, or even the, central organization.

If Teamsters were just another group of American workers engaged in routine collective bargaining, the “normal” techniques of employer domination might have sufficed as they did in most industries. But this organization’s strategic position was unique. It was both embarrassing and potentially dangerous that the hundreds of thousands of people who moved the nation’s goods belonged to a union which the President’s Commission on Organized Crime had in 1985 pronounced “firmly under the influence of organized crime since the 1950s.”

To be sure, this wasn’t exactly news to people in the know. Both Republican and Democratic administrations had fought (and courted) this influence in the period of U.S. economic growth through the 1960s and crisis during the 1970s. But government intervention had been limited to the indictment of individual leaders. The line up of Mob replacements had proved endless. Partly for this reason the 1985 Commission report concluded, “The systematic use of trusteeships by the courts may be necessary to prevent organized crime from continuing to do business as usual.”

What made the Reagan-Bush approach to the Teamsters different was the project they had for the American economy. Their road to competitiveness was through a deregulated wilderness leading to deep economic restructuring. Part of the vision was shared by many Democrats who, like Edward Kennedy, saw deregulation as a means of diminishing the costs of transportation and other services. But no previous administration had the ideology or nerve to go as far.

It was the new Republican administrations that saw free-fall restructuring (coupled with big military spending) as the quick fix for America’s economic illness. Tax breaks would give the rich the money they needed to replace old industries with new. The scope of both deregulation and restructuring would be expanded in the 1990s with the North American Free Trade Agreement. Soon, the theory went, cheaper goods would roll down the highways and across borders and seas to meet the competition from Asia and Europe.

A Mob-influenced Teamsters union cluttered these highways in a number of ways. For one thing there were the payoffs, graft and other extortions to which shippers often had to accede. For another, Frank Fitzsimmons, Roy Williams, Jackie Pressei, and even Billy McCarthy were not exactly your state-of-the-art, quality circle, just-in-lime, free trade kind of guys. Bad typists in a computerized world, they had no program for bringing stability to the troubled trucking industry.

Although these IBT presidents were ready to make almost any specific concession the employers might ask for, their heart wasn’t in the new labor relations so much as in the accumulation of multiple salaries and pensions. Unlike labor leaders in other key unions such as the United Auto Workers, Steel Workers, or most of the unions in rail or air transportation, the Teamster leadership was incapable of implementing the new, more flexible systems of labor relations that were a part of the restructuring process.

Their greatest liability, however, was that unlike Jimmy Hoffa they were not in control of their membership. From the nationwide wildcat strike of 1970 through the massive contract rejection votes of the 1980s, Teamster members in the key trucking jurisdictions were not on the program. Furthermore, they were organizing into groups like TURF, PROD, TDC, UP-Surge, and finally TDU. By the mid-1980s they were making gains in local after local. Long before the election of Ron Carey, the “dissidents” were a problem with their membership mobilizations, contract campaigns and increasing electoral professionalism.

It was not that the ranks were on the verge of some 1930s-style upheaval. It was that in relation to almost any other industry, labor relations in trucking reflected Instability and worker intervention rather than the cooperative adaptation to flexibility called for by the current version of competitive free-market functioning.

No one represented the collapse of IBT leadership more than Jackie Presser In 1983, TDU handed IBT president Jackie Presser an historic “slap in the face” with a nearly nine-to-one rejection of the crucial National Master Freight Agreement In 1985, it won a court decision allowing casual workers to vote on future National Master Freight Agreement (NMFA) contracts, increasing the likelihood of future rejects.

In 1986, TDU won a court case that opened the door to contract rejection by a simple mority rather than the two-thirds no vote previously needed. This promised even more market-distorting instability in the industry. The UPS contract was voted down by majority in 1987 and the NMFA and car hauler contracts in 1988.

All this came prior to the actual filing of the government’s RICO suit, at a time when contract rejections were all but unheard of in other industries. The government’s decision to intervene came as the leadership of the Teamsters became weaker and less effective in relation to the ranks.

Defeating Trusteeship

The Department of Justice announced in November 1986 that it would indict and remove the president of the IBT and impose a trusteeship on the union under the provisions of the RICO Act This meant complete control of union affairs, including finances and even contract negotiations, and enforcement if the government so chose.

Although the announcement came in the wake of revelations of Presser’s colorful employment practices, the actual charges against Presser were relatively minor if the goal was breaking Mob control. The rising disorder of labor management relations in the deregulated trucking industry was of greater consequence and could hardly have gone unnoticed by Reagan’s advisers. Presser’s problem wasn’t that he was a petty dictator or mobster, in fact he was an FBI informant; but that he was an ineffective dictator–a Somoza or Batista.

The Teamster hierarchy’s strategy was simple: oppose trusteeship and seek readmission into the AFL-CIO. It did both and received the backing of Lane Kirkland and the federation. But neither the Teamsters nor the AFL-CIO chose to deal with the reality of Mob influence or leadership corruption and ineffectiveness. TDU also opposed the trusteeship, but presented the Teamster membership with an alternative.

In a September 1987 statement TDU’s International Steering Committee (ISC) said, “The ISC agreed by a wide margin in March 1987 to oppose trusteeship of the IBT. The ISC also agreed that if a RICO suit is filed, TDU will intervene in court to win the right to vote” To TDU the right to vote meant the direct referendum vote on all top leaders of the IBT.

TDU did more than intervene in court. Beginning in early 1988, it launched a national Right-To-Vote campaign that gathered 100,000 signatures on a petition, held raffles around the country and organized members at the local level to win their local unions to this position. This culminated in the election of some 250 reform delegates for the 1991 IBT convention, by far the largest opposition presence ever They also came up with a more detailed version of how a fair and honest election could be conducted.

When the Justice Department finally filed its RICO suit on June 28, 1988, it had dropped the trusteeship idea. The government accused forty-eight 1131 officials with illegal activities and ordered the election of new officers. Trusteeship had been defeated.

If the sheltering of the 1131 by the AFL-CIO played some role in this, it was clearly the “dissidents’ alternative that became the government’s program. This didn’t mean the government’s conversion to rank-and-file democracy. At that time, the election of a new leadership posed no apparent problem for the government or employers. No one, including TDU, believed then that reform or TDU candidates could win office in significant numbers in the first round of elections no mailer how open the procedures.

The very grassroots nature of TDU meant it had no leaders with name recognition throughout the union. Nor was there any well-known independent reformer at that time. Ron Carey was an honest and effective local leader—no more. In a nation where politics is based on image and name recognition rather than program, no one in elite circles could imagine what was to happen three years later A more likely scenario was to dethrone Presser and create an alternative by pushing forward leaders more or less free of known Mob influence—Weldon Mathis, Walter Shea, and later LV. Durham.

To encourage the formation of such a “clean” leadership the government’s 1989 consent decree was careful not to ban or chastise the practice of multiple job and pension holding that brought 134 Teamster officials salaries in excess of $100,000 in 1989. Mere corruption was all right so long as no connection to the Mafia or any outright violations of law were in evidence.

Unable to break the old habits of barony and high salaries, these “clean” leaders unwittingly helped to wreck the possibility of orderly succession. Mathis was the first to foul the plan when he get caught trying to steal a local union election. In fact, the more or less “clean” rump of the old guard had a great deal of difficulty pulling together credible slates. Durham and Shea eventually destroyed orderly succession and normalization by pairing off against one another in the supervised election held in December 1991.

Government Resists Full Democracy

The government appointed Michael Holland, a former lawyer for the United Mine Workers and presumably someone favorable to labor, to oversee the election process. Initially, Holland was acceptable to there-formers. But labor had two faces in this case: the “clean” old guard and the rank and file Holland probably considers that he conducted his affairs with an even hand. But when the different forces have different powers, an even hand is not necessarily one that acts as though everyone is the same.

At first Holland proposed only a very general supervision of the elections, leaving voting procedures in local leadership hands. Clearly, this favored the old guard. He also proposed that all financial contributions to each of the candidates for top offices be publicly disclosed. But as the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) pointed out, in a union with a history of victimization of oppositionists this a recipe for discouraging rank-and-file fundraising and participation. AUD filed suit for comprehensive supervision and a genuine secret ballot; eventually the reformers defeated both of Holland’s attempts to tilt the election toward the old guard.

Holland’s attempted evenhandedness developed into a negative view of TDU. He insisted in treating TDU as an outside force with a role almost analogous to the Mob. In justifying his advocacy of campaign contribution disclosure before the election he said (Oct. 1991):

“Because there is a very good chance that some, or most, or all of the TDU-supported candidates will be successful candidates, the interest in deterring “buying” the election by TDU or in exposing potential postelection influence of TDU over successful candidates cannot be discounted.”

This view of TDU as something like the equivalent of a corporate PAC in IBT politics was absurd. Aside from the obvious fact that TDU could not “buy” anything, it was not some outside force like an employer or Mafia family. It was the only organized expression of the ac-five rank and file in the Teamsters union. Yet Holland upheld harassing charges of funding violation against TDU, apparently to demonstrate his evenhandedness to the old guard.

Even more serious was the failure of Holland and the other court-appointed officers to protect rank-and-file Teamsters victimized by employers for activity in support of the reform candidates. It was no secret that TDLI members unroll a petition demanding the right to vote on top union office the employers almost universally opposed Carey; their actions in firing or disciplining workers, therefore, were important to the entire atmosphere of the election.

Although Holland established NLRB-based rules that allowed workers to campaign on company property, he didn’t follow through with protection in key cases. When Chicago Local 710 member Charles Coleman was fired for doing Carey campaign work. Holland ruled against his protest In an appeal, court-appointed Administrator Frederick Lacey backed Holland even though he disagreed with Holland’s reasoning.

Holland upheld another Local 710 Carey campaigner’s case, but rejected that of a member of Detroit Local 299 in what the AU1) called a “hairsplitting decision.” Holland also ruled that related activities like passing out TDU literature, even when it supported Carey and the reform slate, or using the grievance procedure to uphold the right to vote, were not protected activities.

This opened the door for UPS to fire seven workers (San Mateo, CA) who had filed a joint grievance over UPS’s limitations on their campaign activity. Similarly, UPS successfully dismissed John Braxton, a member of Philadelphia Local 623 and of the TDU International Steering Committee, for campaign-related activity. Altogether, it appears that the government protected three reformers, while letting at least nine lose their jobs.

Once again, the best interpretation is that Holland was trying to demonstrate his impartiality to employers and the old guard. The real message, however, was that Carey supporters could not count on government protection of their activity, regardless of the formal rules. Despite Holland’s personal distance from Reaganite/Bushite ideology, he became the agent of that project which hoped to normalize or modernize rather than radicalize or reform the IBI In the end, Holland’s resistance to TDU influence and fairer election rules were not enough to stop the forces of genuine reform.

Conclusions: Democracy and Rebellion

Although it cannot be proved, it is certainly plausible that the government launched its intervention in the Teamsters union in the mid-1980s as much in response to the collapse of leadership in that union as to the continuation of Mob influence. After all, Jackie Presser, who provided much of the criminal substance as well as the comic relief in the RICO suit, turned out to be an FBI informant.

If Presser’s role as a mobster was ambiguous, however, his credentials as an inept manager of social conflict were impeccable. His nine-to-one defeat in the 1983 NMFA was a one-of-a-kind. It unleashed more rejections before and after the filing of the RICO suit and the final consent decree in 1989.

The irony, by no means new to history; was that government concessions to the ranks fueled the fire of the rebellion. State intervention could not patch over the ineptitude of the IBT’s old guard, born of corruption and expressed in their in-fighting to the end. Attempts to thwart the very democracy the state had conceded only strengthened the resolve of the opposition.

Ron Carey, known only within UPS, became a national “name.” Candidates who have yet to become names swept their elections. The two-year long campaign for top office became in a sense a proto-revolutionary workers movement, albeit confined to a trade union. In the wake of this revolution, TDU and allied reformers took office in several major locals. No one now doubts that the reform forces will take more big locals in next year’s round of elections. The remaining battalions of the old guard clustered in the middle layer of the hierarchy are caught in a pincer between a new top leadership and a rank and file gaining new confidence.

None of this was supposed to happen when the mighty U.S. state made its move back in 1986. It is as though the spin doctors within the state forgot that their restructuring was also having an impact on working people. Their version of competitiveness didn’t inspire the men and women who move the nation’s goods to cooperation. It had eroded their living standards and made their jobs harder. It had set them competing with one another without in any way solving the problems of the U.S. economy.

The failure of a Mafia-influenced version of business union leadership to deliver for the ranks or satisfactorily for the employers or state had opened the union to a process in which an organized rank-and-file minority was able to turn both inept union leadership and ill-conceived government intervention to advantage.

In a matter of a couple of years the unknowns came to be the official leaders. The American media could only explain this as the result of intervention from above. Hopefully, we on the left can recognize this process as the stuff of working-class power.

March-April 1992, ATC 37