Teamster Reformers 2, Old Guard 0

Against the Current, No. 67, March/April 1997

Henry Phillips

LAST FALL FEATURED one election, at least, that working people had a stake in. Clinton/Dole?  Forget it. But how `bout them Teamsters?

The choice seemed clear enough: Jimmy Hoffa Jr., a mob- connected lawyer who has represented employers and corrupt officials against Teamster members, or Ron Carey, the union’s first democratically elected president and the labor movement’s most promising high-ranking militant and reformer.

Yet when the 460,000 mail ballots were tallied, Hoffa had come within 16,000 votes of assuming the presidency of the AFL-CIO’s largest union.

Hoffa, or Junior as he’s derisively called by his opponents, immediately cried foul. His P.R. staff-headed up by a former spin doctor for right-wing conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche-cooked up the tale that the government-appointed election supervisor Barbara Zack Quindel had stolen the election for Carey.

A pliant press ate up their claim that thousands of ballots were missing, and circulated them for weeks.  In fact, there were no “missing ballots,” merely a discrepancy between the actual number of ballots which arrived and an erroneous post office estimate, which was acknowledged and corrected.

The Hoffa team’s creativity notwithstanding, the presidential election results were certified on January 10.  When all of the final challenges are resolved, the Carey Slate will take twenty-two of twenty-seven seats on the General Executive Board.  Hoffa Slate members will have five positions as vice presidents for the union’s Central Region.

What explains the outcome?  Why did Hoffa come close?  What does the election mean for the Teamsters union and the labor movement?  And what does it portend for Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), American labor’s longest-lasting rank-and-file movement and the engine of reform in the Teamsters?

From Old Guard to New Teamsters

November’s election was the second one-member, one-vote election in International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) history.  Prior to 1991, every Teamster president had been elected by the delegates to the union’s convention, held every five years.  Most convention delegates were local officers who attended the convention based on their status as union officials.

This closed system protected officer privilege, and perpetuated obscene corruption throughout the union’s corps of officials.  Four of the last six Teamster general presidents before Carey went to prison or were indicted, and the union was notorious for its mob ties, concessionary contracts, payoffs to union officials, and violent retaliation against rank-and-file dissidents.

In 1989, faced with the Justice Department’s suit under the RICO act (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) that would put the International union under federal trusteeship, International officers made a deal. The “consent decree” they signed with the Justice Department created an Independent Review Board (IRB) to investigate corruption in the union and provided for impartially- supervised elections for all convention delegates and International union officers, in 1991 and 1996.

Teamster bosses’ deal with the devil blew up in their faces two years later when Carey beat the odds and two old-guard slates to win the union presidency with 48% of the vote.

With less than five percent of the union’s local officials supporting his candidacy, Carey turned to TDU and the Teamster rank-and-file.  His grassroots campaign promised to end union officers’ millionaire lifestyles, root out corruption, take on employers, and put the members first.

In his five years in office, Carey has remained true to that program, slashing wasteful spending (selling the famed Teamster private jets) and redirecting the IBT finances towards programs like the union’s new organizing and strategic campaigns departments, removing corrupt local officers, and leading aggressive national contract campaigns against the largest trucking employers.


The Teamster old guard dug in, organized and readied for 1996, the year of their counter-revolution.  They put Junior Hoffa forward as their candidate, though Junior had never been a union official.  The old guard needed Hoffa’s name, and the nostalgia it could conjure for bygone days of Teamster toughness, to restore themselves to the Teamsters Marble Palace headquarters in Washington, and halt reforms that threatened the positions and privileges of local officers throughout the union.

Hoffa promised a return to “Teamster Power.”  He charged Carey with mismanaging the union into financial collapse, of being a dictator who used the rhetoric of reform to cover up for politically motivated trusteeships, and with selling out Teamster members in national negotiations with UPS and the trucking companies.

A key to the Hoffa strategy was to discredit Carey’s record as a reformer.  One false story circulated by the Hoffa campaign claimed that Carey had financial ties to UPS. Another tale had Carey using thugs to shake down an elderly Queens woman for her inheritance.  The woman turned out to be an old family friend whom Carey had taken care of in her last years.

In contrast to Carey’s alleged corruption, concessions and incompetence, Hoffa promised tough leadership that would resolve the Teamsters’ financial problems and revive its barely solvent strike fund without a dues increase, and win good contracts and 25-and-out pensions-all because “Jim Hoffa learned how to negotiate at his father’s side.”

Hoffa’s demagogic claims were not tough to refute.  If he was against corruption, why were three of his running mates removed during the election for misusing union funds, nepotism, and having business interests in industries where they represented Teamster members?

If Hoffa hated organized crime as he claimed, why had he been a business partner of Alan Dorfman, who funneled millions of Teamster pension dollars to build the mob’s casinos in Las Vegas?

What was Hoffa’s plan for negotiating stronger contracts given that his strike fund plan would leave no funding for the International union’s education, organizing, or strategic campaign departments?  Did he expect bosses to cower at the mere mention of his name?

And if Hoffa wanted to stand up to UPS and the freight companies he sure kept strange company: Hoffa’s slate and his supporters included officers who scabbed on a national UPS strike in 1994, and who picketed the International union to protest Carey’s reforms in the middle of a national freight strike that same year.

No, Hoffa’s promises made little sense but, as the narrow election results showed, they didn’t have to. For all of its accomplishments and promise, the Teamster revolution is a fragile one. In `91 Carey’s shocking upset had unseated the union’s top dogs, but still left hundreds of anti-reform local officers in power.

Under the decentralized structure of the Teamsters, the bulk of the union’s finances and decisions remained in the hands of these officers.  And three-quarters of Teamster members are covered by “white paper contracts,’ local agreements over which Carey and the International have no control.

Even in national negotiations (UPS, Freight, Carhaul) where the general president holds the reins, Carey’s ability to deliver was severely hampered by the old guard and its legacy.  He negotiated from the union’s weakened bargaining position, eroded by decades of concessions and falling membership in the trucking industry-the fruits of the old guard’s stewardship of the union.

Carey also faced resistance and revolt from local officials who balked at the International’s new tactics and its willingness to go around local leaders if necessary to mobilize the rank and file. Carey worked with TDU activists and supportive members and officials to take a more aggressive stand against employers, but the results felt short of some members’ expectations.

Partial Reforms

While Teamsters decentralization and old guard revolt hampered Carey’s efforts to `deliver the goods’ that reform promised in some areas, in others it was weaknesses in Carey’s own regime and vision that were the problem.

The best example is trusteeships, where Carey’s broad powers as General President meant that he faced fewer constraints (as compared with contract negotiations) to pursuing the path of his choosing.  Carey used his powers to remove corrupt officers from more than sixty-five locals.

In few cases were trusteeships used to develop model, rank and file unions.  In the exceptional cases, where trustees swiftly cleaned house-bringing in all new staff and implementing programs that drew in the members-the new locals emerged stronger and with substantial rank-and-file support for the reform program.  In other trusteeships, where corrupt unionism was replaced with routine service unionism, the base of support for reform was decidedly weaker.

Using their longstanding networks with one another and their control of local union apparatuses across the country, old guard officials set out to mobilize dissatisfaction, and to exploit the breach between Carey’s reform promises and his administration’s constrained ability to deliver sufficient tangible gains to the rank and file.

They found an audience.  Remember, while Carey handily won `91s three-way race with a 12% advantage over his nearest rival, his vote total represented only 13% of the union’s membership as a whole (that is, 48% of the 28% of the members that voted).  That left a tremendous number of apathetic and/or disgruntled members to be reached by the demagogic, anti-incumbent appeals of the union’s old guard opposition.

Carey’s Balancing Act

Like his old guard rivals, Carey used the last five years to strengthen his power base. He had two principal means at his disposal: reaching out to local officers to support his efforts, and pursuing aggressive reforms that would appeal to members looking for a more democratic, militant union.

To a large degree these strategies work against one another.  Reaching out to typically conservative union officials meant accommodating to established ways of doing things, and making alliances with some less-than-savory officials-none of which appealed to members and reform activists.

On the other hand, pursuing aggressive reforms threatened change-wary officers whose cooperation Carey felt he needed to unify the union and effectively challenge employers.  Throughout his first term, Carey tacked between the two strategies.

For his first two years, Carey offered an olive branch to local union officials.  He moved slowly against the old guard, and kept the door open in the hope that more officers would back his initiatives.

In 1994, when two-thirds of local officials scabbed on a nationwide health and safety strike against UPS, Carey vowed to replace the olive branch with a two-by-four.  He dismantled the union’s five conferences, which spent $11 million a year on additional salaries and pensions for officials and provided few services to local members.

By the end of 1996 Carey had put sixty-seven local unions in trusteeship, removing hundreds of officers for employer pay- offs, gross violations of democratic norms, health and pension fund scams, nepotism, and the like.

Teamster election year `96 made Carey’s tacking strategy all the more tricky.  Under the banner of “local autonomy,” the union’s old guard sought to save its privileges by stripping the International’s authority, gutting its constitutional powers and slashing its funding.

Carey needed a majority at the union’s July convention to keep from being the Teamster’s ceremonial Queen of England in his second term. The convention challenge seemed especially daunting given that Carey had held only 15% of the convention delegates in 1991.

TDU leaders advocated that Carey use the local elections for convention delegates to launch an aggressive, grassroots re- election campaign.  They hoped Carey would hit the campaign trail and stump for pro-Carey rank-and-file candidates who challenged old guard local officers.

This strategy meant flouting long-standing Teamsters protocol, which holds that the International should stay out of local union politics.  Reluctant to alienate potentially friendly officers, Carey continued to tack, hoping to cobble a majority through a combination of TDU-coordinated grassroots efforts and his own overtures to get officers to back his platform.

The strategy almost succeeded, but fell short with a thud. Carey’s majority crumbled (if it ever existed) when officers who pledged they were `committed’ Carey delegates bolted after Hoffa’s delegates controlled the opening minutes of the convention through scripted mob behavior.  Disrupting the Convention from the outset-they even booed the national anthem and a moment of silence for dead Teamsters-Hoffa delegates turned the Convention into a circus, making Carey look weak in the process.

Having lost a close benchmark vote taken at the end of the Convention’s first day, as the Convention wore on Carey turned to a strategy of parliamentary maneuver, filibuster, and damage control.  Carey emerged from the Convention bruised but unbeaten, with the union’s constitution and the International’s funding intact and a call for a Special Convention in `97 to resolve the Convention’s many unsettled issues.

The Membership Decides

Convention politics are for the initiated.  Officers pay attention, as do local union activists, but the Teamsters election lay in the hands of the union’s entire membership of 1.4 million.  The campaigns turned their energies to the battle for the hearts and minds of the Teamster rank-and- file. The final results reflected the strengths and weaknesses of the campaigns.

The Hoffa campaign was much stronger than either old guard campaign had been in `91 when lethargic officials had been caught by surprise.  This time the old guard mobilized their patronage machines and they mobilized their money.

Hoffa outspent Carey, $3.7 million to $1.6 million.  This cash was used most effectively to fund phone banks that reached out to tens of thousands of Teamsters members in the campaign’s final days, feeding members the most crude distortions (Carey will raise your dues, Carey’s a mobster, Carey’s in bed with the government) to capture votes by any means necessary.

In the end, Hoffa performed best in traditional old guard strongholds like Detroit, Chicago, Kansas City and Los Angeles, in locals where members have little contact with the International, and in areas where TDU lacked a strong activist base and presence.

Carey’s campaign lost some of the holy-war edge it had the first time around.  There was less of a grassroots groundswell, fewer new troops and TDU recruits.  Reform activists were nevertheless the backbone of the campaign in many areas.  Unlike Hoffa, who needed officers in friendly areas to deliver his votes, Carey’s grassroots campaign made headway even in hostile terrain.

In some fifty local unions, Teamster activists carried their local for Carey against a pro-Hoffa leadership, according to TDU’s Convoy Dispatch.  In another forty, they came close to winning, minimizing any Hoffa gain. Three candidates on the Hoffa slate even lost their own locals.

“This was the weapon Hoffa couldn’t match.  He had the bucks, he had more officials behind him. But he took only a handful of locals with pro-Carey leadership, whereas our grassroots army took many from him,” said Diana Kilmury, the TDU co-chair who was reelected International Vice President at large.  (“Convoy Dispatch”, January 1997)

Post-election Balance of Power

The victorious Carey slate consists of partisan advocates of both of the opposing tactics that made up the tacking strategy Carey employed in his first term. But with five Hoffa candidates winning office, the new General Executive Board will have fewer TDU sympathizers than the previous one.

At his vote-count news conference, Carey declared, “This victory sends a message to every Teamster official who has tried to undermine reform in the past five years-it’s time to get on the reform train or get the hell out of the way.”

But just where is the reform train going?  That will depend on the balance of forces in the union, and to a large measure, on how successful TDU is in adjusting to the new era in the Teamsters.

The ’96 election marks a decisive shift in the union’s internal debate.  One-member-one-vote has forced all players aspiring for power in the union to don the cloak of reform.

“Just about everything we were for and they were against, Hoffa endorsed at some point during his campaign,” said TDU national organizer Ken Paff. “Limits on leadership pay and benefits, membership votes on dues increases, direct election of convention delegates and officers, cutting wasteful bureaucracy-plus Hoffa claimed to be more militant than Carey.”  (The Nation, 1/6/97)

The old guard, in its most obscene criminal expression, is likely on its way to extinction.  Five more years of government oversight and Carey trusteeships should break its back.

But a new old guard is already in formation, including members of Carey’s new executive board.  These officers have cast their fortunes with the Carey regime and a project of minimal reform-a clean-up but not a fundamental recasting of the union.

They want a Teamsters union that serves its members but is run by its officers, and they view programs for membership mobilization and participation with suspicion if not hostility.  They want, to put it simply, business unionism not movement unionism, and in the wake of a close election they can be expected to lobby Carey for rapprochement with conservative local officials in the name of bringing the union together.

Challenges for Reform Activists

The most coherent force within the union that has a vision of more fundamental changes, TDU, has the opposite advice for the Teamsters General President: push aggressively for reform, open up more avenues in the union for membership mobilization and involvement in decision-making.

But this movement faces its own challenges.  TDU in the past has grown principally through three activities: mobilizing around national contracts, recruiting pro-Carey activists, and reforming corrupt locals through rank-and-file organizing.

In these past five years, however, the organization has tended to become a casualty of its own successes.  As reform succeeds in the union, the perceived need for TDU as a separate organization shrinks.  Members who joined TDU to be part of an effective electoral organization may fall away in the wake of a second Carey win.

Freight, Carhaul and UPS workers who joined TDU when it was the sole source of information and the only vehicle for coordinated action during national contract talks, can now look to an International which is doing more of what TDU once did (informational bulletins to the rank and file, membership mobilization, etc.).

In local unions where TDUers have won office, furthermore, it’s been difficult to continue to sustain strong local chapters.  Chapter leaders become consumed with the work of running the local and the time and perceived need for a distinct rank-and-file organization just isn’t there.

Teamsters still need TDU: to organize to reform conservative locals (the majority in the union), to coordinate grassroots participation when Carey turns to the membership, and to keep pressure from below on the new International union leadership.

TDU activists will continue to be the union’s best builders and the International’s grassroots shock troops against employers and the old guard, but for TDU to maintain the imagination of its activists and to draw in new recruits, the organization will have to do more.

TDU will have to sharpen the debate around the meaning of reform and the future of the union—especially given the possibility that both candidates in the next election will emerge from different wings of the Carey camp.

TDU’s survival and growth will depend on its ability to attract supporters to a program of militant movement unionism that goes beyond the reform lite peddled by conservatives within the Carey camp.

In which direction Carey himself will lead is uncertain.  He remains an enigmatic leader, the perfect head of his coalition because he shares characteristics from each of its wings.  A militant who urgently wants to challenge employers and shake up America’s groggy labor movement, Carey has turned to the Teamster rank and file at every critical juncture to make them part of the fight.

Carey’s commitment to involving the rank and file, however, is not matched by a commitment to giving the ranks more power.  Rather, members represent a reservoir of power that must be tapped, but not necessarily organized in an ongoing way.

Carey believes in more than honest unionism, he believes in militant unionism.  But he remains open to top-down strategies to mobilization, and skeptical of radically democratic re-structuring that shifts power from officials into the hands of the membership.

Carey wants a stronger labor movement, and realizes this means a changed labor movement, but how much change and of what kind of change Carey intends to push for, neither wing of the Carey camp can say. Perhaps Carey doesn’t know himself.

The Teamsters’ Future-and Labor’s

The course the Teamsters will take in the next five years will depend on more than Carey’s own convictions.  They’ll be shaped by the intrigues ahead, by the old guard’s fights and accommodations with the Carey coalition, by TDU’s ability to mobilize around its vision versus conservative officials’ ability to maneuver around theirs—and by which, if any, of these forces is able to win a mandate from the Teamster rank and file.

The results will have a continuing impact on the course of the U.S. labor movement more broadly.  The deeper the transformation in the Teamsters, the more powerful will be its resonance in the labor movement as a whole.

Media pundits talked about the Teamster election as a referendum on labor’s new course, and often pointed to the Teamsters’ key role in John Sweeney’s successful bid for the helm of the AFL-CIO. Lost in most commentaries are the deep distinctions between the AFL-CIO’s reform process and the much more profound, healthy and dynamic process at play in the Teamsters.

Compare the “new AFL-CIO’s” ambiguous commitment to renewed militancy and Sweeney’s call for a new social contract between business and labor (assessed by Jane Slaughter elsewhere in this issue of “Against the Current”), with the new Teamsters’ illegal strike action against UPS and Carey’s implacable opposition to Team Concept.

While Sweeney’s track record on rank-and-file democracy is dubious at best, Carey has sought continued one-member-one- vote elections for the Teamsters top officers and removed local officers who retaliated against internal dissent.

While the AFL-CIO and its Organizing Institute look to college students turned organizers to revitalize the labor movement, the Teamsters have set their sights on training thousands of member organizers to conduct worker-to-worker organizing campaigns.

And while Carey has echoed Sweeney’s position that a labor party is “premature,” he stood alone among presidents of AFL- CIO unions in opposing the federation’s early endorsement of Bill Clinton with no strings attached.

Does the future hold the Sweeney-ization of the Teamsters, or the New-Teamsterization of the AFL-CIO?  The answer to that question depends, in no small way, on the continued success of the most visionary activists and leaders of the Teamster revolution: the members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Henry Phillips is a labor activist and a member of SOLIDARITY.

ATC 67, March-April 1997