A View of the Teamster Tragedy

Against the Current, No. 72, January/February 1998

Robert Brenner, Samuel Farber, Christopher Phelps and Susan Weissman

JUDGE KENNETH CONBOY’S disqualification of Ron Carey as candidate for reelection to the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) is a devastating blow to the Teamsters’ membership and U.S. labor generally.

Carey has had an outstanding career as a labor leader.  As a local Teamsters official on Long Island, he established a reputation for honesty and militancy, leading strike after local strike.  As president of the Teamsters, he offered the membership a quality of leadership at the national level that they had not known for decades, if ever.

He not only took decisive steps to rid the union of corrupt and gangster elements, but also waged militant fights against the employers on such central issues as part-time work and the opening of non-union subsidiaries.

Carey’s crowning achievement was, of course, his leadership of the Teamsters’ inspiring victory over the United Parcel Service last August, for which he received the praise and admiration of the entire trade union movement.

This makes all the more disappointing the incontestable fact that close to a million dollars was diverted from the Teamsters union’s general treasury to fund Carey’s quest for re-election.  Still more painful is that this diversion of funds emerged naturally from the top-down kind of campaign that Carey himself had chosen to run.

Nor was Carey’s recent bid for the presidency the first occasion on which he has looked upwards rather than below to consolidate his power.  Throughout his career, Carey has been, in certain respects, a typical American trade union leader, one who sees himself as serving the interests of the rank and file, but not controlled by it.

His ambivalent attitude toward the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU)—specifically, his willingness to work with it, but desire to avoid dependence upon it at all costs—exemplified Carey’s general approach to trade union leadership.

If the oscillating, and ultimately tragic, trajectory of even so exemplary a trade union leader as Ron Carey tells us anything, it is that rank-and-file organizations such as TDU are indispensable, that their autonomous self-organization and independence from any official are precious, and that the labor movement cannot go forward without them.

The “Air War”

When he originally won the Teamsters’ presidency in 1991, Carey ran as a total outsider.  Because he had virtually no support among the Teamsters’ old guard officials, he had no choice but to depend heavily upon the organizing efforts of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.  TDUers were well represented on his election slate and the TDU leadership was looked to for advice and support.

But when Carey ran for re-election in 1996, he put a group of Democratic Party political consultants, with no union organizing experience, in charge.  He allowed them to run his campaign in the only way they knew how, as what they called an “air war,” relying on telemarketing and mass mailings, rather than an “infantry”-based struggle, which would have required Carey to more vigorously mobilize the ranks and reconnect with the grassroots.

To implement their electoral strategy, Carey’s managers needed much more money than the reform movement could possibly command on its own. They therefore turned to the kind of underhanded methods which are now the norm on the U.S. party-political scene, but which were not remotely viable inside a Teamsters union in the virtual receivership of the federal government .  .  .and they brought down Ron Carey with them.

Carey’s top-down approach to re-election did not come out of the blue. Even during that initial run for office in 1991, he was careful to publicly distance himself from TDU, while depending upon it for getting out his vote. Following his epoch-making victory, Carey did the opposite of strengthening the TDU-led reform movement which made possible his assumption of office.

During his first two years in office, he sought to consolidate his regime by forging alliances with members of the Teamsters’ old guard.  Luckily, most of the old guard officials calculated that they could do better on their own than by throwing in their lot with Carey.

In the face of the old guard’s intransigence, Carey did move much closer to the reformers.  He abolished the old regional conferences, which were centers of Teamster corruption.  Perhaps most important, he attempted to clean up the union by throwing one gangster local after another into trusteeship.

Here was a major opportunity to make the union more responsive to the interests of the membership.  But instead of consistently appointing reformers to administer the trusteeships, Carey many times gave the job to business unionist IBT officials, who did little or nothing to democratize their locals or step up the fight against the employers.

All too often, moreover, Carey organized new members into old guard—dominated locals, where they found themselves demobilized and defenseless against the employers.

Nor was Carey’s romance with the Democratic Party political operators who ultimately brought him down a mere flirtation.  Carey brought them into his circle when he first ascended to the presidency, in part to lessen his dependence upon TDU. Throughout Carey’s entire time in office, they occupied influential positions in the union’s legislative department and as political consultants

A Flawed Approach

Carey’s enormous achievements are not in doubt, nor is the huge loss to the reform movement that his disqualification represents.  The outpouring of emotion and support with which Carey was greeted at the recent TDU convention demonstrates the esteem in which he is held by rank and file militants in the union.  At the present juncture, he is virtually irreplaceable.

Yet if Carey’s militancy and integrity have been unusual within today’s trade union officialdom—and perhaps unique at the national level—the limitations of his approach to trade union leadership has been all too typical of that officialdom, and, for that reason, need to be clearly registered.

Though sincerely committed to reform and to his membership, and willing at times to mobilize the ranks to militantly fight the bosses, he has not been committed to the construction of a rank and file organization within the Teamsters which is independent from himself and to which he could be called accountable.

Yet the existence of TDU within the Teamsters has been the indispensable precondition for much of what Carey has accomplished, and the strengthening of TDU is the indispensable precondition for furthering union democracy and union power in the Teamsters after Carey.

TDU was formed in 1976 on the initiative of a relatively small group of socialists acting in collaboration with handfuls of Teamster militants from around the country.  These radicals and militants had, during the previous year, organized a nation-wide movement, Teamsters for a Decent Contract, around the renewal of the Master Freight Agreement.

They aimed to democratize the Teamsters and turn it into a union that would fight unwaveringly for its members against the employers.  They took as their inspiration a long history of rank and file movements seeking to strengthen workers’ self-activity through organizations of militant activists within the unions, independent of the official leaderships: notably the British Shop Stewards and Minority Movements, the Trade Union Educational League which had fought to democratize the AFL and make it more militant in the 1920s, and the movement to form the CIO in the mid-1930s.

Why Rank-and-File Organization?

The rationale for autonomous rank and file organizations within the unions is not the belief that union officials are inevitably conservative, or will never lead militant fights against the employers.  It is, rather, the understanding that trade union officials are likely to develop an approach to trade union struggle that reflects their socioeconomic position and experience.

No longer in the work place, trade union full-time officials are insulated from the day-to-day pressures from the boss that affect rank and file workers.  As employees of the union, they are dependent upon the union organization for their immediate living, and upon the continued existence and success of the union organization for their whole careers.

Their consciousness is thus shaped, in part, by the material pressures directly associated with their position as paid officials who have freed themselves from the burdens of the workplace.  But it also grows naturally out of the bureaucratic routine of contract enforcement, administration of countless services, lobbying with politicians, and so forth.

The bureaucratic outlook derives, in short, from a social world in which the union organization has tended to become an end in itself, rather than an instrument for furthering the membership’s interests.

From the standpoint of the organizers of the great rank-and-file movements of the first half of the twentieth century, even the better sort of trade union officials tend, consciously or unconsciously, to confuse the needs of the membership with the needs of the organization per se, to see the former through the lens of the latter.

The officials might on occasion fight courageously and effectively against both corruption and the bosses, but they insist on doing so on their own terms, when they want to and how they want to. They will not, as a rule, subject themselves to direct determination by the ranks, because they view the latter as prone to take “irresponsible” actions which might put the union’s (not to mention their own) very existence into danger from the deadly assaults of the employers.

For the same reasons, even the better sort of trade union officials, virtually inevitably, feel threatened by permanent rank-and-file organization within their unions which have sufficient power to act independently, to force them into actions that they do not wish to pursue, or, perhaps worst of all, to replace them by others .  .  .  even though such organizations might very well provide them with the power and the militancy they need to achieve their goals.

Rank-and-File Independence

Carey’s decision to run in 1991 offered the Teamsters the possibility of a leadership that was light years more militant and more honest than what they had been stuck with for decades.  But it was only the fact that TDU was there to support Carey—having established its legitimacy and its strength by means of more than fifteen years of struggle for democracy and militancy—which allowed him to win.

When Carey found, at the start of his presidency, that he could not construct an alliance with the old guard, TDU was there to provide him a base for an alternative way forward, one which was much more favorable to reform and militancy.

Without TDU, Carey would have faced a cul-de-sac.  When Carey decided to take on UPS in summer 1997, TDU was there to spread the word, organize the rallies, and strengthen the picket lines.  Yet Carey not only struggled to avoid dependence upon TDU; he sought to build a personal following of old guard and business unionists that would provide him a political base, which, because dependent upon him, would allow him to govern the union as he saw fit, without accountability to the ranks.

Today’s trade union radicals and militants, and the rank and file more generally, need to be able to ally as an independent force with progressive officials like Carey, and to strengthen the hand of such officials when they are forwarding the interests of the membership against the old bureaucracy and especially against the bosses.

But they also need to be able to organize independently, and even against, such officials when they fail to pursue reform or adequately take on the employers.  And they need to move on if, for whatever reason, such officials can no longer serve the rank and file’s interests.

To be able to do these things, they must have their own autonomous, self-acting organizations within the unions.  As Ken Paff, TDU national organizer puts it, TDU “reached out to support Carey and to turn out the old guard, while retaining a grassroots movement as a model, as a leadership school, and as a watchdog to avoid backsliding.”

It is largely because of TDU that the Teamsters membership and Ron Carey have been able to make the strides forward that they have.

It is because TDU has not been stronger that the reform struggle has not gotten further than it has. It is because there are so few counterparts to TDU across today’s unions that the U.S. labor movement has been so vulnerable to the long term employers’ offensive, and one crucial reason why TDU itself has not been more influential.

Today, it is TDU, in association with the other pro-reform forces in the IBT, which has been left to pick up the ball of union reform and militancy against the employers that Ron Carey clearly dropped, when he illegally allowed union funds to support his own election campaign.

A Betryal of Democracy

It is true that Carey was under tremendous pressure.  Massively outspent by the Hoffa forces, he feared that their superior ability to raise funds, almost certainly in part from gangster sources, put not just his own candidacy but the whole movement for reform in jeopardy, not just in the Teamsters but in the labor movement more generally.

But for an incumbent, especially a reformer, to use membership dues to promote his or her own candidacy is intolerable.  It goes against the cause of union democracy for which he or she is supposed to be fighting.

Union members pay dues to finance organizing drives, staff salaries, and strike support.  Dipping into the union treasury to finance an official’s person re-election is worse than illegal: it is wrong.

It is hard to see how Carey could have failed to understand that the purpose of the series of major political contributions which the Teamsters made to various liberal and labor organizations near the end of the campaign was to illegally secure funding from those organizations for his own re-election.

There were at least four such contributions; they totaled three quarters of a million dollars; they occurred in the space of a week; they were all made at the request of Carey’s campaign manager and official fund-raiser, who was supposed to have nothing to do with Teamster union expenditures, let alone political contributions; they were, in several cases, unprecedentedly large and were made to organizations which had never before received anything but minor contributions from the Teamsters; they were made at a time when the Teamsters PAC was in debt and the Teamsters treasury in trouble; and they were explicitly approved by Ron Carey, as he himself has admitted.

Even if Carey did not technically know about the wide ranging conspiracy of which these contributions were a part, as his campaign manager and several others have said he did, he should have made it his business to find out about them, for they smelled to high heaven.

Carey’s troubles are not the result of a government conspiracy to punish him for his victory at UPS, as some on the left have too hastily concluded, but of the all too well-documented mistakes committed by his campaign organization.

Nor are they part of some broader ruling class offensive to bring down the new AFL-CIO leadership, which during its period in power so far, despite much talk, has failed to constitute much of a threat to capital—failing even to organize enough new members to prevent the unionized fraction of the labor force from falling further.

In fact, Bill Clinton and the Democrats, for reasons of their own self-interest—because the new AFL-CIO leadership has been such a strong electoral supporter of theirs, and because Democratic party officials and AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka have been linked to the Carey campaign fundraising scheme—far from seeking to take advantage of Carey’s problems, are anxious to see the investigations into the Teamsters wound up as soon as possible.

What’s At Stake Now

Republicans in Congress, egged on by the Wall Street Journal and other rightwing forces, are seeking to exploit Carey’s mistakes.  Their tactic is simple: Use the pretext of “cleaning up” labor to launch a new witch-hunt against a newly-reviving labor movement.

These fanatically pro-business elements haven’t the slightest interest in protecting union democracy.  Still smarting from the defeat sustained by employers when the Teamsters defeated UPS last summer, they aspire both to weaken militant forces in the Teamsters and to get rid of the new leadership in the AFL-CIO.

The latter is a real possibility should Junior Hoffa be victorious, since Carey’s support for the Sweeney-Trumka-Chavez team was critical in bringing down the neanderthal Kirkland-CIA regime.  Fortunately, the Republicans’ offensive has yet to pick up much momentum within the political establishment, as witness the hasty disbandment of the Hoekstra committee in Congress, which was leading the anti-union charge.

Still, the threat of the return of the Old Guard in the AFL-CIO provides one more reason, if such were needed, why it is so crucially important that the reformers maintain control of the Teamsters in the upcoming electoral struggle.

Progressive trade unionists are making the case before the courts that although Carey was wrong to have allowed the illegal contributions, the fact that they were made should not prevent him from running again, since on previous occasions this sort of violation has not disqualified candidates, but called only for remedial action—rerunning the campaign, forcing reimbursement of ill-gotten gains to the opposing candidate, and so on.

Efforts to disqualify Hoffa for his own shady finance schemes may also bring results.  But to fight corruption and the employers, rank and file Teamsters cannot count on the courts; they can indeed count only on themselves to further their own interests.  It is fortunate that there exists a vehicle for them to do so, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

The authors are members of the ATC editorial board.

ATC 72, January-February 1998