Teamster Rank and Filers Look Forward

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

Henry Phillips

FOR THE PAST twenty-two years, rank-and-file Teamsters have gathered at the annual convention of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) to debate the course their movement should take. Through these two decades TDU members have seen plenty of tumultuous times, but nothing like this.

Just four days before the convention, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was rocked by the announcement that its General President, Ron Carey, had been banned from seeking re-election.

How would the union’s most militant reformers react to the shock?  Would they rally around Carey?  Endorse a new candidate?  Would TDU members unite in the face of adversity or be divided over what path to take?  These questions provoked a tension and emotional intensity new even to the labor movement’s oldest and most dynamic rank-and-file movement.

The convention began on Friday afternoon with a wide-ranging discussion of Carey’s disqualification and what TDU’s response should be. To begin, TDU’s International Steering Committee (ISC), the movement’s fifteen-member governing body elected at each convention, laid out their perspective.

The ISC argued that it was not the time for TDU to endorse a replacement reform candidate.  An endorsement, they said, would be divisive within TDU and within the broader Teamster reform movement.  Instead of endorsing a candidate, the ISC urged that TDU use its convention to commit to building the rank-and-file movement as never before.

The Rock of Reform

“We are the rock of reform in our union,” said a TDU co-chair.  “We are bigger than any one candidate.”

He underscored his point, pausing dramatically and telling the crowd, “Stop and ask yourself, where would we be at this moment without TDU?” Then he concluded.  “There will be a reform slate in the coming election, and that reform slate will win—provided that we have a strong TDU.”

Going into the convention, it was not at all clear that TDU would adopt this “Build now, endorse later” perspective.  After Carey’s disqualification, many observers assumed that TDU would endorse a candidate at its convention—making that candidate the reform wing’s leading contender.

It soon became clear how divisive this course would be, not only in the broad Carey camp but within TDU itself, where some members supported Warehouse Division Director and TDU ally Tom Leedham, others leaned toward Ken Hall who heads the union’s Parcel Division and co-chaired the UPS negotiations, and still others opposed an endorsement of any kind.

The ability of TDU’s top leaders to measure the reactions within the reform movement, to respect them, and to respond with proposals that could forge a consensus defined the convention.  With emotions running high, a more stubborn or heavy-handed leadership could have easily exacerbated existing tensions and divisions by trying to force through a proposal around which no unifying consensus could be built.

The convention’s opening session was testimony to just how high emotions ran. Speaker after speaker rose and spoke with intensity, shock, even grief.  Members uniformly rallied around their fallen president regardless of the course of action they advocated.

“This is killing me, and I’ll be damned if I’ll be a party to a hanging,” said one activist, simultaneously shouting and near tears.  “We’re not here to judge Ron Carey.  We’re here to build a goddamn army. We’re going to protect Carey’s dream of reform.”

Any idea of endorsing a replacement candidate was off the table, as though its mere mention was tantamount to kicking Ron Carey while he was down. Instead the discussion turned on whether to support the Steering Committee’s proposal or an alternate course, sporadically proposed, that TDU turn its efforts to reversing Carey’s disqualification.

An Attack on All

“If this was just an attack on Ron Carey, that would be one thing, but this is an attack on the labor movement,” said one activist.  “This is a political attack on Ron Carey for what we did at UPS. We can’t leave him out in the cold. What’s the use of a reform movement if we can’t do anything?”

These kind of speeches had resonance with the crowd, not least because there has been a coordinated, right-wing attack on Carey.  In October, Peter Hoekstra, the Republican representative from Michigan who sponsored a bill that would legalize company unions, chaired a congressional committee witch-hunt into the Teamster election.

Other committee members included Cass Ballenger and Charlie Norwood, who have spearheaded congressional efforts to slash workers’ health and safety rights by gutting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

These “impartial” defenders of union democracy heard from a string of witnesses provided by the Hoffa campaign who lined up to spin tales of Carey’s intimidation and thuggery.  Hoffa-pal Dan Passo claimed that the IBT was more undemocratic than ever.

Passo is something of an expert on the lack of democracy in the Teamsters.  He was part of a clique that used to run IBT Local 705 in Chicago, a local run by the mob-linked Dan Ligurotis who shot and killed his son in the union hall. Ligurotis was removed from office by, you guessed it, Ron Carey.

Another committee witness, Vince Hickman, a Teamsters staffer, testified that he “felt pressured” to contribute to the Carey campaign.  Here too, the allegations were thick with irony.

The pressure against Hickman was so great that he didn’t even contribute to the campaign.  Did Hickman suffer retaliation?  Threats, maybe a beating?  Nope, Hickman even remained on Carey’s payroll.

TDU members were justly enraged at the bogus, politically-motivated attacks on Carey and their union.  “I didn’t see Hoekstra hold any hearings when TDU supporter Bruno Bauer was murdered on the job .  .  .  almost certainly killed by the officials of Local 707,” TDU National Organizer Ken Paff said angrily in his convention address.

“There were no hearings needed because [Local 707 business agent] Nicki Black wasn’t winning any major strikes against corporate power in America.  That was the context for [the congressional hearings], make no mistake about it.”

Corporate Conspiracy?  Not

But while these congressional hearings followed the UPS strike and were undeniably politically motivated, the investigation of the violations by the Carey campaign preceded the strike—and it’s difficult to show any link to an anti-Carey agenda.

Indeed, Election Officer Barbara Zack Quindel held off announcing her decision that the Teamsters election would be re-run until after the strike, saying that she didn’t want to undermine the union’s bargaining position.

Denunciations of Carey’s disqualification as a corporate conspiracy blurred the distinction between the bogus, post-UPS strike congressional hearings and the legitimate, pre-UPS strike investigations by the election officers into the real misdeeds committed by the Carey campaign.

The sporadic calls for TDU to turn all its energies toward a Carey defense campaign received applause from the crowd, because they refuse to leave their battered leader out to dry; yet the proposals received little actual support, because they left activists without a viable plan of action.

Carey’s fate lies far from the Teamster rank and file that TDU activists can organize and influence.  Carey’s appeal of his disqualification will be heard by Judge David Edelstein, who has arbitrated the government’s role in the Teamsters since the original RICO suit in 1988.  Edelstein has never overruled a punishment of a Teamster official by one of his subordinates, except to make it more severe.

The TDU leadership argued that the way to defend Carey’s legacy was to organize at the grassroots to keep the reform movement moving forward.

“There’s nothing wrong with being sad for Ron Carey,” said a TDU co-chair.  “Support his appeal, but if that’s the only thing you do then you aren’t following his legacy.  He wants you to go out and organize for the National Master Freight Agreement, not picket Judge Edelstein.”

Another activist argued, “General President Carey was our lead soldier, but he was not placed there by his single desire.  Support Carey in his endeavors and praise his efforts, but unless we educate our fellow Teamsters in reform, then we have lost the battle today.”

Moving Forward

The perspective put forward by TDU’s steering committee ultimately forged a binding consensus.  Later in the weekend, two motions were unanimously adopted by the convention.

The first motion put TDU on record as opposing the creation of a “so-called reconciliation slate” of candidates from the Carey and Hoffa camps and empowered the ISC to endorse a reform slate.  The second motion announced the movement’s intention to “Build, build, build TDU,” to reinvigorate their organization for the battles ahead.

The unanimous votes reflected the real consensus that had been built during the course of the convention.  The TDU leadership had successfully taken the temperature of the ranks and put forward motions that united and reanimated its members in a time of crisis, when high-running emotions could easily have provoked splits on issues that will resolve themselves.

In all likelihood, Carey will lose his appeal, an appeal which is as much an attempt to defend his reputation as it is an effort to reclaim his standing in the union.  TDU will then be free to endorse a reform slate without having alienated its members or reform supporters in the union for appearing to have bolted from Carey’s side while his appeal is still on.

But the delay in the endorsement does not come without its costs.  It leaves Hoffa working the campaign trail, while reformers fall behind in fundraising, in building a campaign organization, and in getting their candidate’s name and message out to the members.

Ron Carey’s Lasting Legacy

At the convention, feelings of shock, bewilderment, and fierce loyalty to Carey found expression everywhere.  Why did the ranks circle-the-wagons so dramatically?  These are TDUers, activists who have never shirked away from exposing wrongdoing by Teamster officials even when this meant Carey-slate members who had misused union funds.

In part, the convention came too soon after Carey’s disqualification for members to have registered anything but shock and denial.  Few members had yet read the election officer Kenneth Conboy’s detailed 72-page report showcasing the evidence behind his decision.

What’s more, Judge Conboy’s report deals with schemes that occurred in venues not frequented by the rank and file. The allegations and the report carry little weight with members, when compared with the first-hand experience they’ve had with Carey as a militant union leader.

More than anything, the rank-and-file’s reaction reflects their loyalty to Carey for his genuine accomplishments.  In a time when cynicism is beyond passe, Carey gave Teamster members something to believe in.

In the world’s largest and most corrupt union, here was a militant with a twenty-year record for standing with the members and bucking UPS and their pals in the Teamsters Marble Palace.  Even more amazing, Carey continued to stand up for the ranks after taking his cheap suits, high voice, and bad haircut to Washington as the populist Teamsters General President.

Under Carey, the Teamsters removed hundreds of corrupt officials from local office; sold the famed Teamster jets; cut the fat from officers’ and staffers’ limousine lifestyle; brought renewed energy to the union’s organizing department; and mobilized members to win good contracts, culminating in August’s victory at UPS.

To most members the charges against Carey seemed unbelievable.  To all, they dimmed in comparison with his accomplishments.  “The alleged misappropriation of funds compared to what he’s done for our union, don’t mean dipshit to me,” one activist put it plainly.

In a culture where the “Great Man of History” is the dominant ideology, members projected on to Carey what their reform movement had accomplished—and that, more than anything, explains the repeated standing ovations Carey received during his brief appearance at the convention.

As one Teamster staffer put it, “Like it or not, the real world is about people not programs.”

But behind the applause and the words unspoken, lay at least some, more critical eyes. One activist summed her feelings up with this story: “While we were applauding for Carey, I saw a reporter roll his eyes and shake his head as if to say, `Can you believe this?’ I wanted to tell him, `You just don’t get it. This is a tribute to a man for everything’s he done for us. It isn’t mass denial.'”

Why TDU Matters

During Carey’s tenure, many on the left argued that TDU was too uncritical of the Teamster leader, that TDU members were being encouraged to see electoralism and elected leaders, as opposed to rank-and-file mobilization, as the key to strengthening the labor movement.

If anything, this year’s convention showed the opposite is true. Activists flocked to the convention, the largest in TDU’s history, not to close up shop because their leader had fallen, but to prepare for the grassroots battles ahead.

They understood that their movement would have to continue without Carey, and they prepared to make that happen.  As one activist said to applause, “They can’t disqualify the members.  Let’s go out and mobilize for the best freight contract ever.”

TDU members understand that unionism is about a movement, not a man. Behind the convention’s genuine emotional outpouring for Carey lay a healthy dose of political realism.  While in the sessions, activists clapped for Carey and circled the wagons, in the corridors the questions being asked in all corners were, “Well, where do we go from here?” and “Who do we back now?”

The answers remain to be sorted out. Four members of Carey’s executive board have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates.  The closest to TDU is Leedham, a strong advocate of the organizing model of unionism based on shop-floor, rank-and-file organizing networks (what Leedham calls member-to-member organizing).

Another leading candidate is Hall, a quiet leader whose name recognition grew during the UPS strike.  A less likely choice is the cautious Richard Nelson, the current Freight Director.

Amid the jockeying, George Cashman, an ambitious leader in the right-wing of the Carey camp, has seen his star fade.

Cashman, who began jockeying to be top-dog in the 2001 Teamster race before the 1996 votes were even tallied, was the only one of the four would-be candidates who did not attend the TDU convention.  His ambitions suffered for it when TDU’s status was ballooned into that of reform king-maker by the media in the midst of the apparent power vacuum in the union’s reform wing.

The convention’s decision to go on record as opposing the formation of a “so-called reconciliation slate” of Carey and Hoffa forces was an arrow aimed at Cashman’s political heart.

In this strange election, not even the opponent is clear.  James Hoffa Jr. is the front-runner as long as he remains eligible to run, but he too faces an investigation of his campaign finances.

Among other questions dogging Junior: why did a made-member of the Chicago mob boast publicly that he was a Hoffa fundraiser?  How much money did the Mafia raise for Hoffa?  And how did thousands of dollars in Teamster pension money from an Old Guard local get routed through the Cayman Islands and back into the hands of a stockbroker who is a member of Local 337, a Detroit-based Hoffa-allied local?

(One also wonders why a stockbroker is a member of a Teamsters local, but that’s a tale for another time.)  It will likely take months to sort through all this debris, and, in the end, Hoffa may or may not be left standing.

The Fight Ahead

However the candidates shake out, one thing is certain.  The reform slate will of necessity return to the 1991 low-budget, grassroots version of campaigning.  And thank goodness.

Carey’s decision to hire crooked, Democratic Party-linked consultants for his `96 campaign was “a monumental blunder,” in the words of TDU National Organizer Ken Paff. “It was the opposite of rank and file power .  .  .  It was about finding some kind of short cut .  .  .  and it led to the tragedy of last Monday [Carey’s disqualification.]”

Old Guard union thugs can afford transgressions far worse than misusing union cash to fund their campaigns, but the Carey experience shows that reformers who take on corporate America had better keep their house cleaner than clean and rely solely on the ranks.  Any mistake they make will be used to trip them up.

What becomes of TDU in the post-Carey Teamsters?  An independent group, TDU’s fate has for years been tied to Carey’s and vice versa.

Beginning in 1976, TDU’s rank-and-file organizing and struggle for reform paved the way to the first one-member one-vote election in Teamster history.  Knowing that its base was too narrow for a TDU candidate to win a national election, TDU teamed up with the dynamic, independent Carey in 1989.

It was the combination of TDU’s nationwide network of experienced activists and Carey’s charismatic dynamism that toppled the Old Guard in 1991.  Since then, TDU has functioned as both a key Carey ally and as an autonomous organization, working as the left-wing inside the Carey camp and as an independent force from below for reform.

The relationship has been mutually beneficial, with Carey depending on TDU for his core activist base, and TDU benefiting from the space opened up in the union for activism from below.  TDU has gone from leading “Vote No” campaigns around national contracts, to mobilizing the ranks to push the envelope in the contract campaigns organized by the International.

At the local level, TDUers have toppled old guard officials in dozens of local unions since 1991, including, most recently, in the 10,000-member Northwest Airlines flight attendants Local 2000 where Billie Davenport, an African-American woman heading a TDU slate, ousted a key Hoffa ally in taking over the nationwide local.

In the wake of the coming election, that space will likely grow or shrink.  The election of Leedham or Hall could mean a turn toward greater organizing-from-below.  A victory by a more conservative member of Carey’s slate or an old guard candidate could mean a slowdown in Teamster reform, the return to business unionism, or worse.

The competition for the Teamsters presidency is not, in the end, a contest of individuals but of competing visions of union power.  The Hoffa approach is power via celebrity.  TDU’s approach, rank-and-file power, is a more difficult sell, but one made easier by the example of UPS. It says that leaders build power by organizing and unleashing the power of the members.

This is a strategy that, in his best moments like the UPS strike, Carey pursued with vigor; but one that he jettisoned in his lesser moments, as in his assignment of business unionists to manage local union trusteeships or in his top-down `96 campaign.  [See “New Teamsters 2, Old Guard 0,” ATC 67, March/ April 1997.]

The task now faced by TDU is its greatest yet: to reach out to the Teamster rank-and-file and to win them to “rank-and-file power” in the face of a resurgent right-wing, to mobilize to win the upcoming election, and—win or lose—to expand and consolidate its activist base for the challenges of the post-election Teamsters.

A recurring theme of TDU Organizer Paff’s speeches at TDU conventions through the years has been TDU members’ role in making history.  This theme was echoed by Ron Carey in his Saturday night convention speech, when he said, “One man, that’s a lot of bunk. Look at the victories we’ve won. We did it together.  It wasn’t one man.”

Now in uncharted waters, fraught with peril, TDU seeks to convince enough members that “rank-and-file power” beats “one-man-bunk” to keep the dream of Teamster reform alive.

Henry Phillips is an activist in the Teamster reform movement and a member of Solidarity.

ATC 73, March-April 1998