Dec. 3, 1997
The fall of Teamsters President Ron
Carey doesn't prove that it's impossible to clean up Big Labor.
Instead, his undoing shows that the rank and file need to exercise
Carey was charged last week by the government's Independent Review Board with using union funds for his re-election campaign -in effect, stealing members' money.
Carey's disgrace is a tragedy, the
fall of a good but flawed man. His mistake, the mistake that brought
him down, was not to put his faith in the rank and file.
Since the beginning of his union career
as a New York City local president in 1967, Carey was a feisty
and squeaky-clean opponent of overbearing managers and corrupt
union officials alike. He did not hesitate to lead local strikes
when necessary, and he expected fellow officials to toe the line.
By any measure, Teamster truck drivers,
warehouse workers, cannery operatives, and flight attendants belong
to a better union today than they did when Carey took the Teamsters'
top job six years ago.
Besides directing the spectacular
win at United Parcel Service this summer, which
created thousands of new full-time jobs, Carey oversaw the removal
of dozens of corrupt officials, some mob-connected; slashed bloated
salaries; reorganized headquarters to improve communication with
members; and sent out hundreds of rank and file volunteers to
recruit non-union workers.
But Carey did not accomplish the Teamsters' victories by himself.
He won office with the support of a remarkable national rank-and-file reform caucus called Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which had agitated for years for member rights and a firmer stance vis a vis employers, winning, eventually, the right to vote for top officers.
This network of shop floor rabble-rousers declined to fold its tents when Carey took office, but instead kept its organization alive and growing all through the Carey years, pushing here and prodding there. It was TDU's mobilization plan that Carey adopted for the battle with UPS, and the Teamster rank and file's solidarity that won that strike.
Unlike TDU members, Carey made the mistake of believing in the great man theory of history, rather than understanding that people make their own history.
He never joined TDU, because he just didn't understand its notion of bottom-up rank-and-file control. He was uncomfortable with the existence of another power base in the union, and he kept TDUers at arm's length by appointing other, more conservative types to important positions in the union hierarchy.
The ultimate lack of faith in the ranks was Carey's decision to bring in slick consultants with no union background to run his 1996 re-election operation. His 1991 campaign, in contrast, had run on a shoestring and relied on member-to-member campaigning.
The consultants' inside-the-Beltway-type functioning was the opposite of TDU's rank-and-file approach. Their arrogance led to the scheme to steal members' dues money for the campaign's expensive mailings, and to thinking that they could get away with it even though the union was under government supervision.
The downfall of Ron Carey provides a lesson for all union reformers--and there are many of them, in many unions besides the Teamsters. That lesson is: don't count on leaders who don't count on you.