Wednesday, November 19, 1997


Reform Is Bigger Than One Man

Carey's legacy is that there are other able leaders ready to fight for workers. Hoffa is not one of them.


"The reform movement in the Teamsters does not depend on one man," the union’s president, Ron Carey, said Monday. "This union has been changed forever and the members will never go back to the corruption and weakness of the past."

Of course labor’s enemies will revel in the supposed irony of the circumstances in which Carey made this statement, in the wake of former federal Judge Kenneth Conboy’s decision to disqualify Carey from running for reelection on the grounds that he used sanctioned the use of more than $800,000 in Teamster funds in his race against James Hoffa Jr. last year. But what Carey said was true, and whatever his own future may hold, Carey has been a vital part of the reform.

A sense of proportion is necessary. Conboy terms Carey's conduct "classic self-dealing." In a desperate race against Hoffa--who had announced he would spend "what it takes," which came to be about $4 million--Carey exposed himself and his victory to the federal inquiries that culminated in Conboy’s verdict.

Yet no one has accused Carey of looting the union treasury to squirrel away a personal fortune, far less of having his opponents beaten and murdered. Such was the regular currency of the Teamster leadership before he and the reformers arrived in the early 1990s. In the 1980s, there were no less than 20 Teamster-related killings.

We may agree that the election should be rerun, but the decision of a retired federal judge to rule that 1.4 million Teamsters have lost their right to vote for the candidate of their choice is outrageous and wrong. Even Conboy noted the tension between the democratic rights of union members and the government’s control, as trustee, of the Teamsters.

The prime imperative of election rules is that the will of the electorate prevails, and Conboy lost track of this central point. Who can doubt that, in the wake of the successful strike against United Parcel Service, Carey would have swept to victory over Hoffa? Just who is being protected by the rules invoked by Conboy? Teamster members? Or are they protecting the trucking companies from Teamster power?

This is no idle question. Next spring, the Teamsters will be negotiating with these same companies the master freight contract, affecting more than 100,000 Teamster truck drivers. There can be little doubt that the trucking companies and their allies in Congress are celebrating over Conboy’s decision.

Indeed labor’s foes everywhere surely see this as a happy hour. Over the past few months, Teamsters secured their great victory over UPS, and John Sweeney’s AFL-CIO was a powerful force in the defeat last week of President Clinton’s bid to get fast-track negotiating power on trade agreements.

The great fear of business, ably voiced for the corporate leaders by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, is that an invigorated labor movement will start to break the de facto wage freeze that underlies the present economic "boom." The master freight agreement will offer just such an opportunity.

It’s hard to believe that Hoffa would be an effective and militant leader of the Teamsters in a battle against the truck owners or against such legislation as fast-track, given his more management-friendly outlook. Nor is it realistic to suppose that Carey’s presidency can long survive Conboy’s decision. The best that Teamster reformers can hope for now is that Hoffa will also be disqualified.

This brings us back to Carey’s own words. Indeed, the reform movement in the Teamsters does not depend on one man. Behind Carey has been the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, begun by rank and filers in Cleveland in 1976. TDU got ordinary workers involved and turned them into extraordinary leaders.

The drivers and loaders in the group became the shop-floor leaders and linked up nationally in an effective network. As organizer Ken Paff said recently,"We reached out to support Carey and to turn out the old guard, while retaining a grass-roots movement as a model, as a leadership school and as a watchdog to prevent backsliding."

This coming weekend in Cleveland, Teamsters for a Democratic Union is holding its convention. It will have the opportunity to demonstrate its vitality. There are excellent Teamster leaders out there with the qualifications to lead the national organization. In Oregon, there’s Tom Leedham; in West Virginia, Ken Hall, a negotiator in the UPS strike.

"Reform" is not a matter of fulfilling the demands of the Justice Department. It’s about building a militant union, acting for its working people. That’s Ron Carey’s vital legacy, of which he should be forever proud.

- - -

Alexander Cockburn Writes for the Nation and Other Publications

Copyright Los Angeles Times

Return to

All original work Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.