COLUMN ONE : Teamsters Discover the Ballot : The union best known for corruption is getting a taste of democracy. It is the most public look yet inside the politics of organized labor.


Liberals regularly gather in the living room of economist and publisher Stanley Sheinbaum's Brentwood home to raise money for "progressive" causes.

So why on Earth was the guest of honor on a recent Saturday night the first announced candidate for the presidency of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters?

This is, after all, the union that endorsed Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. This is the union that has seen three of its international presidents jailed on federal charges since the 1950s and had a fourth die under indictment. This is the union whose relationship with organized crime was called "a great American scandal" by the Justice Department two years ago. This is the union that pays 150 of its top officials more than $100,000 a year.

This is the union that Ron Carey--by all accounts one of the most humble and squeaky-clean labor leaders in the United States--wants to run and reform.

The fact that Carey, 54, the longtime head of a Teamster parcel-drivers local in New York, would be welcomed to Sheinbaum's home is indicative of the unusual support he is enlisting in an unprecedented rank-and-file campaign to become international president of the 1.6 million-member Teamsters union, the nation's largest trade union.

Carey's long-odds effort became plausible only after the Teamster leadership agreed last year to place the union under federal supervision to settle a government racketeering lawsuit.

The special federal rules, which include the first direct election of a Teamster president in the union's history in 1991, have created the most public exhibition of union politics in the history of organized labor.

In addition to Carey's campaign, loud disagreements have already broken out between 71-year-old Teamster President William McCarthy and his top lieutenants, one or more of whom may also challenge McCarthy next year.

"It's like watching a Byzantine empire cracking open," said a California labor lawyer who represents several Teamster locals and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

"It's a little like watching the inside of a corporation, and it's a little bit like what's going on in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R.," he said. "You've had this archaic, frozen system in place for 50 years, where a little group of power brokers at the top wheel and deal and run the joint, and now nobody knows what's going to happen. The more people know about this (government-supervised) process, the less they're willing to predict anything."

The supervised election "provides the union's membership with their first real opportunity to clean up their union for themselves," said Michael Goldberg, a Delaware law professor who recently completed a study of union reform lawsuits.

As Carey's campaign moves into its second year, the contrast between the union's do-as-we-please history and his outspoken criticism is bringing him national media attention as a rare breed of labor spokesman: articulate enough to make a case for organized labor to the public at large, rooted solidly enough in working-class culture to maintain credibility with his members.

"I'm proud of being a Teamster," says Carey, an ex-Marine and son of a Teamster, who earns $45,000 a year as president of Local 804 in Long Island. "And yet I hide from it. If my wife and I are in a social situation, I refrain from talking about it because I know what follows: 'What about the Mafia?' The first thing that comes out of people is: 'Teamster: mobster. Out for themselves.' And that's true."

Traditionally, the Teamsters have chosen their president and 16 vice presidents at a convention of handpicked delegates.

Now, however, the rules governing the union say those delegates have to be elected by members of each local, and that the national candidates those delegates nominate at the June, 1991, convention must compete in a secret-ballot membership election late next year.

How this will play is anybody's guess.

Direct national union elections are rare in the first place. Among major unions, only the United Mine Workers and the United Steelworkers of America use them. In the case of the Teamsters, unknowns range from the level of membership interest to the question of whether Carey, whose name recognition among the membership is still extremely low, can raise the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to send campaign mail to the home of each Teamster.

The new rules stem from a Justice Department lawsuit in 1988 that charged the union's 18-member executive board with depriving its membership of their right to a democratically run union and honestly negotiated contracts through a pattern of racketeering--including a "campaign of fear," 20 murders, a number of shootings, bombings and beatings.

Convictions could have led to a court order stripping union leaders of their jobs and pension benefits. To avert that, the union's executive board last year agreed to allow a three-member, court-appointed panel to oversee the organization's affairs. In return the government withdrew its suit.

A flurry of activity--significantly more than Teamster leaders expected when they settled the suit--followed:

--Charles Carberry, a former federal prosecutor who acts as investigations officer under the government oversight program, has moved to expel more than 20 national and local Teamster leaders from the union on grounds of misconduct, most of it stemming from associations with organized crime bosses. In moving to expel union leaders, Carberry can cite any abuse of the union's own constitution and bylaws, such as misuse of union funds or kickbacks from employers.

--U.S. District Judge David Edelstein of New York, who approved the federal oversight agreement, this summer strengthened the original rules governing next year's election. In response to complaints from Teamster dissidents, Edelstein ruled that elections of convention delegates in each of the 650 Teamster locals must be overseen by federal monitors rather than union officials.

--Coincidentally, within some Teamster locals, a decade of efforts by the prime group of dissidents, the 10,000-member Teamsters for a Democratic Union, has begun to pay off. In elections of local presidents from San Diego to New Jersey, reformers have defeated half a dozen incumbent local officers.

Carey is not a member of TDU, but he was quickly adopted by the organization, which has provided a base of operations. Early this year Carey hired as his campaign manager longtime United Mine Workers staff member Ed Burke, a veteran of a rank-and-file reform movement within the coal union in the early 1970s.

The new rules say that to run for Teamster president, a candidate must be "certified" by gathering 38,000 members' signatures on petitions. Carey's campaign recruited hundreds of petition coordinators and obtained nearly 60,000 signatures in 38 states, becoming the first--and so far the only--certified campaign.

The timing was critical. Certification assured Carey of campaign advertising space in the October and February issues of the Teamster magazine that is sent to all members, and which in this month's edition carried more government-mandated pages about litigation surrounding the new rules than Teamster-generated pages about day-to-day union affairs.

"That was a very impressive petition drive. That in itself is a mass movement," said Eric Mann, a former auto worker and now director of a Van Nuys-based labor think tank who was among the guests who heard Carey speak in Brentwood.

To be nominated as a candidate on the national ballot, Carey needs the support of 98 of the 1,957 delegates to the Teamster convention. "I sleep with those numbers," campaign manager Burke says.

Carey is likely to get that far. How many votes he would receive from Teamster members in the actual rank-and-file election would depend on how well Carey could sell the notion of drastic change.

Michael J. Riley, president of Teamster Joint Council 42, which covers 165,000 Southland Teamsters, said he thought there would be few new convention delegates elected as a result of Carey's campaign.

Riley said he regards Carey as lacking the experience to direct a union as diverse as the Teamsters, which includes industries from construction to airlines to freight to food.

"At meetings he has been in here in Southern California, members have questioned him on issues and he was not knowledgeable," Riley said.

Carey, a short, intense, sad-eyed man, became a Teamster 35 years ago when he went to work as a driver for United Parcel Service. He has headed 7,000-member Local 804, the biggest UPS local in the Teamsters, for the last 23 years and has been highly critical of the national union leadership for approving what he calls concessionary contracts. Three years ago, Carey was among a number of Teamster dissidents who were so upset by the national UPS contract negotiated by the Teamsters that they successfully campaigned for rank-and-file rejection. Carey's supporters boast of his modest lifestyle, noting he has lived in the same house for 30 years and makes less than the chef who works at Teamster headquarters in Washington. Members of his local have provided most of the $150,000 that has so far funded his campaign.

Carey usually speaks only in general terms about what he would do as Teamster president. He would, he says, improve pensions, bargain more aggressively with employers, fire officials he found lacking integrity and eliminate the multiple-salary policy that allows executives of the union to draw paychecks for each of the positions they hold. It is not unusual for a Teamster leader to draw salaries from the international office, a regional office and his local.

"What we have today is corporate unionism," Carey told his audience in Sheinbaum's house, alluding to persistent criticisms from Teamster dissidents that the leadership is detached from the rank and file. "We have to get back to having a union that's a union . . . they (Teamster leaders) have nothing in common with working people . . . we've got to get the bums out."

Teamster leaders, having battled these accusations for generations, dismiss them as applicable only in a handful of unfortunate cases. McCarthy himself rarely grants interviews. He wrote in the Teamster magazine earlier this year that he had "consistently opposed any settlement (of the government's corruption case), maintaining from the outset that the government's entire case was groundless and politically motivated to embarrass the Teamsters."

Carey attempts to juggle his duties in Long Island with campaign efforts like his recent trip to California. A few days before his appearance at Sheinbaum's home, he flew from San Diego to Los Angeles, slept three hours and awoke at 2 in the morning. In a van driven by Steve MacDonald, a Teamster from a small town outside Sacramento who had taken a week's vacation to help the campaign, Carey and a few other supporters headed to Barstow to make the rounds of freight company employees on their break.

By the middle of the afternoon, in 92-degree heat, Carey was standing in the parking lot of an Alpha Beta warehouse in La Habra, flagging down delivery drivers, trying to introduce himself.

"They don't know what the (election) process is, or how I fit into the picture," he acknowledged.

Mike Moya, an Alpha Beta driver, stopped his rig. He and Carey chatted.

"We've got to change it (the union leadership), Mike," Carey said urgently. "It's going down the tubes."

Moya had heard of Carey and was glad to add his address to the list of about 8,000 Teamsters who now receive Carey mailings.

"I think we need a lot of help," Moya said after Carey had walked away. "Changes in the pension plan, corruption. I'd like to get involved."

Does Carey have a chance?

"I feel he has a chance," Moya said. "If the election's on the up and up."

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