Since he assumed the presidency of the Teamsters union six weeks ago, Ron Carey, a dissident Teamster from New York, has systematically been trying to erase the union's image as a slothful royalist empire.
He has sold the union's two private jets, reduced his annual salary to $175,000 from $225,000, created an ethics committee and begun hiring consultants to revitalize the 1.5 million-member union, whose membership has fallen by a third in the last decade.
On Friday, Carey took his revitalization campaign to Los Angeles. In sharp contrast to the insular style of past Teamster presidents, he spent an hour with rank-and-file members on a downtown Olympic Boulevard sidewalk, kicking off a public-relations campaign to pressure the nation's car-hauling companies into a better labor contract.
About 16,000 Teamster truck drivers who transport automobiles have been working without a new contract since their old one expired last May. An offer by the car-haul companies was rejected by 74% of workers last December.
As a union dissident running a Teamster local in Long Island, Carey complained for years that Teamster executives in Washington would not bargain aggressively or creatively in national labor negotiations.
So on Friday, in what he characterized as a new era of strategic innovation, Carey announced that the union will begin attacking the largest car-hauler, Miami-based Ryder Systems Inc., by encouraging consumers to stop renting Ryder trucks.
In labor circles this indirect pressure tactic is known as a "corporate campaign." It is a tool that carries none of the peril of strikes. While the technique is routinely employed by many progressive unions, the Teamsters have never attempted a corporate campaign on a national level.
Carey said Teamsters will distribute flyers to Ryder rental customers throughout the nation, claiming that Ryder Systems "creates hardship and suffering" because some Ryder drivers work for Ryder subsidiaries that pay far lower wages.
Teamsters want their contact to cover these drivers, or to at least force Ryder to stop shifting work from Teamster drivers to non-Teamster subsidiaries, Carey said.
A Ryder executive in Miami, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said "only a couple of small operations" within Ryder's automotive carrier division are not covered by the Teamster contract.
Ryder made a profit of $66 million--a 20% drop from 1990--on revenue of $5.1 billion last year.
Ron Carver, a veteran labor consultant hired last week by Carey to coordinate Teamster corporate campaigns, said obtaining a favorable car-haul contract is Carey's "first big challenge to succeed where his predecessors failed."
Unions have to find ways to take their cases to the public because they have lost much of their power to directly confront corporations, Carver said.
If the idea of the Teamster campaign was to get attention, it at least worked Friday in the case of Carmen Williams, the owner of M.P.G. Car, Van & Truck Rental at Figueroa Street and Olympic Boulevard, where scores of Teamster members and two members of the union's international executive board joined Carey.
Williams was unable to rent to customers because the Teamsters were blocking the driveway. She immediately called Ryder offices to complain, protesting that it was unfair to target her because her business merely rents Ryder trucks and is not a franchise.
"I have nothing to do with Ryder," she said angrily. "These guys (Teamsters) have no gripe with us."
Carey came to Los Angeles after spending Thursday in Bakersfield encouraging 300 workers to vote for union representation at a food plant.
He was elected president after a two-year grass-roots campaign engineered by a national group of dissidents, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which had spent 15 years protesting corruption and lack of accountability.
The victory was made possible by a 1989 settlement of a Justice Department racketeering suit against the union. Leaders agreed to allow the federal government to oversee the first rank-and-file presidential election in the union's history.
Although virtually all Teamster officials supported one of two establishment candidates for president, Carey and 15 executive-board candidates loyal to his reform slate were easily elected in December. Several Los Angeles Teamster executives who campaigned bitterly against Carey joined him at Friday's rally.