Teamsters President Ron Carey, already battered by criticism from rivals inside the union, is coming under further pressure due to frustrations over a tentative four-year contract his negotiators crafted this week with major trucking companies.
For Carey, the growing difficulties could undermine what had been his rising influence in the labor movement. Likewise, his union, which has lost half a million members since the late 1970s, could see its power dwindle even further.
Since winning the presidency of the Teamsters in 1991 on a pledge to clean up the corruption-plagued union, the 58-year-old Carey has styled himself as a strong new voice for the downtrodden American worker.
Along with restoring his union’s ties to the Democratic Party, Carey has used his role as the head of the nation’s second-largest and most diverse union as a pulpit. He emerged as one of the labor movement’s major voices for such causes as legislation barring the permanent replacement of striking workers and, in an unsuccessful lobbying effort, against the North American Freed Trade Agreement.
On Friday, Carey portrayed the newly negotiated freight contract as having far-reaching consequences. “We drew the line--not just for Teamster members, but for all American workers,” he said. “We said to the companies, ‘You’re not going to destroy more full-time jobs in this country.’ And we made that stick.”
Carey’s vocal opponents in the union signaled, however, that he will face a firestorm of criticism over the proposed contract agreed to Thursday night by Teamsters and trucking company negotiators.
More than 400 delegates from union locals nationwide voted Friday to suspend the 3 1/2-week trucking strike as of 11 p.m. Friday, clearing the way for more than 70,000 drivers and dockworkers to return to their jobs.
But in a snub of Carey’s leadership, the local delegates refused to endorse the contract, instead simply passing it along for a membership vote without taking an official position on whether it should be approved.
While critics accused Carey and his negotiators of caving in to management, he attributed the uproar to “political games” by his opponents and declared the contract a major victory.
Carey boasted that the agreement would prevent companies from replacing full-time workers with a new category of lower-paid part-timers. But observers noted that the pact would allow greater use of another type of contingent employee paid less than the standard Teamsters wage of $17 an hour.
Those employees, known as “casual workers,” are brought in intermittently by employers to help out on loading docks and work anywhere from four to eight hours a day.
The casual workers’ pay, at $14.45 an hour, is far higher than the $8 to $10 an hour that was proposed by management for the part-timers, and many casual workers receive benefits. Still, “the distinction between a casual worker and a part-time worker escapes me,” said Matthew Tallmer, editor of the Washington-based newsletter Labor Trends.
“Carey may face serious, serious problems within the union because of this contract,” Tallmer added.
“They went out on strike primarily on the issue of part-timers, and they might try to sell this contact on the basis of not giving in on the part-timers, but the distinction between part-timers and casuals is semantic,” he said.
“This is not a victory,” said Chuck Mack, president of the Teamsters Joint Council for the San Francisco Bay Area. “This is a concessionary agreement with a lot of pain associated with it.”
Still, Mack said, members are likely to approve the pact because they are worried that if it is defeated, the union’s negotiators “could come back with something worse.”
Critics also faulted Carey’s negotiators for giving up the right to strike over grievances and for allowing more freight to be shipped by rail.
Even Trucking Management Inc., representing most of the 22 companies struck by the Teamsters, acknowledged the unfavorable reaction of “certain local unions.” Still, a TMI news release said that “we know that we negotiated a fair and reasonable agreement, and we are confident that when the employees review it they will ratify it.”
Although Carey won’t have to face a reelection battle anytime soon--his term runs into 1996--he could suffer if his popularity keeps falling. For instance, last month a dues increase he proposed to shore up the union’s nearly depleted strike fund was voted down by more than 90% of the membership.
Meanwhile, Carey has delayed one of his major initiatives: his bid to dismantle the union’s four major regional offices, run by officials tied to the Teamsters’ old-guard leadership and which Carey has branded “fertile grounds for corruption and mob influence.” Three times he has delayed an executive board meeting to decide on the issue, and he suggested it will be put off until the freight contract is officially settled.
Another Carey headache has come from recently published reports raising questions about where, after years as a modestly paid union local official in Queens, New York, he found the money to invest in expensive beachfront property in Florida.
Union in Decline
Teamsters membership has fallen sharply since deregulation of the trucking industry began in 1980, even though the share of U.S. transportation handled by trucking companies has remained relatively stable. The problem for the Teamsters is that nonunion trucking companies have taken market share from the unionized firms.
* Average Teamsters membership, in millions: ’92: 1.48 * Here is a breakdown of various modes of transportation and their usage, expressed in percentage of revenue-ton miles: * 1979 Mode: Usage Water: 34.4% Rail: 25.2 Long-haul trucking: 17 Oil pipeline: 17 Local trucking: 6.3 Air: 0.12 * 1991 Mode: Usage Water: 31.1% Rail: 25.8 Long-haul trucking: 18.8 Oil pipeline: 14.4 Local trucking: 9.7 Air: 0.22 * Note: Local trucking is within a city; long-haul trucking is between cities. Numbers may not add up to 100% because of rounding. * Sources: Dept. of Transportation and International Brotherhood of Teamsters