Carey’s Problems Are Not the Teamsters’

Nelson Lichtenstein, a historian at the University of Virginia, is the author of "The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit: Walter Reuther and the Fate of American Labor."

Is there something about U.S. trade union leaders that makes them either crooks or knaves?

During the 1970s and ‘80s, five Teamster presidents were thrown into jail or barred from running for the top post in the country’s most powerful labor organization. Jimmy Hoffa was murdered by his erstwhile friends in the mob when he sought a return to power in the union.

Now Barbara Zack Quindel, the court-appointed election officer overseeing the reform of the Teamsters, is expecting new evidence that might lead her to disqualify President Ron Carey in this year’s election rematch with James P. Hoffa Jr. Some Carey campaign workers and consultants broke the rules last year. Speculation is that Carey knew about the illegal financial schemes.

Does this bizarre development confirm what so many Americans believe: Union officials, in general, and Teamsters, in particular, are a set of incorrigible “labor bosses” who can’t help but stick their hands in the till and put their membership out on a needless strike?


This is certainly a venerable idea, around since the great labor wars at the turn of the century and renewed each time the union movement has shown some muscle. But it’s largely myth, though a useful one, especially to those who think American workers would be happy with their lot if not led astray by power-hungry leaders or radicals.

Fortunately, Carey does not fit this bill. He has been a steadfast opponent of the corrupt and complacent Teamster old guard throughout his union career. He fought his way to the union presidency in the early 1990s as a genuine reformer. Carey got into trouble, not because he was on the take but because, in last year’s desperate campaign against Hoffa, he put too much money and faith in the hands of the media specialists and campaign consultants who have played such a corrupting role in other elections.

But the main thing to know about the Teamsters is not Carey’s personal honesty or even his skillful leadership of the union’s recent strike against United Parcel Service. Of far greater importance is the insurgent rank-and-file movement now transforming the union into one of the nation’s most progressive organizations. Led by the Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), thousands of activists have labored to defeat the regional barons who have long dominated the union’s many autonomous locals and replaced them with genuine democrats and militant unionists.

The Teamster insurgents backed Carey in his two campaigns for the union presidency. But their real impact has come on the loading docks, in the packing sheds and in offices. It’s a social movement that depends on no top leader, but it is revitalizing the Teamsters and, along the way, transforming much of the labor movement itself.

The reform story in two West Coast locals demonstrates both the difficulty of the battle and the dramatic changes that can take place when the rank and file win a voice in their own union. Five years ago, Teamster locals in Seattle were dominated by Arnie Weinmeister, who pulled down more than $500,000 a year from multiple salaries and pensions. Weinmeister was a friend of the Seattle cartage companies, so Local 174, which represented 6,000 sanitation workers and truck drivers, did little to involve the membership or organize new Teamsters.

His rule collapsed when Teamster insurgents, allied with Carey, took over the local in 1992. They ended the multiple-salary scam, doubled the number of Teamsters who turned out for meetings and began to put real money into “organizing the unorganized.”

Even more dramatic has been the transformation of the Watsonville, Calif., Teamsters local, which represents food-processing workers. For 30 years, the largely Latino membership was headed by Richard King, another friend of employers who never bothered to learn Spanish. A long, bitter strike in the 1980s energized a rank-and-file opposition, which won leadership of the local a few years later. Latinos now dominate the union executive board and the membership backs Carey by a solid majority.

TDU activist Joe Fahey, president of Watsonville Local 912, says that with Carey’s people running Teamster headquarters in Washington, the union has adopted many of the strategic efforts--such as multilingual organizing effort--pioneered by radical locals such as his. Indeed, the stunning success of the UPS strike was not a product of clever Carey sound-bites, but of a nationwide membership mobilization modeled on the decade-long work of insurgents like Fahey.


Under the Carey regime, dozens of corrupt officials have been purged from union office. Hundreds drawing multiple salaries have had their paychecks slashed, saving membership millions.

To realize what is at stake here, you only have to let Hoffa speak for himself. “You want a union with a lot of money in the bank and a strong leader. That’s what gets an employer’s attention,” he declared recently, as he geared up for another bid for the union presidency.

But Hoffa stood on the sidelines during the UPS strike, and he remains allied with the most retrograde elements within the Teamsters. He is supported, often quite vocally, by right-wing Republicans and trucking industry employers. For the rank and file, Hoffa’s authoritarianism is a recipe for disaster.

If the government bars Carey and his slate from office in a new Teamster election, the union’s reform movement will face yet another obstacle. A new set of leaders and a fresh set of voices must be found. But the sea change that has taken place in both the Teamsters and many other labor organizations is genuine: Its promise of a democratic renewal offers no ground for either cynicism or disdain.