The rise and fall of Teamster reformer Ron Carey, who died December 11, is still a much contested tale. His political demise, a decade ago, was a tragedy for some and a case of hypocrisy punished to others. In the demonology of current Teamster leaders, Carey left the union in financial trouble and personal disgrace, after serving as president from 1992 to 1997. A jury later absolved him of criminal responsibility for the illegal fundraising activities of some of his supporters when he ran for re-election in 1996. Even though these backers enriched themselves without his knowledge or approval, the scandal gave Carey-bashers a damaging propaganda line: “Mr Clean” was a “fraud” and a “crook” himself, no better than any other Teamster bad guy ousted from the union, before or since.
To Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and other members whose votes made him the first directly elected leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), Carey was a genuine hero. In a union where to this day few local officers dare to cast their lot with TDU, the pugnacious ex-Marine and former UPS-driver from Queens was a unique ally in TDU’s singular campaign for democracy and accountability that has spanned four decades. The memory of Carey’s contribution to institutional reform and key contract fights is keen indeed among those who keep hope alive in the IBT; for evidence of that, see the online memorial site that has filled up with postings, from far and wide, since the news of his death to cancer at age 72.
Remembering him now, neither of us is neutral on the question of Ron Carey and whether he was different from those who served before or after him in the IBT’s “Marble Palace” in Washington. We saw Ron in action behind the scenes and in public, during two critical junctures in the union’s modern history. Based on working with or for him, we believe his courageous role will be remembered and honored long after his critics have been forgotten. The first Teamster turning point was in the period from 1989 to 1991. Thanks to years of grassroots organizing by TDU, labor’s most durable reform group, and a court-ordered election of top Teamster officers (part of a federal racketeering case settlement), there was finally an opportunity for members to clean up the most corrupt union in America.
But Teamsters seeking change they could believe in back then needed a candidate to run against the IBT’s still-powerful, well-financed “old guard.” There were not a lot of folks knocking on TDU’s door to apply for the job. Always a brave battler against United Parcel Service in his own NYC Local 804, Carey stepped forward and waged a grueling, two-year, cross-country campaign to rally the rank-and-file in hundreds of Teamster work locations. After he took the plunge, of course, all sorts of experts and insiders in the daily press and labor bureaucracy dismissed him as a loner, a fringe candidate, an inexperienced “outsider” with little backing among “real Teamsters.”
In December of 1991, Carey got 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race, sweeping into office with a near-full slate of dissidents, including some top TDUers. Four years later, his “new Teamsters” cast 1.4 million votes for the “New Voice” slate of current AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, providing the margin of victory in the first contested election at the federation in 100 years.
To his credit, Carey never felt comfortable in his new inside-the-Beltway world (where a sycophantic culture of political hustling and unprincipled “consulting” would, in the end, contribute to his undoing). He liked hanging out with working Teamsters in Queens, not politicians or union officials in Washington. He was a work horse, not a show horse, a hands-on handler of IBT members’ daily problems. His finest hour came in 1997–the other crucial moment in recent Teamster history–when the presence of someone at the top of the union who believed in the power of those at the base made it possible for 185,000 UPS workers to win the biggest nationwide strike in the past quarter-century.
Ron was in his element during UPS national bargaining because he knew the company like the back of his hand. He went to the table with a team of thirty that included, for the first time, rank-and-filers just off the truck and loading dock. On the other side sat an equal number of arrogant “Big Brown” managers and lawyers. He loved jousting with the top brass, but, unlike his tainted predecessors, he was not about bluff and bluster, followed by backing-down.
When UPS wouldn’t drop its demand for contract concessions–despite record profits in 1997–Carey countered with coordinated Teamster rallies around the country. When there was still no progress in the talks, he broke them off and ramped up the union’s carefully planned member mobilization. UPS found itself beset with job actions and negative publicity about its plan to replace even more full-time workers with part-timers, while undermining their defined-benefit pension coverage.
As the contract deadline neared and it was clear that UPS management wouldn’t budge, Carey privately agonized about the enormous cost and disruption of a national walkout for UPS workers and their families. He knew that taking on the company was risky and a favorable outcome far from assured. Strike action by such a relatively well-off group could easily have become the focus of much public resentment, just as auto workers today are being unfairly pilloried for their past gains.
To avert such a backlash, the Teamsters under Carey used direct rank-and-file outreach to friends, neighbors, customers and local communities to turn their struggle into a popular cause. During the two-week strike, Carey himself became a convincing national spokesperson not just for his own members, but for all workers concerned about the “part-timing of America.” But, with each passing day, the pressure on Ron was enormous. Internally, many local union officials–more accustomed to accommodation than agitation–were petrified by the tumult around them. Externally, big business began demanding that the government get a Taft-Hartley injunction to force Teamsters back to work. Top politicians tried to put the arm on Carey with this threat as well, but he brushed them off and soldiered on, until UPS threw in the towel.
The result was a rare strike win, an inspiring victory for all of labor, at a time when workers had little else to cheer about. If only for that reason and his original decision to run, Ron Carey will be long remembered by Teamsters and other labor activists who know that the full potential of unionism–on display so dramatically during the UPS strike–is far from being fulfilled today.