Rank-and-file reformers in the historically Mafia- and FBI-infested International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) spent 1997 on an intense roller coaster that was both exhilarating and disturbing.
The high point was the successful Teamster strike against United Parcel Service (UPS) in August 1997. It was organised by the new IBT leadership, supported by other unions and a majority of the public, and carried out by a militant rank and file including women and people of colour. And its significance went beyond the material gains won for the Teamster members and the losses suffered by the company. It was a great moral victory for workers – a resounding statement that “Labour is back!”
The low point of this topsy-turvy year, on the other hand, was the government-orchestrated ouster of Teamster reform President Ron Carey for election fundraising violations in November 1997.
The illegal financial machination of Carey’s 1996 re-election staff played right into the hands of government union busters. First, a trio of former Democratic Party consultants and fundraisers working for Carey funnelled IBT dollars to groups supporting President Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Those organisations then kicked back money into Carey’s campaign to finance a last-minute direct mail blitz against his opponent, wealthy labour lawyer James Hoffa Jr.
The dismissal of Carey for mishandling union funds is a serious blow for U.S. workers, because it tarnishes the UPS victory and diverts attention away from the new labour dynamism generated largely by the long-marginalised women, immigrants, and racial and sexual minorities who, together make up the workforce majority. Many unionists and progressives were left asking how Carey, who built his reputation on fighting corruption, could have allowed this to happen.
From the Mafia to Big Brother. Understanding what Carey was up against in trying to reform the Teamsters requires an understanding of the union’s history.
What the Great Depression hit America in 1929, the Teamsters union was part of the conservative American Federation of Labour (AFL). IBT officials were high-paid labour “aristocrats” who ran it like a business designed to enrich themselves and those on their payroll.
Some local union branches, like Minneapolis Local 574, resisted the trend, developing radical leaders who won impressive victories against the bosses during the 1930s. These organisers, many of them members of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP), helped build the Teamsters into one of the largest and most powerful unions in the U.S.
However, they also posed a threat to IBT President Daniel J. Tobin, because they rallied grassroots opposition to his sellout policies. When the U.S. Government accused them of “seditious conspiracy” because of their opposition to World War II, Tobin helped FBI witchhunters jail Local 574 leader Farrell Dobbs and other SWP oppositionists on trumped-up charges.
In the years after WWII, IBT officials were either Mafia-affiliated or used Mafia-inspired goon tactics to keep the membership in line. They were often in bed with the FBI, politicians, management, or all three. As long as they maintained labour peace and put down communists, the government tolerated corruption inside the union. When they couldn’t maintain the passivity of their ranks, however, they became targets of vicious government persecution.
Teamster officials were notorious for making sweetheart deals with the bosses, raiding and scabbing on other unions, and keeping control by rewarding their friends and punishing their enemies. Their strategy against dissenters involved the liberal use of physical threats, violence (including murder), blacklisting, and refusing to fight grievances or firing. By handing out privileges and creating divisions within the union based on skin colour, sex, type of work, etc. they were able to derail organised opposition for many years.
In 1976, courageous rand-and-filers formed Teamsters for a Democratic Union, whose program denounced union corruption, championed internal democracy, and advocated a strong stand against employers. Although socialists were active in TDU, its political platform never went beyond reformist demands. Still, TDU played a decisive role in challenging the bureaucrats’ stranglehold on the union.
After years of fighting against seemingly insurmountable odds in an organisation run by thugs instead of democratic principles, TDU decided to resort to the courts and to cooperate with the FBI and federal prosecutors investigating Teamster corruption. This led in 1989 to the government taking charge of Teamster finances and supervising the first direct election of national IBT officers.
Deserting the ranks and embracing consultants. While a product of the difficulties faced by TDU, the group’s strategy of collaboration had a major flaw. The opportunism and anti-communism of government administrators helped to create the corrupt and bureaucratic Teamster monster; could this same capitalist government really be expected to come in and slay the beast?
In the first court-supervised election in 1991, TDU supported Carey, a non-TDU moderate who was president of the UPS workers’ local in Queens, New York. Carey waged a low-budget, grassroots campaign that relied heavily on TDU activists to mobilise members around a reform program. Fiercely opposed by the IBT bureaucrats, Carey shocked everyone by winning. His election, a major breakthrough for the union reform movement, was greeted with at least cautious optimism by the Left.
When Carey took office in 1992, he had a tiger by the tail. Much of the Teamster apparatus was still in the hands of the “Old Guard,” who were determined to sabotage reform efforts. Carey’s campaign manager, Eddie Burke, advised him to depend less on the left-leaning TDU as his political base. Rather than consolidating and expanding rank-and-file support, Burke’s plan was to bring in consultant Martin Davis (a millionaire political adviser to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore campaign) and fundraiser Michael Ansara (a former Students for a Democratic Society leader and community organiser with business ties to Davis). Later Burke also hired Jere Nash, another Clinton-Gore campaign consultant and a past head of Mississippi Common Cause.
Davis, Ansara and Nash worked together with now-resigned Teamster Political Director William Hamilton (who scuttled IBT endorsement of the new U.S. Labor Party) to shift Carey’s political focus to wheeling and dealing with the Democratic Party, accumulating invitations to the White House, and gaining congressional “access.” They promoted the use of direct mail and consulting services – and then personally ranked in profits of $650,000 between 1992 and 1996 through their consulting companies.
In the meantime, Carey relied increasingly on the government-established Independent Review Board (chaired by former FBI and CIA director William Webster) to place 70 locals into receivership for corruption and to install his supporters into positions. This top-down, government-dependent approach ignored the crucial need to build rank-and-file leadership, while giving Carey’s Old-Guard opponents ammunition against him.
With a weakened mass base as he headed into the 1996 election, Carey turned to more conservative local union officials and their political machines, distancing himself even more from TDU and its reform program in the process. TDU activists often found themselves at odds with local bureaucrats who were now Carey supporters.
Enter Nash, Davis and Ansara with a plan to raise $700,000 for a costly “air war” to save the union from Hoffa Jr. through a direct mailing of 1.7 million pieces – a substitute for a “ground war” that would mobilise rank-and-file support in the field.
However, the money for the mailing could not legally come from the Teamster treasury. Thus Davis devised the now infamous series of illegal “contribution swaps” with the Democratic Party, the liberal advocacy group Citizen Action, and leaders of the AFL-CIO.
Carey, who denies direct knowledge of the misuse of union funds, has taken a leave of absence to fight his disqualification by the government.
Government intervention vs rights of unionists. Carey’s forced departure deprives Teamster members of the president they voted into office and paves the way for Hoffa Jr. and the Old Guard to once again take over the union.
The government’s ejection of Carey is totally hypocritical. Democrats and Republicans who won office with the help of illegal and unethical fundraising scams, from President Clinton on down, are in no danger of having their elections voided!
Now TDU National Organiser Ken Paff is calling for the government to turn its investigative guns on Hoffa Jr. and also disqualify him. But this would only further legitimise government interference into internal union problems and further strip IBT members of decision-making power over union affairs. Without a doubt, the goal of the pro-business Clinton administration is to housebreak the Teamsters and protect the interests of large corporate donors to his party, not to defend the rights of union members.
Deadly alliance with the Democrats. The Carey affair again exposes the Achilles heel of the U.S. labour movement – its class-collaborationists, co-dependent relationship with the Democratic Party. From the passage of NAFTA to the dismantling of the social welfare systems, Clinton and his “New Democrats” have been nothing but bad news for the U.S. workers and the poor. Yet Carey and other labour leaders continue to pour millions of dollars into the Democratic Party and tout it as labour’s political saviour. They encourage the delusional belief that it is still possible to win a better deal for working people under the current, capitalist system – and, conversely, that a revolutionary solution is “impractical.”
These illusions and dysfunctional bonds ensure that the Democratic Party’s escalating attacks of workers’ right will be met with only muted criticism, if any, from the established union movement. And it leaves the AFL-CIO with little to say when Clinton moves in to discredit Carey or other union leaders.
The timing of the government’s unionbusting campaign against the Teamsters is not coincidental. Mass public and union support for the UPS strikers prevented Clinton from intervening on behalf of management to break the strike. Due to similar strong opposition, he also failed to push through Congress the “Fast Track” legislation that would have given him authority to negotiate trade agreements on behalf of big business.
Clinton needs to rehabilitate himself in the eyes of Wall Street. What better way than throw the mighty Teamsters Union into disarray – and what better time than before April 1998, when Master Freight Agreement negotiations could lead to a damaging strike by 120,000 truck drivers?
Corporate barons are also drooling over the prospect that the Carey fiasco will take the wind out of the AFL-CIO’s own reform movement and its efforts to revitalise the union movement. Carey was instrumental in ousting the old AFL-CIO Cold War leadership and replacing it with social democrats like AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, and Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, who have launched a national organising drive focusing on women and workers of colour. All of this is jeopardised if IBT is taken over rightwingers who have a score to settle with AFL-CIO officials who supported Carey.
Change depends on radical leadership. At the November 1997 TDU National Convention, delegates vowed to organise the largest grassroots campaign in union history to elect a reform slate and beat the Old Guard once again. Now TDU’s success depends on the political program of the reform slate. It’s time for TDU to come out of the radical closet and clearly explain the necessity for principled, anti-capitalist union leaders who want to build the Labor Party. And instead of calling for more outside investigations, TDU would help its cause by demanding “Government Out of the Unions,” building public support, and pushing IBT to reach out and organise the unorganised into unions.
If it does this, TDU will find its real friends: not government agents investigating matters and Democratic Party politicians with their hands out, but the low-paid service-sector and agricultural workers who, with their political savvy and desperate need for change, have the awesome potential to get the union movement off the roller coaster and onto the right track heading toward a better future.
Fred Hyde is a member of the Washington Federation of State Employees Local 304. He served for 18 years as a delegate to the King County Labor Council where he has rallied support for abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights, defending the right to free speech and association for radicals and for demonstrations against Nazis.