Teamsters approach referendum on reform
by Jim Cullen, Editor
Continuing reform of the Teamsters is at stake in November as the rank and
file of the nation's largest union vote whether to keep Ron Carey as president
or return to the scandal-ridden past.
James P. Hoffa Jr., the son of the late Teamsters leader who was notorious
for heavy-handed control of the union as well as his ties to organized crime,
is challenging Carey. Hoffa, a 55-year-old lawyer, has never worked as a
Teamster except for summer jobs as a youth, but he has the considerable
support of the "old guard" that Carey has been trying to clear
out of Teamster offices.
After a federal investigation led to racketeering charges against Teamster
officials in the 1980s, Carey, a former leader of a Long Island, N.Y., local
of UPS workers, won a government-supervised election in 1991 - the union's
first direct ballot by members.
Upon taking office, Carey, who was helped by the grassroots support of the
Teamsters for a Democratic Union, was saddled with an old guard of union
officials who undermined his authority at every opportunity and immediate
budget problems that were exacerbated by a quadrupling of strike benefits
by the 1991 convention. After members rejected a dues increase in 1994,
he suspended the strike benefits and cut expenses, including perks for union
officers and the costly regional conferences that were a stronghold of the
The union's budget has been balanced, some of the old guard have been removed
from union jobs, and pre-1991 strike benefits recently were restored but
Hoffa and his supporters have focused much of their attack on the union's
financial troubles under Carey. But Carey has revived the organizing department,
which has reversed a 16-year membership decline, developed grassroots and
educational programs, followed through with anti-corruption efforts and
achieved "some of the best contracts our members have ever worked under"
as evidence of a track record of fighting "to put our members first,"
the AFL-CIO News reported.
The Teamsters under Carey also has become one of the more progressive unions.
It has reached out to neglected groups such as Latinos and women and Carey
was a key supporter of John Sweeney's insurgent campaign for AFL-CIO president
in 1995. In politics, the union that was largely identified with the Republican
Party in recent elections is showing a renewed interest in workers' rights.
A poll of rank-and-file Teamsters by Peter D. Hart Research Associates indicates
that members prefer Bill Clinton over Bob Dole 58-30 percent, and 65% approve
of Clinton's performance. However, the convention declined to endorse a
specific candidate for the White House, indicating instead that local unions
will promote voter registration and education.
"We don't tell our members how to vote," Carey was quoted in the
AFL-CIO News. "We provide them with the facts, and they will make up
their own minds. On the major economic issues facing working families, it's
clear that most of our members believe that the Clinton-Gore ticket is a
better choice than Bob Dole."
Hoffa supporters at the Teamsters convention at Philadelphia in mid-July
held up action on a number of proposals affecting electoral procedures,
area conferences, officer compensation and the union's strike fund, in what
Carey supporters claimed was an attempt to further undermine Carey. After
repeated outbursts disrupted the convention, Carey put off action until
a special convention after the election. "That's the only way we can
complete our business, to take it out of politics and have an orderly convention,"
Hoffa outpolled Carey 55 to 45 percent at the convention but Carey is believed
to have more strength among the rank and file. As David Moberg wrote in
the Aug. 19 In These Times, "The vote in November will determine whether
the Teamsters go forward with the reform efforts or revert to old habits.
Although Hoffa has tried to shed the old-guard image, he can't hide his
checkered record, including his past business ties with the slain Teamster
Mobster Allen Dorfman and his legal work for Teamster officials found guilty
of corruption and possible Mob ties in the Chicago local union of Hoffa's
secretary-treasurer candidate, Bill Hogan Jr., which [has knocked] him off
Still, the election is expected to be close as Hoffa benefits from rank-and-file
discontent, nostalgia for the days when the Teamsters could shut down the
regulated trucking industry, and the old guard that is seeking a return
of power and perks. "If Hoffa pulls off an upset win," Moberg
concluded, "Carey will not be the only loser."
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