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 old guard.

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," he said.

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 the slate."

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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