Ron Carey, “Forgotten Teamster” on Trial

by Charles Walker

Former Teamsters President Ron Carey is at long last getting his day in court. The nearly four-year delay ended on Monday, August 29, in a New York federal courtroom where a jury of nine women and three men was selected to sit in judgment of a union leader who once seemed destined to inspire a tide of labor militancy. That was sorely needed after decades of retreat and defeat led by organized labor’s mainstream officialdom.

The government’s case against Carey largely rests on the testimony of once trusted aides, who are looking to trade their “good behavior” on the witness stand for reduced sentences. The one-time Carey aides were earlier separately convicted for their part in an illegal fund-raising scheme that involved Teamster dues monies.

Carey has not been accused of participating in the scheme devised to enrich some of its convicted plotters. But Carey has been charged with lying about his knowledge of what went on. Carey told a grand jury in 1997 that he had never been told about the scheme. If he had heard about it, he testified, “I would have got to the bottom of that and heads would have rolled.” If found guilty, Carey, 64, could be imprisoned for 35 years, a virtual life sentence.

Many rank and file Teamsters have long believed that Carey is being framed up because he led the hugely popular 1997 strike against UPS, the nation’s largest trucking firm. Following the nationwide strike, the feds ousted Carey from the union, preventing him from contesting James P. Hoffa’s bid for the union’s top spot.

No doubt Carey is remembered warmly by many rank-and-filers. One Teamster told the New York Post, “He [Carey] used to say he always fights for the forgotten Teamster. Now he’s become the forgotten Teamster.” 

However, Carey’s not forgotten by his one-time opponents inside the nation’s largest private-sector union. Although Hoffa won the union’s presidency in 1998, he and his cohorts have maintained an unending propaganda war against Carey. At the union’s August convention, a casual onlooker might have thought that Hoffa was running for re-election against Carey this year, not his actual challenger, Tom Leedham.

But Carey might as well be forgotten by some of his one-time allies. For not surprisingly, careerists and opportunists within the officialdom who once backed Carey have joined Hoffa. Hoffa’s sponsorship by the union’s worst elements has not been an obstacle for them. Less predictable were the defections of some local union officers, and even active rank-and-filers, including some members of the reform caucus, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, who seemed committed to Carey’s program of union militancy.

Whenever there is defeat, demoralization is bound to follow. Undoubtedly demoralization would have cost the reformers’ side some support, once Carey was banished by the government agents. But some leading reformers undermined their own cause when they distanced themselves from Carey. The TDU leadership has never said clearly that they believe that Carey is guilty or innocent of the government’s charges. They have said that Carey cleaned out many of the Mobbed-up officials, and to this day they praise the strategy and mobilization that Carey implemented to win the UPS strike. But they detached themselves from Carey, at the moment that Carey and the ranks needed a vigorous defense of the ranks’ right to elect their own leaders — free of government interference.

Truth to tell, Carey himself failed to call on his supporters, in and out of TDU’s ranks, to take action (perhaps strike action?) to defend union democracy from the federal government’s assault. Only Carey knows why he failed to call on the union’s ranks, as he had so often during more than thirty years of standing up to bosses and corporate tightfistedness. Some have said that since Carey knows he’s innocent, he mistakenly relied on the “justice system” to do right by him and the ranks.

But whatever the reformers’ leadership thinks about Carey’s innocence, their failure to rise up in anger against the government’s undemocratic interference with the ranks’ right to elect whomever they want cannot be blamed on naiveté about capitalist justice. At the root of their failure is the adoption of a strategy of uncritically leaning upon the government to help clear the way for the ranks’ takeover of the profoundly bureaucratized union that has often been a piggybank for mobsters and wiseguys.

Ironically, it was TDU’s dependence on the government’s commitment to virtually guarantee the ranks the right to an impartial election, as well as the right to vote, that turned out to be the slippery slope that led to their failure to stormily protest the federal monitors’ dictum that the ranks could not vote for Carey, despite his obvious, overwhelming popularity in the wake of the UPS strike.

Could it be that the reformers’ leadership understands that if it should anger the federal agents, a stiff price would be exacted? Could it be that they are fearful that angry overseers might further jeopardize the reformers chance to win office? That’s suggested by TDU’s failure this summer to scream bloody murder when the feds let Hoffa’s key early backer, Detroit Teamster bigwig Larry Brennan, off the hook.

 Brennan was charged with engineering a scheme to divert union funds ($30,000) to his election campaign. For months TDU treated the charges as proven, and attacked Hoffa for his association with Brennan. When, however, Brennan was allowed to stay in the union with all his rights and costly privileges, TDU’s press carried a smallish report. It didn’t express indignation. It didn’t question the government overseers’  “inconsistent” leniency.

While TDU leaders have taken one “pragmatic” step after another in the wrong direction since Carey’s removal first from the ballot and then from the union, other declared democratic reformers have uncritically called upon the government to maintain its grip on the Teamsters. Herman Benson, a one-time self-styled socialist who should know better, writes in the current issue of Union Democracy Review that “under this protecting arm of government authority democracy in the Teamsters union has flourished.”

Given the big-budget campaigns (millions have been spent), the unequal publicity given to old-guard candidates by the mainstream media, the low voter turnouts, and the government’s removal of Carey from the ballot, obviously federal intervention has not meant workers’ democracy for the strategically placed ranks. Workers’ democracy isn’t complicated. It simply means the right of union members to choose their leaders free of the restrictions and scams imposed by employers, union bureaucrats, racketeers, or federal agents.

Obviously, the ranks are not going to be able to rid themselves of their bureaucratic straitjacket, and the government “monitorship,” under any and all circumstances. It will take special circumstances, in particular an upsurge of rank-and-file militancy, for that to be accomplished. But TDU refused to fight the government’s abrogation of its seemingly implicit pact with the union to allow the ranks—and only the ranks—the right to choose their leadership. That refusal to fight has lessened TDU’s hard-earned moral authority.

At the same time, TDU’s refusal to fight unintentionally ensured Hoffa’s bureaucratic machine’s control of the union for the foreseeable future. No doubt TDU leaders would dispute that contention. They would likely say that an attempt by TDU (with or without Carey) to mobilize the ranks to resist the government would have ended in failure. But surely TDU’s and the ranks’ future would seem less problematic if a fight would have been waged and lost, rather than losing to the government and the bureaucracy by default.  Defeats by default don’t leave a proud legacy to build on, right?