TDU’s Skewed Balance Sheet

by Charles Walker

[This article appeared on the web site Labor Tuesday for January 22, 2001. It has been edited for Labor Standard.]

For many years now, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has been an inspiration for other anti-bureaucratic, democratic rank-and-file union caucuses. TDU’s influence has been such that it wasn’t unusual for reform groups in other unions to seek TDU’s counsel, send observers to TDU’s annual conventions, or even adopt a name similar to TDU’s. In part, other union reformers’ admiration for TDU stemmed from its remarkable ability to buck the odds and endure for 25 years under tough, bureaucratic conditions. And in part, their high regard for TDU reflected the Teamster ranks’ appreciation for TDU’s campaigns to inform Teamsters of their rights, support the ranks’ efforts to fight against concessionary contracts, help overturn tainted local union elections, and defeat corrupt officers.

But after Ron Carey’s stunning 1991 electoral victory, many unionists’ esteem for TDU arose from its crucial role in Carey’s election, when he became the Teamsters first president directly elected by the union’s ranks. No one disputes the contention that TDU made the all-important critical difference in Carey’s electoral victory over the union’s bureaucratic old guard. Certainly, Carey’s electoral victories of 1991 and 1996 along with the Teamsters 1997 strike victory over UPS boosted TDU’s prospects and burnished its reputation for important accomplishments.

Given that record, the TDU leadership’s assessment of the Teamsters 2001 election merits close attention. (See Labor Notes, Jan. 2002.) While the TDU report corrected some previous judgments, unfortunately it also contained some serious misunderstandings and omissions. At least to some of TDU’s members and supporters it’s got to be disappointing to see that TDU has yet to correct those errors and oversights that contributed to TDU’s problems since November 1997.

One TDU Correction

One correction TDU has made is that it no longer underestimates Teamster officials’ support for the reelected Teamsters president, James P. Hoffa. As recently as the start of 2001, TDU leaders said it was an exaggeration to say that Hoffa had unified the officialdom. They claimed that Hoffa still had important opposition in the officer corps.

Apparently, the election results of less than a year later have caused them to alter their view of the present relations between Hoffa and the officialdom. Now they say, “Hoffa’s official backing was enormous. In his camp were 95 percent of the thousands of local, regional, and international Teamster officials and they ponied up over $3 million for his campaign…” In short, Hoffa has not only undone Carey’s efforts to stymie the old guard. Hoffa has seemingly patched up a squabble among the bureaucrats that resulted in two bureaucratic slates fielding opposing slates, in addition to Carey’s slate, in the 1991 election.

The Problem of Government Intervention

For over five years, Hoffa campaigned in opposition to the government’s continuing intervention into the union, brought about in 1989 when the Teamsters top leaders cut a deal with the Justice Department that allowed the union big shots to escape prosecution on labor racketeering charges. TDU says that Hoffa wants the government out of the union because “that will grease the way for as many more five-year terms as he wants.” Since TDU believes it more likely than not that Hoffa will lose significant support among UPS and other freight industry workers this year and next when Hoffa must negotiate new contracts, TDU must believe that without impartial supervision of the next international union election, the election procedures will favor the incumbents.

The conduct of many local union elections alone suggests that TDU has sufficient grounds to fear that the election results of 2006 might not be on the up and up. So there can be no question that TDU is right to not want Hoffa entrusted with conducting the elections and for all practical purposes deciding the rights or wrongs of election protests.

What TDU didn’t state was that the Teamsters ranks are between a rock and a hard place; that is, they’re between the bureaucracy, which stifles meaningful union democracy, and the government, which wrongly (as a jury’s verdict suggested last October) ousted Ron Carey, the most promising U.S. labor leader in decades.

Clearly, if the ranks elect a militant leadership only to have it ousted by the government, the members’ right to an impartial counting of the votes is a hollow right. Yet that’s the dilemma that the TDU leaders have chosen to ignore. Which is strange given TDU’s vigorous refusal to bow down either to bosses or to bureaucrats, saying that only the power of a mobilized rank-and-file can be relied on to defend the ranks’ interests.

Yet TDU failed to go to the ranks to even make sure that the ranks were informed about the charges against Carey, and Carey’s defense. That Hoffa and the mainstream press misinformed the ranks about Carey’s ouster wasn’t TDU’s fault. But the ranks never heard Carey’s side, and partly that was because federal authorities banned Carey from any and all contact with other Teamsters, and that wasn’t TDU’s fault.

But TDU is not blameless. Except for testimony at Carey’s 2001 trial, which was elicited under cross-examination by Carey’s lawyers, Carey’s basic defense was available in written form years before the trial. But TDU never took that evidence to the ranks. So TDU must share the blame for the ranks not being in a position to rally to Carey’s side. TDU has said that the ranks’ cynicism was a factor in Hoffa’s victory. But surely, if the ranks knew of the available evidence, they would have reached the same conclusions that the jury did about Carey’s character and actions, most probably minimizing their cynicism.

Unfortunately, the jury’s verdict does not make all this of little practical importance. Hoffa’s backers still rail against Carey, charging that Carey and his accomplices (TDU) benefited from criminal larceny. The government maintains its harsh sanctions against Carey, and the larger Teamster membership remains misinformed.

Stronger Than Ever?

In the wake of Hoffa’s recent election victory, TDU said, “our movement is actually stronger than ever.” But it’s not entirely clear how they now measure their strength.

It is clear that TDU’s numerical strength has dropped since Carey’s ouster. And so has its influence among secondary union leaders. At last June’s Teamsters Convention it was not unusual to see former Carey supporters who had attended past TDU conventions backing Hoffa. Indeed, some former leaders of TDU’s highest body between conventions (the International Steering Committee) were wearing Hoffa pins and hats. It had to be painful for some TDUers to see former leaders take the floor to announce their support for Hoffa.

The TDU report also stated that, “There was no way TDU, on its own, could have taken 35 percent of the vote against a united officialdom ten or even five years ago.” But in the wake of Carey’s 1991 victory (he got 48.5 percent in a three-way race), TDU said that those who claimed that Carey would have lost if the officialdom were united were wrong, because it wasn’t likely that Carey’s opponent would have got all the third candidate’s votes. TDU said that in a two-way race, Carey might have won with a 54–58 percent majority. In 1996, when the Hoffa forces had a majority at the union’s convention, Carey and TDU still bested the old guard. [Carey won in 1996 with 51.74 percent against Hoffa’s 48.26 percent.—The Editors.]

Why does TDU now lower the value of its previous achievements? It’s hard not to conclude that it’s a mistaken and vain effort to make its recent electoral effort look better than it really is when it’s inevitably compared with the 1991 and 1996 victories.

Make no mistake. TDU has been a major force in the Teamsters union. Today its ranks have some of the most dedicated rank and file militants and activists in the union. It’s not likely that in the short run there will be major changes by the Teamsters rank and file in how the union is run without the participation and leadership of TDU activists.

But there is another mistake that should not be made. TDU’s activists are more likely to lead and not stumble, if they have a clear-eyed view of their strengths and weaknesses, their accomplishments and failures. The TDU report does not provide that.