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Teamster tragedy: Carey is dead, long live the reformers.

Ron Carey may be a goner, but the reform movement inside the Teamsters lives on. The weekend before Ron Carey decided to step aside as president, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) held its twenty-second annual convention in Cleveland, November 21-23.

Media coverage of the event focused on Carey's brief appearance and farewell speech to 600 rank-and-filers. Some members reacted to their fallen hero's legal troubles by defending him--not unlike Teamster loyalists who closed ranks thirty-five years ago around Jimmy Hoffa, whose son lost to Carey in 1996 in a now-overturned election. But other activists recognized that the future of the reform movement--not the man--should be the focus of the meeting.

And it was. Ken Paff, one of the best labor organizers in the country, a former student activist, truck driver, and TDU founder, gave a fiery address. He condemned the crimes of those "who soiled your great election victory, who betrayed your union, who lined their own pockets," and who set the stage for the "tragedy" of Carey's disqualification as a future candidate. To Paff, the moral of the story was clear: "If you're going to take on Corporate America, if you're going to win major strikes, if you're going to start turning labor around, you better make sure that you're not vulnerable" because of lapses in personal behavior or judgment. "We're here to make sure it never happens again," he said.

Billie Davenport, a flight attendant at Northwest Airlines in Detroit, said the bad news about Carey in mid-November cast only a temporary pall over her victory in a key local election this fall.

"I was in shock and very upset when I heard about Ron," she said. "But the movement has to continue. In order to keep Teamster reform alive, we have to get back out campaigning very soon." Her anti-Hoffa slate garnered 70 percent of the vote in Teamsters Local 2000, which has 9,000 members in ten states.

Butch Traylor, a UPS shop steward from Valdosta, Georgia, agreed. "The reform movement is bigger than any one person--it's bigger than Ron Carey, bigger than Ken Paff . . . We must fight not just to win the next election but to keep our union in the hands of the membership."

TDU has a simple credo: Build your organization from the bottom up, not the top down; rely on worker activity, not paid staff; develop the skills and ability of many potential leaders instead of a handpicked few; introduce mechanisms for leadership accountability and membership control.

Unions or community groups that don't follow these steps can end up looking like Citizen Action--a hollow, staff-run shell. By last fall, this one-time voice of the people had attached itself to the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO, and sullied itself by working with Carey's crooked campaign handlers. Saddled with mounting legal costs related to its role in the Teamster election scandal and finding its own fundraising ability severely impaired, Citizen Action recently shut down its national office, laying off twenty staffers.

Contrast this ignominious end to the continued vibrancy of a genuine populist formation like TDU. Rank-and-filers along with leftwing activists launched the group more than two decades ago. TDU survives to this day because of a deep commitment to solid sixties ideas about direct action, participatory democracy, and speaking truth to power.

It doesn't use junk mail, telemarketing, or paid canvassers to recruit new members. It doesn't convene focus groups to figure out what its members think. It doesn't rely on consultant tricks or shortcuts--they don't build workers' power on the job. And TDU isn't seduced by the insider political culture of Washington, D.C., or caught up in labor's pathetic delusions about all the access and influence it has bought with millions of dollars worth of gifts to undeserving Democrats.

John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO could learn a great deal from TDU if it weren't so busy responding to subpoenas, hiring criminal lawyers, issuing press releases, and invoking the Fifth Amendment--as AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Rich Trumka recently did--to minimize its legal exposure in the ongoing investigation of Teamster election violations.

If there's one common characteristic among the technocrats and strategists of the "new" AFL-CIO, it's a general lack of respect for union democracy and rank-and-file activism. That's why some in that crowd were so quick to intervene in last year's Hoffa-Carey contest with bags of cash and kickbacks from union vendors. Their behavior was inexcusable under any circumstances and would have lacked even the appearance of necessity had Carey run the same kind of membership-based campaign that worked so well when he first sought higher office with TDU backing in 1991.

Right before Carey took office six years ago, he dropped a hint of the trouble to come.

Carey and his slate had just scored an upset victory over two old-guard candidates in the first democratic elections the Teamsters had ever held. TDU had been a huge contributor to Carey's success (along with his own hard work and the judicial intervention that produced a historic government-supervised membership vote). TDU members and friends now represented a majority on the union's executive board. However, as they gathered at the George Meany Center in suburban Maryland for a pre-inauguration planning session in late January 1992, Carey's team was nervous.

Although some had years of experience as reform activists, seven of the new Teamster vice presidents had never before served in any official position higher than shop steward. Now they were about to take over the AFL-CIO's largest affiliate, including its Washington, D.C., headquarters, which they had long derided as "The Marble Palace." This monument to Teamster extravagance and corruption was a minefield of hostile bureaucrats, dysfunctional departments, and lazy, overpaid, and incompetent staff Foes of reform also controlled all Teamster joint councils, area conferences, and benefit-fund boards. These powerful officials wanted Carey and his team to fall on their faces.

The new president had never run anything bigger than his own 8,000-member UPS local in Queens, New York. In office--not just on the campaign trail--Carey was going to need all the help he could get from TDU.

There were many qualified TDU activists ready and eager to serve Carey's administration, among them Ken Paff He was, according to Carey campaign biographer Ken Crowe of Newsday, "the general of the reform movement, the central strategist in a guerrilla campaign that spanned four Teamster presidencies," and the man responsible for TDU's unique evolution "from being a lonely voice of dissent to a major force in the union's first rank-and-file election."

When the Teamster president-elect finally arrived at the Meany Center to meet his fellow board members, TDUers and non-TDUers alike asked, "Where's Ken?" They urged Carey to bring Paff to Washington as soon as possible to help his administration make good on its promise to overhaul Teamster organizing, bargaining, and membership-education programs.

Carey--who never joined Teamsters for a Democratic Union--balked at the idea that he needed further aid from the group. The meeting ended in a tense stand-off, fraught with anger, frustration, and mutual recriminations. Carey never invited Paff to join his administration in any capacity and didn't begin utilizing experienced reformers until much later in his first term. Meanwhile, backed by his campaign manager Eddie Burke (an ex-staffer with the United Mine Workers) and two longtime advisers from the New York law firm of Cohen, Weiss, & Simon, Carey made major personnel decisions that distanced him from his grassroots base and planted the seeds of disaster.

Within days of his inauguration, a professional campaign manager named Jere Nash, who had never worked for any union before, was coordinating Carey's transition team.

The Teamsters' government-affairs office was in thrall to Democratic Party consultants from the November Group, which Burke had needlessly involved in Carey's 1991 campaign. For his first chief of staff, Carey chose Dave Mitchell, from a RR. firm that did media work for the Clinton-Gore campaign.

The union's $4 million political-action fund ended up in the hands of another Beltway insider, former AFSCME operative Bill Hamilton, a business associate of Massachusetts telemarketer Michael Ansara.

Carey--who never stopped being president of his home local--proceeded to spend one day a week or more in Queens, New York, dealing with the problems of 8,000 members instead of 1.4 million, and delegating political matters to members of this group, including the decisions in 1996 which led to his downfall.

During Carey's reelection campaign last year, Nash, the November Group's Martin Davis, and Ansara cooked up an illegal fundraising scheme on Carey's behalf As a result, Carey now faces possible indictment and serious charges before the Teamsters' Independent Review Board that could result in his expulsion from the union. His narrow election victory over James P. Hoffa has been nullified and he has been barred from participating in the rerun currently scheduled for April.

TDU is waging an uphill fight to keep the union from falling back into the hands of old-guard forces still led by Hoffa--although he may be disqualified as well, based on alleged election violations involving diversion of dues money, soliciting employer contributions, and shaking down union vendors.

Elsewhere in Washington, the Teamster "donorgate" affair has been mushrooming in many directions. The scandal now threatens key figures in the reform wing of the AFL-CIO who may also have broken the law in their eagerness to reelect Carey.

TDU, fortunately, will survive. Carey's behind-the-scenes rebuff in early 1992 has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Unlike Miners for Democracy--the campaign organization of United Mine Workers members who overthrew a corrupt leadership in their union twenty years earlier--the apparatus of Teamster reform did not get absorbed into the union bureaucracy after Carey's electoral victory. Even when TDUers were eventually hired as Teamster organizers or field reps, the organization itself maintained an independent program of rank-and-file activity, which continues to this day.

Thanks to its strong membership base, TDU is now the largest single obstacle standing between Teamster headquarters and the Hoffa forces poised to reclaim it.
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Title Annotation:Teamsters for a Democratic Union convention, Nov. 97
Author:Larkin, Jim
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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