USA - "Teamsters for a Democratic Union" and the Brotherhood

May/Jun 1998

The strike by workers of the Teamsters union, the IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) against UPS (United Parcel Service), which took place in August last year, was the most important strike in the US in many years. It was a big, national and militant strike, involving 185,000 workers and the strikers won many of their demands. That was why even the bourgeois media said that it seemed to mark a turning point for the American working class. The number of workers in this strike alone was almost as many as the total number of workers involved in strikes during the whole of the previous year.

Almost certainly, this strike would not have happened as it did if the old corrupt leadership had remained at the head of the Teamsters union. Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), an opposition movement existing inside the IBT for more than 20 years, provided a cadre beyond just the union apparatus, ready to help organise the strike. Ron Carey, the relatively new president of the Teamsters, therefore had the means to lead a fight, if he wanted to do so. By what happened, it seems he did, and not just at UPS. At the conclusion of the UPS strike, Carey announced that the IBT was ready to take on a fight over the Nationwide Master Freight Agreement, and the car-haulers agreement, both soon to expire.

Ron Carey seemed to symbolise a readiness by one section of the unions' leadership to take on the corporations.

Thus, less than four days after the end of the strike, a government official charged with "monitoring" the IBT announced the annulment of Carey's 1996 election as head of the Teamsters union. Within three months, Carey was prohibited from running again, and even brought up on charges which could lead to his expulsion from the union.

Even if Carey did what the government accused him of doing - and that is not clear - it is not the issue. But what is clear is that the government's action against Carey was directed against the working class. It was, first, a warning to any other union leaders who might have been considering whether to lead a fight. It was also an attempt to prevent another show of strength by the Teamsters over the contracts that were about to expire. More broadly, it served to discourage whatever aspirations this strike might have aroused in workers beyond the Teamsters.

The Teamsters union itself seemed taken aback. Workers, who had been ready to take on one of the giants of U.S. industry, did not rally to Carey's support. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which had played an important role in putting Carey in office and in organising the strike, did not find a way, or even seem to look for a way, to mobilise an active response to the attack on Carey. Carey, himself, declaring that he was confident he would be exonerated, talked only about a legal defense and the new election.

What is most tragic in this whole situation is that TDU and the socialists, who had played an important role in building it and even in preparing the Teamsters to be able to take on UPS, had, by their lack of a clear policy toward state intervention, facilitated the government's attack on Carey.

Teamster from another planet

Carey first made his mark as the head of a large New York City Teamsters local which carried out two important local strikes against UPS in 1968 and 1974, as the result of which members enjoyed better contracts than what the IBT negotiated nationally. They had already begun to take on the issue of UPS's growing use of part-time workers. In 1979, however, Carey's local was forced to join the national bargaining. Up until then, Carey had tried as much as possible to have nothing to do with the national IBT, focusing on improving the contracts held by his local. But, faced with a series of sweetheart deals that the national IBT leadership had cut with UPS, Carey for the first time openly began to oppose the national leadership, including on the issue of UPS's increasing use of part-timers. By 1988, Carey, together with TDU and several other heads of IBT locals, helped organise a campaign which led to the UPS contract being voted down by a 53 to 47 margin.

In other unions, a local leader like Carey might not be so unusual: ready to lead a strike when necessary to get a better contract, and even in a quite militant fashion sometimes.

But the IBT was not other unions. Its main officers were known chiefly by the sweetheart contracts they had negotiated, their multi-million dollar incomes, their links with open mobsters and by the widespread corruption which they encouraged. The IBT was notorious for so-called "double dipping" - that is, bureaucrats (many of whom had never been working Teamsters) held down a local official position, plus two or three more positions in the upper layers of the IBT apparatus, with income exceeding a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, and a fully funded pension to go with each office. By the time Carey was first elected president of the IBT in 1991, the Teamsters union had some of the highest dues and initiation fees of any union, but it paid one of the lowest strike benefits of any major union. And it was practically bankrupt.

The atmosphere which pervaded the IBT bureaucracy was perfectly symbolised by the 1986 Teamsters convention in Los Vegas. Jackie Presser, weighing 300 some pounds, flashy rings on his podgy fingers, was carried into the convention hall on a sedan chair by four weight-lifters dressed as Roman centurions. The convention hall which awaited him was filled with tables overflowing with caviar, lobster and paté, not to mention hams and beef roasts. The room was, of course, awash with liquor.

In such a club, Carey - who had led strikes, opposed the sweetheart contracts and held only one position, for which he was paid $45,000, comparable to what his drivers got with overtime - appeared like a creature from another planet, and it gave him a great deal of credibility.

TDU: becoming the "opposition party" inside the IBT

TDU constituted itself in 1976 from groupings which had been organised in 1975 for campaigns around the 1975 national freight contract and the 1976 national UPS contract, and other local groups, including some activists who had respected the elder Hoffa. For them, the deterioration of the IBT started when Hoffa went to prison in 1967, after having been pursued by the U.S. Justice Department for ten years. TDU continued to absorb other small groupings along the way, the most important of which was probably PROD (Professional Drivers Council), a group founded by an associate of Ralph Nader. PROD had focused on exposing safety problems and lobbying for government regulations on safety issues. PROD and TDU merged, assimilating their newspapers, in 1979.

TDU was certainly a hodge-podge of different people coming from vastly different experiences. The glue that held it all together undoubtedly was provided by activists working with what at that time was International Socialism (and which has subsequently merged with other tendencies to form Solidarity). These socialist activists not only provided a lot of the staff for TDU, but their determination also made the difference in pulling some workers along with them to build TDU, during a time when most workers were not ready to fight.

Starting with only several hundred people in 1976, working in a gangster-ridden union with, at that point, almost 2 million members, TDU set as a primary goal the democratisation of the Teamsters. Its activists carried out campaigns to change local by- laws, which governed meetings and elections. They worked to bring more people to become active in the union. At the same time, TDU continued to mobilise opposition to contracts. They were able, in a few places, to gain positions in local unions. In other places, they had activists who helped co-workers to file grievances, confront the boss, etc., even though they did not have unions positions.

Nonetheless, on the national level, TDU did not have the forces to play much of a role.

In 1983, the situation began to change a little bit when Teamster president Jackie Presser proposed a "rider" to the then current Master Freight Agreement. This rider would have allowed the freight companies to lay off workers, then call them back to work at wages 18 to 35 per cent lower. The deal was supposed to be struck in secret, but someone on the national freight negotiating committee gave the information to TDU which circulated it, launching a campaign to "save the contract." The final vote was 94,000 against, 13,000 for the rider, a real defeat for Presser. Moreover, some locals voted to demand that Presser step down.

In 1985, TDU began a petition drive demanding a direct election of top officers by the membership, with each member having one vote. Up until that point, officers were chosen by an open vote at the IBT convention, held every five years. TDU activists gathered tens of thousands of signatures on a petition, which they presented to the 1986 convention. They also ran candidates for the convention on this issue, electing more delegates than ever before, even if still only a few dozen. This reflected the fact that they had gained some influence in at least a few local unions, despite all the pressures and gangster tactics through which the bureaucracy exercised control over the IBT.

By 1987, TDU claimed several hundred stewards positions, and executive board positions in 40 locals.

It was in late 1987 and throughout 1988 that TDU began really to draw the ranks behind it. Once again, it took the field in the course of new IBT contracts that had been negotiated. Together with some local presidents like Carey, TDU organised campaigns against the proposed nationwide master freight and national car haulers contracts, as well as proposed contracts at UPS and Stroh's Brewery.

The contracts weren't particularly more outrageous, but maybe the workers were a little more angry by that time. In any case, the campaign led by TDU and some local officials resulted in all four contracts being turned down by the ranks. Only the ca-haulers' contract was actually rejected, however, because it was the only one to get the needed 2/3 majority vote against.

When the General Executive Board of the Teamsters imposed the other three contracts, TDU began a campaign to change the way contracts were ratified. This quickly found an echo in the ranks. TDU went to court, asking the courts to force the IBT to change its contract ratification statutes. Faced with that suit, the IBT General Executive Board acceded, announcing on October 21, 1988, that it would redo the IBT constitution to allow simple majority decision, so long as the majority of members voted.

Certainly all of this widely expanded the audience of TDU. At TDU's annual convention, October 23, 1988, National Organiser Ken Paff started his report, asking: "What if I had stood in front of last year's convention and said that within a year rank and file Teamsters would win majority rule on contracts, that we would reject every single major contract presented to us in 1988, and that we would have Weldon Mathis on the run? You would probably have demanded drug testing for TDU organisers. But this is exactly what we've accomplished in 1988."

By the end of 1988, TDU had shown itself able to play a role nationally inside the IBT, and the number of its dues-paying members had increased substantially. By the end of 1989, TDU officially claimed 10,000 dues-paying members, and a newspaper circulation of 75,000. Unofficially, TDU put its number of real activists somewhere on the order of a thousand or so people, not all that much in a large union, but nonetheless TDU had a real cadre with some experience in the inner struggles of the Teamsters Union.

The consent decree: throw out the "devil"!

The way for Carey, with TDU behind him, to jump to the top of the IBT was opened by the consent decree which the U.S. Attorney General's Office signed with Jackie Presser and other leaders of the IBT on March 13, 1989.

The U.S. Attorney General's Office had long been "investigating" mob influence in the Teamsters. Under this pretext, the FBI had kept Jackie Presser on its payroll as an informant for 13 long years, helping him to gain the presidency of the Teamsters, and then directing him to engage in illegal activities in order to carry out this "investigation." In 1985 and 1986, the Justice Department carried out a series of hearings into racketeering in the IBT, as well as other unions. In 1986, claiming that the leaders of the IBT had "made a devil's pact" with organised crime, the Justice Department announced its intention to indict leaders of the IBT under the 1970 Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organisations Act (RICO), proposing to put the whole union under a government organised trusteeship.

According to Dan LaBotz (a founder of TDU who has written a semi-official history of TDU), TDU National Organiser Ken Paff sent a 9-page letter, in April of 1987, to Assistant U.S. Attorney General Stephen Trott, calling on the government to take over the Teamsters union: "we strongly urge the government to seek reorganisation of the IBT under Section 1964a of the RICO Act."

Paff indicated in his letter that TDU did not want a government trusteeship, asking instead for a new election of Teamster officers and convention delegates, directly chosen by the membership. But TDU also asked for government supervision of the next three election cycles, as well as of the union itself. In this regard, Paff's referral to the RICO act is significant, because the RICO statutes are those which give the government the right to confiscate or reorganise a business (or a union), remove its officers and ask the courts to appoint trustees to run the organisation if the organisation is found to be engaged in criminal activities.

Of course, this was not the first time that TDU had gone to court against the IBT bureaucracy. It had previously asked the courts to demand consent decrees from the IBT leadership over the way contracts were ratified, elections organised, votes counted, information disseminated to the membership, etc. But it was, apparently, the first time it had asked the Justice Department to take over control of the IBT on a day-to-day basis. And this, when, only a year before, in 1986, the TDU had issued a statement denouncing any attempt by the government to remove IBT officers, warning of the possible consequences of such an intervention. The TDU had made an about-turn on this question.

It was a dangerous turn TDU made, starting down a road which does not help reinforce the workers' confidence in their own forces. Just the opposite. Of course, the working class must get rid of corrupt people, gangsters - the sort who ran the IBT - in order to be able to carry out effective struggles. But not all ways to get rid of them take the working class where it needs to go. Some means reinforce the workers' ability to handle their own affairs; other means reinforce their confidence in other people to handle things for them.

Unionists can sometimes appeal to the courts, but only if this appeal is made within the framework of a strategy based on the activity of the rank and file themselves. TDU did the contrary. Not only did it ask the state for help; it explicitly reinforced in the workers' minds that they had to rely on the state to get rid of their own rotten leaders.

TDU always insisted that it did not want a government takeover or trusteeship, only government supervision of the IBT. But even if the state did not set up a formal trusteeship, it intervened in the functioning of the union. Look at what was done to Carey: when the IBT carried out a fight which caused too much of a problem for the bosses, the state had all the means it needed to remove the leader of that fight.

Under the consent decree of March 1989, the old officers were to step down and a new election was to be held. The courts were to appoint three government "officers" to "supervise" the Teamsters union in the interim: an Election Officer who would set up election rules and supervise the elections; an Investigations Officer who could remove any Teamster official who was corrupt or had ties with the mob; and an Independent Administrator, who had the right to exercise all the powers of the Teamsters' General President and of its General Executive Board. The pretext of this "supervision" was to "remove organised crime" from the IBT.

TDU National Organiser Ken Paff explained to an April 1989 meeting of the TDU Steering Committee, which met to deal with the new situation: "The court order was largely shaped by our views. I think we can take enormous pride in steering the settlement away from government trusteeship and toward the right to vote."

TDU may have warned against a theoretical government receivership, but it didn't warn against the dangers inherent in what the government was actually doing. Instead, TDU openly called the consent decree a major victory for the rank and file, thus conveying the idea that the government could be counted on to act in the interests of the workers.

The 1991 election

Six months after the consent decree, Carey declared his candidacy for the presidency. TDU apparently did not entertain the idea of running their own candidates. Two months after Carey's announcement, they decided to support him. In turn, Carey put 10 members of TDU on his 16 person slate. The campaign of Carey and TDU turned around the idea of rooting out corruption, getting rid of the gangsters. TDU certainly talked about democracy and the need for workers to control their own union, and they always refer to the "rank and file." But their main concrete proposal to that rank and file was to make use of the direct vote on officers and delegates which the consent decree had given them.

They proposed this as something democratic in itself. But for workers to control their own union, its functioning and its policies, they need to be grouped together, to discuss collectively, to make decisions together, to carry them out or make sure they are carried out, to demand an account of what has been done. In doing this, they will have to face up to intimidation and pressures of all kinds. But that is what makes class interests clear and allows the beginning of a conscious fight for them. It is thus that workers can start to control their own leaders, and their leaders begin to learn how to be controlled by those they represent. It is in doing these things that workers can come to exercise control over their own union.

Undoubtedly, government takeover of the IBT, combined with this direct election, did open the door for Carey's victory. In the special 1991 Convention held to nominate candidates for top office, Carey received only 15 per cent of delegate votes, who were still being chosen in locals run mostly by the "Old Guard"; whereas, he won the direct election for the presidency, against two other candidates, with 48 per cent of the vote.

The secret ballot and direct election by mail might have been considered a necessary tactical move in the conditions of a gangster-ridden IBT, but it doesn't encourage active union participation. Quite the opposite. As union members in Britain know all to well, since the Thatcher union "reforms" in the late eighties which made secret postal ballots compulsory for any official union vote, the number of those voting dropped. And those who do vote, do so in isolation, removed from the collective expression and ideas of their fellow-workers, and may therefore be much more subject to the negative and least class-conscious pressures which pervade society. A direct election of officers may protect the workers from intimidation, but in and of itself it doesn't help workers to carry out their own class interests.

Phase two of IBT "reorganisation"

In 1992, Carey, thought by everyone to be squeaky clean, elected by a vote of the membership, was installed. His slate, made up of people who to greater or lesser extent were known as "reformers" and oppositionists, had won most of the top posts. The union began to function. Carey immediately cut salaries of top union officials, as well as some of perks. The three government "officers" had already removed 140 people charged with corruption and gangster ties from union office.

It would have seemed the time for the government to start withdrawing from the scene. In fact, its intervention was only just gathering steam.

The original consent decree had looked toward a lessening of direct government involvement in the IBT within nine months after a new president took office. The Election Officer was to continue, but the other two "officers" were to be replaced by an "Independent Review Board" (IRB). Its duties were less clearly defined, but TDU, Carey and others seemed to believe it would be a kind of board of last resort for problems the new executive board could not easily settle itself, once the union had begun to function under its new officers.

According to the consent decree, the union would appoint one member; the U.S. attorney general, another; and those two would mutually agree on the third, "neutral" member. The union nominated Grant Crandall, general counsel for the mineworkers union (UMWA); the U.S. Attorney General's office nominated Frederick Lacey, the old Independent Administrator, a former federal judge, still prominent in Republican Party circles.

In August of 1992, after the two sides traded a few names, trying to come up with a mutually satisfactory choice for the third member, a federal judge imposed Lacey's choice, who turned out to be, none other than William Webster. Webster was a former head of the CIA; former head of the FBI; current member of the board of directors of Anheuser-Busch, which has contracts with the IBT; current member of the board of directors of Pinkerton Corporation, the company which provides strike breakers to companies. As head of the FBI, Webster had been responsible for directing Jackie Presser inside the IBT. Despite protests by Carey, Webster remained.

To justify its existence, this new "Review" Board claimed that Carey, in his first six months in office, had done little to clean up corruption. In 1992, the IRB set up an expanded staff, announcing that it intended to continue purging the union of gangster and/or corrupt elements.

Carey filed an appeal against the expansion of the IRB, and also against the appointment of Webster. Carey, of course, lost that appeal, and the government widened its net.

The Independent Review Board submitted dossiers and proposed charges against hundreds of members of the "Old Guard." TDU reported with approval on these investigations.

Carey began to set up union receiverships of locals investigated by the IRB. By the end of his first term, he had put 67 of the IBT's 651 locals in union receivership, based mostly on information collected by the IRB.

His opponents cried foul, and they began to file complaints to the IRB that Carey was corrupt and had Mafia ties. The Review Board was more than happy to investigate Carey, although in 1994 it issued an 85-page statement clearing him of all charges of corruption and gangster ties. The board also put TDU itself under investigation. The government had installed itself as the "neutral" arbiter between the forces of the "Old Guard," most of whom were not corrupt, despite all the talk; and the forces of the "reformers." It had become a fixture in the IBT.

The real pact with the devil

It is true that the old IBT leadership had at one time made a "devil's pact" with the gangsters. But this "new" IBT now found itself in a "devil's pact" with the bourgeois state apparatus.

The Independent Review Board, so busy "rooting out corruption", had their own hands in the IBT till. Almost as soon as it was set up, the IRB requested the court to remove the $100,000 yearly cap on the salary each IRB member could be paid by the Teamsters for his services; the court complied. By the middle of Carey's first term, the government had billed the IBT treasury in excess of 19 million dollars for its services.

Of course, the government intervention did "ferret out" a certain number of mobsters and mobster-connected IBT officials. But the man most recently responsible for the IBT's ties with the mob, Jackie Presser, was let off. Prosecutors squashed indictments against him on the grounds that whatever crimes he may have committed it was under the direction or with the knowledge of the FBI. Eventually, the government did seek indictments against their man in the IBT, Presser, but Presser died before he was ever taken to trial.

While giving Presser a free ride, the IRB, in late 1994, began to investigate one of the IBT's new vice presidents, Mario Perrucci, who had, just "coincidentally," been one of the IBT's leaders of the 1994 strike against UPS's unilateral decision to increase weight limits. The strike was carried out in the middle of the contract term, despite a court order which forbade the IBT from carrying out the strike. The strike was a partial success in that UPS backed off its original decision to increase weight limits on what a worker could be expected to lift from 75 to 150 pounds. In August of 1995, the IRB charged Perrucci with paying several hundred dollars too little for a used boat he bought from an employer with which the Teamsters had a contract. He was not charged with using his position to aid the employer. Perrucci had to step aside, and was eventually barred from office for several years, on this very minor charge. It was obviously a political manoeuvre and a harbinger of what was to come.

Even faced with these warning signs, TDU continued to approve of the government's intervention in the Teamsters union, not warning the workers or even appearing aware of the more and more visible danger that this intervention could at any moment be directed against the workers.

In its own publications, TDU consistently reported on government removal of different local officers, without any hint that government intervention was a two-edged sword. Just the opposite. In one way or another, it conveyed the idea that this intervention was another victory for the rank and file.

When three trustees appointed by the old officers complained about actions taken by Carey, TDU wrote: "If their rights as trustees have been denied, that would be a clear violation of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) and the IBT Constitution. Why have they not gone to court as any good watchdog would?"

Obviously, this last is a flippant suggestion, but behind it lies the pernicious - and very false - idea that if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear from the courts and the rest of the bourgeois state apparatus.

When Hoffa Junior petitioned to have government oversight removed before the last election, TDU jumped on that, saying, "If Hoffa Jr. gets his way, there will be no supervised election in 1996. Perhaps he is worried that impartial supervision, and a fair vote, will mean he and the rest of the old guard just can't win." That might even be true, but it is not the whole truth. And the other part, which was left completely unsaid, is that the workers can't count on government supervision to be "impartial."

Instead of warning about the dangers, TDU invited the Election Officer to lead a forum and answer questions at its 1994 convention. It reported afterwards that she had spoken to "an interested audience of Teamsters."

In talking about the rules set up for the 1996 election, (in the February 1995 edition of Convoy-Dispatch), TDU said: "The recent round of local union elections shows that when members feel they're getting a fair chance on a level playing field, rank and file participation goes up and Teamster reform moves forward - more people run, more people vote, more people campaign and democracy wins."

It is true that a lessening of intimidation can facilitate participation. But the idea that somebody else has to "level the playing field" for the workers is significant. It is typical of the emphasis that TDU put on government help, an emphasis that could paralyse the workers' initiative against the government itself. It was paralysed in the case of Carey's removal, for example.

TDU goes on to propose, "We've got the umpires and the rule book but those won't mean a thing unless we've got teams on the field....While the rules do much to increase participation and provide for fair play, there are some areas where improvements can be made in eliminating unfair advantages to incumbent officers. We will be urging changes in the rules.... TDU was an important part of making this happen five years ago when rank and filers testified at rules hearings and got some 17 changes to the rules in response to their proposals."

What is it that the workers can do now that the government has evened the playing field with its "umpires" and its "rule books"? According to TDU, the ranks can help formulate more rules.

Grateful there is a consent decree...

When the government stepped in against Carey, and thus against whatever the UPS strike might have brought after it, TDU put more emphasis on the fact that Carey had brought in the "consultants" who had organised the manoeuvre to take IBT money than on what the state had done. And even at that late point, they did not emphasise to the workers what this intervention means.

Is it any wonder that a steward apparently linked to TDU testified in the following way to an October 1997 House Committee hearing looking into the charges of corruption against Carey:

"As you know, the 1996 Teamsters election is going to be rerun because consultants to the Ron Carey reelection campaign conspired to misuse union funds. As a rank-and-file member, I am grateful that my union has actively cooperated with that investigation. I'm also grateful that there is a Consent Decree, an Election Officer and a U.S. Attorney in place to make sure that kind of wrongdoing is caught and punished. Before the Consent Decree, members like me didn't have that kind of protection."

Of course, one person can always say something horrendous. But TDU chose to reprint it in Labor Notes, which is also its forum, at the very moment when the government has directed its big guns on Carey - and therefore on the strike he led. Nowhere does TDU even qualify this view of the government's intervention in the IBT.

In fact, just the opposite, since the main thing they now ask the Teamsters to do is, one more time, go to the government, this time to bar Hoffa Junior from running in the election which eventually will be re-run. Not only have they asked the Election Officer to bar Hoffa, they are circulating a petition among the Teamsters rank and file calling for that.

The TDU does not seem to have taken the lesson from what has happened so far. By relying on the state to sort out IBT corruption, they left themselves open to attack, an attack for which they were neither prepared for politically, nor prepared on the ground.

Obviously, TDU is politically a heterogeneous grouping, as is any large grouping in a union today. The socialists from Solidarity who have inspired it can't be held accountable for everything some members or even TDU itself says. But the question is what these socialists themselves say to the workers.

By what they themselves say - and don't say - in the very forums they helped create (Labour Notes, Convoy- Dispatch), where they can address the workers publicly, Solidarity members encouraged the idea that the state could protect the interests of the workers; they endorsed the idea that the state should be called upon to fulfill this role. Yet, this government intervention which workers in the IBT confronted was exactly the kind of situation where it is most pressing to warn workers, regularly and systematically, about the dangers of having any confidence in the state.

What the socialists from Solidarity active inside TDU said, what they proposed was the opposite of this. It means that Solidarity had no independent policy to propose to the rank and file in the unions, nor to union activists, other than to depend on the state to fight against the mob. It is not enough for socialists to talk about the rank-and-file; the real question is what they ask workers to do.

The issue is not, of course, that of the tactical steps which are often necessary to take. But, tactical or not, every move should be made within the overall perspective of the fight the working class is going to have to make. In a situation like that in the Teamsters, facing government intervention, this required above all a consistent criticism of the state's activity, instead of helping that state to get some credit among workers.

Helping to reinforce the idea that workers need the bourgeois state to get rid of their own rotten leaders, can only jeopardise future stuggles. It can only disarm workers for the fight they will have to wage against this very state, thereby depriving them of a possibility to increase their consciousness and strengthen their organisation.