The Teamsters Today: An Interview with Ron Carey

Editor’s Note: In the first-ever direct election for Teamsters General President in 1991, reform candidate Ron Carey won a surprising upset victory over the incumbent old guard. During his years in office, Teamster rank-and-file activists and reformers spearheaded a revival of Teamster organizing and bargaining power culminating in the 1997 UPS strike.

Carey was removed from office in 1998 by the federal government’s Independent Review Board. He was later acquitted of all criminal charges and a multimillion dollar civil suit brought against him by Hoffa was dismissed.

Labor Notes recently talked with Carey about his thoughts on the current state of his union.

What have you been doing since you left the Teamsters?

I’ve been enjoying my retirement. I’ve been spending time with my family, trying to make up for neglecting them during my years in office. And I’ve been talking to retired Teamsters around the country, talking about the state of the union. I’m also researching and working on a book about my experiences.

It’s been almost ten years since you were prevented from standing for reelection in the Teamsters Union. How have the Teamsters done under your successor, James Hoffa?

One of Hoffa’s many broken promises was to “Restore Teamster Power.” But what he’s really done was to restore the luxury life style for top Teamster officials, while real Teamster power disappeared for the average working Teamster--the people Hoffa is supposed to fight for.

BROKEN PROMISES

At UPS, Hoffa had tremendous bargaining leverage coming out of the 1997 strike. Members felt connected and involved. But Hoffa bought into the UPS [management] game plan. He let the company buy him off with wage increases and settled short on critical issues like pensions, excessive overtime, supervisors working, subcontracting, and closing the wage gap.

UPS has always been willing to throw money on the table to try to buy a ratification vote. Hoffa took the bait and now members are on the hook for six long years. UPS is using that time to grow and strengthen its nonunion operations, like UPS Logistics. Do you remember when Hoffa said he would use Teamster bargaining power to make it easier to organize UPS Logistics? It’s just another one of those broken promises.

Worst of all may be the pension and benefit cuts. As a retiree, I understand how critical the pension and benefit plans are, not just for the members, but for their families. We fought hard to win “25 and Out” and “30 and Out” benefits that Teamsters could afford to retire on.

[Hoffa] promised members that their benefits would be safe for the life of the UPS, freight, and carhaul contracts. But his hand-picked trustees on the funds voted to cut benefits.

The Teamsters should be fighting these cuts. But I don’t see any plan coming out of the International at this point to defend the good Teamster benefits we fought for years to win.

UPS recently purchased Overnite, the nation’s largest nonunion freight carrier, and the company recently announced it is changing the name to UPS Freight. What impact will this have?

I can’t believe what a mess Hoffa has made of the freight industry. Overnite is the worst of it.

In the 1990s, Teamsters proved you could organize Overnite. We organized over half the company’s terminals. Hoffa came in, fired the organizers, cut off all contact with the workers for months, and then launched a nationwide strike. He said he would win the strike in three weeks. Obviously–and tragically--that didn’t happen.

“A LOT OF HOT AIR”

Sometimes I think Hoffa believes his own PR, that employers are afraid of the Hoffa name. Corporate America doesn’t care what your last name is. They care if you’re organized, if you’ve got the members’ support, if you’re prepared, if you can hurt their bottom line. Hoffa had no plan for that.

You can’t let UPS bankroll a nonunion freight company without recognizing the ultimate impact on Teamster jobs. Not if you want to defend Teamsters in the freight industry, not if you want to maintain our union’s strength at UPS.

Is there anything you think Hoffa is doing right?

Hoffa has said some of the right things, especially about organizing. The future of the Teamsters and organized labor depends on organizing. The problem is with Hoffa it’s all a lot of hot air.

When I was General President, we reversed a 16-year decline in Teamster membership. And we had nowhere near the resources the International has today. Hoffa pushed through the biggest dues increase in Teamster history. He promised that money would be used for organizing and wining strikes. I don’t see it.

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We all know where too much money is really going. When I was General President, we eliminated the outrageous multiple salaries for Teamster officials. Hoffa brought back multiple salaries — millions in wasted dollars that could be spent on organizing, fighting for good contracts, protecting members’ pensions. It’s a disgrace.

And what about his promise to cut his own salary? That never happened.

A federal appeals court recently dismissed the Teamsters’ latest appeal in a lawsuit against you…

Hoffa has wasted millions of members’ dues money in politically motivated lawsuits against me. I’ve been exonerated at every turn. I’m proud of the steps we took to clean up the Teamsters and build the union’s strength back up after the old guard ran the union into the ground. Those efforts were hijacked by a self-serving campaign manager and a few of his friends, but the work of reforming the Teamsters into a fighting force against corporate greed continues.

The Teamsters Union still has one member, one vote for top officers. With an election coming up this year, do you think members can change the union’s direction?

I sure hope so. It’s funny--Hoffa ran on a platform of local union autonomy, but he’s done more to centralize power at the International than any Teamster president. I don’t think that’s playing very well with a lot of local officers. And it shouldn’t. Power in our union has to be built from the bottom up.

But ultimately, if you’re going to see a change in direction in the Teamsters it’s going to have to come from the members. A lot of officers — not all of them, but a lot — are afraid to buck the system. Some of them will try to tell you they're “neutral.” That's a cop-out. No member will ever tell you that. They know you're either for what's right or you're not.

MEMBERS FIRST

In Local 804, we always prided ourselves as being an independent local that put members first. As president, I saw it as my job to stand up to anyone who got in the way of a better future for my members — whether that was a company supervisor or the Teamster General President.

I’m sorry to say that Local 804 officials have lost that spirit of independence.

Local 804 members have stayed true to reform. They’ve voted for reform candidates in every election. They voted for me twice. And they voted for Tom Leedham twice.

But Local 804 officers have sucked up to Hoffa. They don’t speak out about how he’s hurting Teamster members. They followed him like sheep at the last Convention. They even voted to block Hoffa’s opposition from getting on the ballot.

That’s a betrayal of Local 804 members who are proud that our local is known as the birthplace of Teamster democracy.

I understand that a group of Local 804 members are running for office in the Convention Delegate race and they’re promising to put Tom Leedham on the ballot.

I think they’re even calling themselves the Members First Slate. I’m glad our legacy is still alive in the local.

Overall, you paint a pretty negative picture. Do you see any hope for the Teamsters?

I have tremendous faith in Teamster members. Time and again, they’ve proven up to the task. No corporation, no old guard Teamster official can match the power of Teamster members when they get involved in their union. The 1997 UPS strike showed you that.

But you also need strong leadership. Leadership that believes in mobilizing the members and challenging the employers. When I look around the Teamsters, the leader who fits the bill is Tom Leedham.

I know Tom from when he was an International Vice President. He’s a tough negotiator. And he knows that you have to mobilize Teamster members and you’ve got to fight if you want to beat corporate greed.

A guy like Hoffa is never going to understand that — he’ll never know what it takes to win a fight. Because he’s never had to fight for anything in his whole life. It’s all just been handed to him.

I think a lot of Teamsters are starting to see through the Hoffa PR — members and officers. He told people the Hoffa names means power. I believe power comes from courageous and informed members. And I believe you’ll see that kind of Teamster power again.