Remembering Ron Carey

December 16, 2008

Joe Allen, a former Teamster and UPS worker, looks back at the life of former Teamster President Ron Carey, who broke labor's long losing streak as leader of the dramatic UPS strike of 1997.

RON CAREY, the most important union leader in the U.S. in the last decade of the 20th century, passed away December 11 in New York. He was 72 years old and died from the debilitating effects of lung cancer.

Carey will always been remembered as the leader of the great UPS strike of 1997, the most important victory by American workers since the beginning of the Reagan era.

Carey was born and raised in Queens, New York. Unlike many of the people who dominate the top echelons of the trade union officialdom, he actually worked for many years in the industry that he was to represent as an elected Teamster officer. Carey, like his father before him, was a full-time package car driver--the men and women who do the daily grind of delivering the packages and letters that have made UPS (formerly United Parcel Service) one of richest and most powerful corporations in the world.

Carey worked as a package car driver for over 12 years before running for officer as a reformer in Teamsters Local 804, which represented mostly UPSers in the greater New York region. Carey would lead the local union for the next three decades. He negotiated some of the best local contracts the Teamsters had at UPS, and led a number of local strikes against the company.

Ron Carey
Ron Carey

Carey came to national attention in the mid-1970s when he was profiled in Steven Brill's book The Teamsters. Meanwhile, UPS, known for its cult-like management style, was becoming "Big Brown"--the largest transportation company in the world.

It would still be many years before Carey came to lead the Teamsters. The union was a Mafia-dominated, repressive monstrosity that cut sweetheart deals with the bosses and terrorized and robbed its membership. The Teamsters peaked at over 2 million members. During the deregulation frenzy of the 1980s, it lost nearly half of its members, while at the same time, nonunion companies rose to prominence.

In the late 1980s, the world turned upside down for the mobbed-up leaders of the Teamsters (known as the "old guard") and Teamster employers. After a long campaign by the rank-and-file reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the union agreed to a federal judge's consent decree in order to avoid trusteeship of the union for corruption and racketeering.

The ruling provided for direct election of the union's top officers. It also established federal government oversight of the union that continues to this day.

After the consent decree was implemented, Carey announced that he and a slate made up mostly of TDUers would run for the top posts in the union. In November 1991, Carey won a stunning victory in a three-way race against two other old-guard candidates to become general president.

The election result was a political earthquake--and certainly not what leaders of the old guard, the freight industry, UPS, the Wall Street Journal and the Republican Party expected.

THE TEAMSTERS union that Carey took over in 1992 was a mess. He signaled a new direction by selling off the union's private airplanes, abolishing the do-nothing regional conferences and trying to oust the mob from Teamster locals.

At the same time, Carey attempted to revive the union through new organizing and programs to get members involved in contract campaigns--activism designed to pressure employers to accept the union's demands. To this end, Carey created a field services department to bypass the many backward and incompetent local Teamster officers, and he hired dynamic organizers.

Carey won a close re-election victory with 52 percent of the vote in 1996 against James P. Hoffa, son of the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamsters president who disappeared in 1975 and was presumably murdered. Carey made the UPS contract the center of his re-election campaign, and pledged to win new full-time jobs, as well as boost pay and defend pensions.

UPS refused to budge in months of negotiations. Carey called a strike against UPS on August 4, 1997, with over 185,000 UPS Teamsters walking off the job across the country. The ubiquitous brown trucks were nowhere to be seen as the company responsible for delivering 80 percent of the daily parcels in the U.S. effectively ceased to operate.

After years of quiescent unions--Ronald Reagan had seemingly tamed labor by firing striking air traffic controllers in 1981--big business was stunned. The Wall Street Journal summed up the employers' reaction:

The UPS strike is so weird it's hard to know where to begin. Somehow, we are supposed to believe that the mighty Teamsters has suddenly decided it must paralyze the nation's parcel-distribution system to have it out over mostly voluntary part-timers and various pension arcana. These matters may be worth an argument, but Armageddon? What's this weird, awful strike about anyway?

But the Journal and a few other right-wing media outlets aside, much of the coverage of the strike was sympathetic to the plight of UPS part-timers. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert called the strike "a crusade against low wages."

Tens of millions of working people--full-timers and part-timers alike--who were struggling to make ends meet in the so-called "miracle economy" of the late 1990s identified with the strike. Organized labor showed solidarity, as UPS pilots honored picket lines, and union members visited picket lines as individuals or part of organized contingents. The AFL-CIO promised $10 million to support the strike.

During the strike, Ron Carey was an articulate voice not only for the demands of UPSers, but for working people generally. At a huge August 7 rally outside the UPS Jefferson Street hub in Chicago, he said:

We're really fighting for America's future. I know firsthand about UPS, I spent 12 years on a truck. One member of the UPS negotiating committee said publicly, "What are people complaining about? $16,000 a year is a lot of money." All I have to say is if that's great money, let's pay them $16,000 and subcontract their jobs. Let's take away their pension.

After two weeks, UPS management surrendered and agreed to add 10,000 new full-time jobs as well as implement largest wage increases in UPS history. The new contract also protected union jobs against subcontracting.

CAREY SEEMED poised to take center stage in a resurgent labor movement--and in the wake of the UPS strike, he challenged the one-sided class war. "Some politicians ought to wear the logos of their corporate sponsors on their suits, just like athletes wear them on their uniforms," he said in a nationally broadcast speech. "If Abraham Lincoln were giving the Gettysburg Address here today, he would have to say that we have a government 'of the corporations, by big business, and for the special interests.'"

But the backlash against Carey was swift. Hoffa, after his defeat in the 1996 union election, had earlier filed protests with the Teamsters' election officer, Barbara Zack Quindel, who was appointed by the federal government. Hoffa had accused Carey of violating campaign fundraising rules. Quindel refused to certify the election results.

At the same time, anti-labor right-wingers in Congress, led by Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), launched a "get-Carey" campaign. UPS backed the witch-hunt.

Soon afterward, union overseers appointed by the Justice Department used the allegations that Carey improperly raised funds as grounds to void the results of 1996 election. The government barred Carey from seeking reelection, effectively handing over the union to Hoffa, who has controlled it ever since. Meanwhile, Carey was expelled from the Teamsters.

Ultimately, Carey was vindicated on all charges in a federal court--but not until September 2001. Even so, he remained banned from the union.

But despite the efforts of the Teamster old guard and the government to destroy Ron Carey, the UPS strike remains a touchstone for every union member and labor supporter who wants to build a movement that can resist the employers' offensive.

I had the pleasure of hearing Ron Carey speak on several occasions and the honor of meeting him once. He was an honest and decent man who had his moment in history. He will be missed.

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