ORLANDO, Fla. — The most surprising development from last week's historic democratic Teamsters convention is the growing acknowledgement that a venomous split between two presidential candidates from the union's executive board is giving reform candidate Ron Carey a realistic chance of winning December's rank-and-file election.
Union kingmakers would have squashed such a split at past conventions.
The prospect of an outsider like Carey taking control of the nation's largest and most powerful union terrifies the Teamsters' Establishment, which has long dismissed Carey as a shrill, superficial demagogue who lacks the nuts-and-bolts sophistication needed to run the union.
Carey, the head of a New York parcel-delivery local, has for years been harshly critical of Teamster national leaders for allegedly failing to protect members' interests. If elected president, he would likely replace hundreds of Teamster staff members and attempt to radically change the way the union's headquarters in Washington manages the $80-million administrative budget.
And so it was with considerable gloom the other day that an experienced Teamster hand, aligned with the presidential campaign of Walter Shea, a union vice president from Washington, D.C., who represents the union's Old Guard, East Coast faction, mulled what would happen if the rank-and-file election were held now.
"Carey wins," he said soberly.
The convention, the biggest government-supervised convention in U.S. labor history, adjourned Friday. Delegates spent the week arguing with each other and tinkering with their constitution in ways that would have made their old, iron-handed leaders gasp. They even voted to sell off the union's four private jets, ever a symbol of the union's decadence.
The 5,000 delegates and guests, and tens of thousands of other activists within the union, now embark on one of the most daunting propositions in the history of union politics: December's election, the first time members have had a say in who runs their union.
The union's 1.6 million members--more eligible voters than are found in 26 states--are scattered across tens of thousands of truck "barns," factories, warehouses and other work sites.
Reaching them effectively with a political appeal is virtually impossible: A single mass mailing would cost $300,000 to $500,000. Their apathy is enormous: Earlier this year, only about 25% voted in elections for convention delegates.
If money and influence were the sole measure, R. V. Durham, a 59-year-old union vice president from North Carolina who runs the Teamster freight division, would be the overwhelming favorite. As it is, Durham, who has begun to insert the words "reform" and "new directions" into his speeches, is clearly the front-runner. On Thursday he won nomination votes from 1,001 elected delegates, compared to 574 for Shea and 289 for Carey. He also raised $140,000 at the drop of a hat last week with a $100-a-person poolside breakfast.
During the convention, the Durham and Shea campaigns churned out a series of antagonistic fliers tearing down each other.
Shea, 61, blasted Durham as a tool of much-criticized outgoing Teamster President William J. McCarthy and as a Southerner who is alien to the union's Northern industrial base. Durham attacked Shea as representing "the wreckage of our past," a lifelong bureaucrat and spineless follower of Joseph Trerotola, the diminutive 82-year-old New York Teamster leader who is widely credited with orchestrating the selection of several past Teamster presidents.
If Durham and Shea continue to point out each other's weak spots in front of the union's membership--and there is no indication their tone will change--Carey's chances would grow stronger.
"Carey has an excellent chance," admitted Walt Petitt, president of a Teamster food-industry local in Los Angeles, who is supporting Durham's campaign.
"The membership wants a new day," said the experienced pro-Shea Teamster, who discounted the nomination votes here because most delegates were union local officials with a personal stake in the presidential election.
"What these guys don't realize is that the people (who) are gonna make this decision are average, good, strong, working Americans who drive a truck or push a broom, who say: 'Every time my kids go to school they get teased because I'm a Teamster. I'm gonna change that.' All they know is that they would like to see their union off the front page and get away from 'Teamster' being a dirty word."
Both Durham and Shea have a network of union local presidents and appointed business agents in some 600 Teamster locals who will perform crucial lobbying and fund raising among the rank and file.
Carey, by contrast, has bodies, many of them filled with an almost religious zeal.