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LOS ANGELES TIMES INTERVIEW : Ron Carey : The Union President Trying to Create the 'New Teamsters'

July 17, 1994|Harry Bernstein | Harry Bernstein covered labor issues for The Times for 32 years

For decades, the scandal-ridden Teamsters Union was dominated by mobsters, its top officers lived in luxury at members' expense, with salaries that ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Three of the union's former presidents, along with hundreds of lesser officers, went to prison for white-collar crimes. Most members have relatively good contracts, thanks to many competent local officers, but critics charged that too much of union dues was spent on the top officers. The union's ugly reputation hurt it and smeared all other unions, too.

In 1989, the government threatened to indict many top union officials. To avoid prosecution, the executive board agreed to a government-supervised, secret-ballot election for the top jobs, while other government investigators helped root out most of the remaining corrupt element.

At that point, in came a little-known local union leader, Ron Carey. He and his reformist slate won the closely supervised 1991 election by a narrow margin. Carey was the first popularly elected president--one with no known mob ties.

That was the beginning of the first-ever, serious internal battle for control. Many "old guard" officers around the country were apparently free of the underworld, but they tolerated the mobsters and supported them in office. This crisis in the Teamsters is more than an internal struggle. Last week, a critical bill affecting all organized labor was furiously debated in the Senate. The bill, which was killed by a Republican filibuster, was strongly supported by Carey. It would have prohibited employers from firing or "permanently replacing" workers who go on strike. The "permanent replacement" is one the strongest weapons management has in defeating unions.

Now the union old guard is fighting to oust Carey, or at least weaken his administration, as he restructures the Teamsters and slashes double salaries and large expense accounts. Carey, a slim man, dresses like a conservative businessman. He doesn't laugh much these days as he criss-crosses the country, meeting with groups of his 1.4 million members to try and hold his hard-won presidency of the nation's largest private-sector union.

A high school graduate, Carey became a truck driver, served a hitch in the Marines and, by the age of 20, followed the route of his father and became an active unionist. He and his wife, Barbara, have five grown children.

The union's civil war is continuing, but Carey won a major battle when an independent investigating committee last week cleared him of all allegations of ties to organized crime and corruption, charges made by the old guard.

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Question: The Teamsters have been plagued for years by mob influence and most of that has been eliminated with government help. But now you have been accused by your foes inside the union of having ties to the underworld. What's going on here?

Answer: It's utter nonsense. What they are talking about, if you pardon my expression, is the old trick that they hope . . . if they throw enough dirt against the wall, some of it will stick. They figured that since four previous presidents--supported by my opponents--went to prison or were indicted on corruption charges, it would be easy to smear me as the new president. They are lying.

I was elected because our members were sick of corruption--which is what the average person walking down the street thinks when you say Teamster. I've established an ethical practices committee that investigates members' complaints of corruption. I've put more than 30 locals in temporary trusteeship so the members could help correct wrongdoing and undemocratic practices. That should help change the public's view of us. But my opponents don't seem to want that. They want this union back so bad they could care less if they destroy the union in the process.

Q: Some of your opponents in the union have lost key positions on the international executive board, but they still have powerful roles. Despite their opposition, have you been able to make any other real changes?

A: Yes. For instance, we've played a leading role in the fight to bring up wages and safety standards for workers in Mexico instead of bring them down here. We're fighting for health-care reform that benefits working people and not the insurance companies. The old leaders of this union didn't do those things. The members voted for reform, for the platform that I put forward, and I'm moving forward on that platform.

Q: You reversed the union's position in national presidential elections. Was that a dramatic move?

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