WASHINGTON — Now that federal monitors have ordered a new presidential election in the Teamsters Union and expanded their investigation of last year's campaign, they run the risk of defeating their original objectives.
What if the new election or some other upheaval returns the 1.3-million-member union to the control of an old guard whose shady practices forced federal involvement in the union's internal affairs almost 10 years ago?
To be sure, in the aftermath of the union's victory in its strike against the United Parcel Service, Teamster President Ron Carey seems the favorite in a rerun of the race he won last year against attorney James P. Hoffa, son of the late union president Jimmy Hoffa.
But Carey, a former UPS driver himself, still faces a rocky road this fall, with congressional Republicans threatening to hold hearings on the Teamsters' election problems. And much of the establishment media is presenting both sides in the fight for control of the Teamsters as equally scandal-tainted.
This conventional wisdom ignores the difference between small infractions and big illegalities--and glosses over larger issues that Teamster corruption has raised for more than 40 years.
After all, the campaign irregularities apparently committed by Carey's campaign staff are small potatoes compared to the legal problems of his predecessors: Dave Beck was imprisoned for income-tax evasion; the elder Hoffa was incarcerated for jury-tampering; Roy Williams was convicted of conspiracy to bribe a senator, and Jackie Presser was indicted for embezzlement and racketeering.
But, more important, the Carey-Hoffa brawl is the latest battle in a struggle for the soul not only of the Teamsters Union but the entire union movement.
American labor has always been torn between two philosophies. "Business unionism" emphasizes the unions' roles as service agencies bargaining contracts and representing workers in their problems on the job. "Social unionism" sees labor as a movement and emphasizes mobilizing the members and building alliances throughout society in support of workers' economic and political demands.
In most unions, both philosophies co-exist, and corruption is rare. But, for much of the past half-century, the Teamsters have been a special case--business unionism degenerating into downright corruption. In a balanced and often admiring biography of the elder Hoffa, the historian Arthur Sloane writes that, as early as 1941, Teamster leaders made a Faustian compact with organized crime.
While the alliance may have been an inevitable answer to violence from company goons, many local and national Teamster leaders ended up married to the mob. They put gangsters on their payrolls and pension funds in real-estate projects, many located in Las Vegas, run by people who, as Sloane wrote wryly, "were something less than model citizens."
Meanwhile, the Teamsters became a bloated bureaucracy that mirrored the worst features of oversized corporations and organized crime--nepotistic hiring, multiple salaries for top officers, two private jets and a lavish lunchroom at a national headquarters that came to be called "the marble palace."
In the union's heyday during the 1950s and early '60s, the Teamsters won wage gains for their membership base in the trucking industry, seeming to vindicate Hoffa's pledge to rank-and-file Teamsters, "My job is to sell your labor for the top dollar." Indeed, the Teamsters' notoriety contributed to the mystique that they were tough because of their ties to the underworld.
But, by the 1980s, deregulation of the trucking industry cost 400,000 Teamsters jobs, and the top leadership seemed soft, not strong. Thus, in 1983, an overwhelming majority of Teamster members rejected a National Master Freight Agreement, negotiated by their leaders, that cut wages for many workers.
Carey gained national prominence as a leader of Teamster members who challenged not only the old guard's corruption but its coziness with corporate interests. Elected as the insurgent president of a New York local, Carey was hailed in Steven Brill's 1978 best seller, "The Teamsters," as virtually the last honest leader in the union. In 1982 and 1985, he campaigned against concessionary contracts the union's national leaders bargained with UPS, including provisions increasing the use of part-timers--the major issue in the recent strike.
This maverick local leader became president only after federal prosecutors filed charges against the Teamsters under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations law, forcing the national leadership to agree to government-supervised, secret-ballot elections. Carey defeated two old-guard candidates in 1991 in the first election in which rank-and-file members were able to choose their national leaders.