Four days after being praised as the savior of the new American labor movement, Teamsters President Ron Carey found himself in a position familiar to other leaders of the union - facing charges of corruption.
But a federal order Friday calling for another election could help Carey capitalize on his recent success in the Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service and consolidate his position as the reform leader of the long-tainted union.
Carey was accused of no wrongdoing, but the federal official monitoring the election charged that his staff had violated federal law by engaging in “a complex network of schemes” to divert hundreds of thousands of dollars to his campaign.
“Members cannot have confidence in their union or its leaders if they see their choice of officers has been manipulated by outsiders,” Barbara Zack Quindel wrote in her order.
How Carey fares in a new election - expected to occur within three months - could shape the course of American organized labor. Labor has been battling in the face of declining membership to remain relevant to the interests of working people. Carey gave energy to that effort by winning public sympathy for his striking Teamsters in the recent UPS battle.
Now, Carey must convince the union’s 1.4 million members that his message of tying the union’s interests to those of other workers is good for them. If he fails, more-traditional Teamster leaders are likely to offer a more limited message to the union movement.
While not addressing the corruption charges, Carey’s campaign said, “A new election will be healthy for the union and should remove any cloud of doubt over last year’s campaign.”
His chances should be buoyed by his handling of the 15-day UPS strike, which some labor economists describe as the biggest victory for labor in the past quarter-century. He won salary increases and more full-time jobs for UPS workers.
Carey again would likely face challenger James P. Hoffa, son of Teamsters legend James R. Hoffa. The replay of last year’s close vote represents a challenge and an opportunity for Carey, who has not been able to sell his reformist vision to many Teamsters traditionalists. Only about 30 percent of the 1.4 million Teamsters voted in the mail-in election. Carey won by a narrow 52-to-48 percent margin.
Boosted by the lingering euphoria and increased loyalty of UPS workers and union members overall, Carey could win re-election by a larger margin than he had previously.
“Carey has a chance to really wipe the boards with Hoffa,” said Nick Salvatore, a former Teamsters’ reformer who lectures on labor issues at Cornell University.
Even Richard Leebove, a spokesman for Hoffa, indirectly acknowledged that Carey’s position had been strengthened. “There’s nothing at all in this decision that couldn’t have been released months ago,” he said.
Quindel said she had decided during the UPS strike that a new election was needed but delayed her announcement to avoid making it a factor in the strike.
The election aside, the allegations have damaged Carey’s record as a committed reformer bent on ridding the Teamsters of decades of corruption. Since taking over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in 1991, Carey, 61, has thrown out more than 70 allegedly corrupt chieftains, sold the union’s corporate jets and cracked down on excessive salaries and pensions.
The new difficulties do not compare to the Teamsters’ infamous past, including the jail sentences for three past presidents and allegations of ties to organized crime.
“The Teamsters are now a cleaner and much more democratic union than they have ever been,” said F. Ray Marshall, who during his tenure as President Carter’s labor secretary ousted more than a dozen trustees handling some of the Teamsters’ pension funds because of rampant corruption.
Still, yet another round of scandal illustrates the insidious corruption plaguing the union and the arduous road to reform for even the most well-intentioned of leaders.
“This is a serious allegation,” said Mark Wilson, a labor policy fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. “This shows that the leadership of this union has been unable to demonstrate consistently over time that they can abide by our nation’s law. It’s proven itself to be beyond repair. That’s how entrenched the corruption is.”
University of Virginia labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein put the allegations in a different context. “If the same (fund-raising standards) were applied to the Clinton-Dole campaign, we’d be rerunning that election, too, and probably one-third of the congressional seats, as well.”
The government’s scrutiny of the Teamsters arose as part of a court-approved 1989 settlement of a federal suit accusing the union of racketeering.
The agreement between the Justice Department and the Teamsters gave rank-and-file members the right to vote directly for national officers by secret ballot. U.S. District Judge David N. Edelstein of New York City approved the settlement, and he later appointed Quindel to monitor the December 1996 elections.
Quindel found that nonmembers donated $221,000 to the Carey campaign as part of a scheme to funnel money from companies and the union’s general fund into the Carey campaign. Non-Teamsters contributed 40 percent of the money for a direct mail get-out-the-vote program that could have affected the outcome of the election, she said.
For example, Charles Blitz, a volunteer fund-raiser for a liberal consumer watchdog group, Citizen Action, raised $110,000 from wealthy people for the Carey campaign.
And Michael Ansara, who operates a Massachusetts telemarketing group, solicited $95,000 from his wife and arranged to reimburse her improperly from Citizen Action and another outside organization, Quindel wrote in her order.
Judge Edelstein must approve the call for a new election. Meanwhile, a member of Carey’s slate filed an appeal of the recommendation Friday.
The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Elsa C. Arnett and Larry Williams Knight-Ridder Knight-Ridder reporter Aaron Epstein contributed to this report.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.