LA Weekly




November 28, 1997

CLEVELAND-The skies were gloomy here last weekend, and there was every reason to think the climate indoors would be just as gray.

From all parts of the country, union-reform activists from Teamsters for a Democratic Union were gathering for their 22nd convention.

A few days earlier a federal election overseer had ruled that their standard-bearer, Teamsters president Ron Carey,could not take part in a rerun of last year's union election because he knowingly participated in the misuse of $735,000 in union funds in a complex scheme to help his campaign beat back the challenge of James Hoffa Jr., son of the notorious former Teamsters president.

(On Tuesday, two days after the convention ended, Carey announced he was taking a "temporary unpaid leave of absence" pending the outcome of his appeal of his disqualification.

When they'd first heard the news of Carey's disqualification, these activists some of whom have endured years of threats, beatings and worse in pursuit of a more democratic union-were both angry and profoundly sad.

Carey's victory in 1991 seemed to have inaugurated a new era for the Teamsters: He cleaned up around 70 corrupt local unions, ended multiple salaries and wasteful official indulgences, and let loose an imaginative staff that involved the members more in their union and found new ways to organize, win contracts and make workers' voices heard in politics.

Now it appeared that the path to power was open for Junior Hoffa, a lawyer who had worked for some of the Teamsters' most corrupt officials but had never negotiated a union contract.

Yet the mood of the gathering was anything but glum. It was the biggest TDU convention ever-over 600 rank-and-file members, local and international union officials, and staff, with a record number of newcomers- and a surprisingly upbeat one.

There was a celebration of last summer's UPS strike, a testament to the power unions gain when they educate and mobilize their members.

There was a rousing hero's reception for Carey. And in a straightforward fashion, TDU militants also planned for the rerun election, even though they did not know who their candidate would be.

It was a difficult situation. To a person, the TDU activists admired and respected Carey, but they were all over the map in judging his role in the election fiasco.

Some saw a plot by corporations and politicians against a standup labor leader. "Hey, it's the big companies saying, 'Here's a guy who's kicking our ass,'" Darrell Hall of Louisville concluded. "It just stinks of company greed."

Others saw him as a victim of self-serving campaign consultants. A few blamed Carey himself for turning to such consultants and away from grassroots efforts like their own.

Even among those who thought Carey might have known about the illegal plans, there was still a difference of opinion. "If he was corrupt, it was in our favor," rationalized Bill Slater, a retired car hauler from the Bay Area who'd been with TDU from nearly the beginning.

Unlike old Teamsters officials who had misused union funds, Carey wasn't lining his pocket or joining in business deals with mobsters such as Allen Dorfman (a business partner of Junior Hoffa back in the late '60s).

But Boston trucker Greg Gigg argued for a single standard: "If he betrayed our reform program and dipped into the members' coffers to finance his campaign, then the responsible thing is to ask for his resignation."

Speaking to the convention on Saturday night, Carey again asserted his innocence and warned against writing him off, though he obliquely acknowledged he might not be the candidate.

(Carey may now be hoping that by accepting a new outside monitor of union finances, which he did on Monday, and by taking a temporary leave, he can head off possible moves to force him to resign.)

For better or worse, there is a strong working-class ethic of loyalty, especially to someone who has taken his licks standing up for you-even if your support may be counterproductive in the long run.

"Carey's my brother, my friend, and I'd go to the ends of the Earth for him-but the movement has to go on," said Bob Hasegawa, the principal officer of a 6,600-

member local in Seattle as he waited to hear three of the more likely reform alternatives to Carey. "I'll do what he asks as a friend, but I have to put the good of the union ahead of that."

TDU made that point with a resolution expressing solidarity with Carey and the direction he had taken the union, followed by measures to find a new candidate.

Of equal concern to TDU leaders was the reform platform in the coming rerun, which draws from the UPS strike the lesson that democracy only makes the union stronger, and which they believe the members will prefer to Hoffa's top-down notion of union clout.

Hoffa has campaigned to "restore the power," invoking the myth of his father and implying that power was transferred from father to son, possibly through some unknown gene.

By contrast, TDU is committed to an alternative model of power rising up from an energized base of union members.

"The bottom-up approach has restored the power," Hasegawa said, "and the Hoffa plan is to turn our revolution upside down."

This battle is key to the future of the Teamsters. If union democracy is going to triumph, it will not be because it is ethically superior, but because members understand it also makes their union more effective.

The three potential reform candidates all acknowledged the importance of TDU, at least by showing up, although none is a member. They also have demonstrated, to varying degrees, support for the bottom-up model of union power.

West Virginian Ken Hall's main claim to fame is having served, with Carey, as head of the UPS negotiating team.

Richard Nelson of Oklahoma now heads up negotiation of the major national trucking contract, which expires next March.

Neither supported Carey initially in 1991, but both became important members of his team.

Tom Leedham, the Portland-based director of the union's biggest division, covering 250,000 warehouse workers, has been a Carey supporter and friend of TDU longer than they. He also boasts a long record as an innovator at getting members involved in union struggles, most notably in a successful strike against the Fred Meyer grocery warehouses.

Along with other TDU leaders, organizer Ken Paff did not want an immediate TDU endorsement of any one of these (or anyone else). He sought instead to convey the image of a strong reform team that shared common goals.

On simple name recognition, none of these leaders holds a candle to Hoffa, but TDU activists hope that, given a choice between Hoffa's bluster and the reformers' good contracts at UPS, the freight companies and the warehouses, Teamsters will pick their team and their strategy.

Hoffa's star was already fading with the success of the UPS strike. Now the federal election officer has been ordered to investigate Hoffa's campaign finances, including the sources of the $2 million that has no identifiable donor, since the campaign claims it all arrived in contributions of less than $100.

Evidence is accumulating of employers (including UPS) directly aiding or financing his campaign, of mob funding and support, and of substantial misuse of union funds for his electioneering.Hoffa could be disqualified.

That would make it easier for the reform slate, but it could also lead to a shake-up in alliances, with the possibility of some moderates from both Hoffa and Carey slates trying to team up, perhaps behind Hoffa's Northern California running mate, Chuck Mack.

Despite the licks they've taken, the reformers around TDU are ready for a fight and confident they can still win. "I like to think our members elected a direction for this movement-change, reform," said TDU co-chair Michael Savwoir. "I like to think Grandma Moses could oppose Jimmy Hoffa and be successful if running on a reform platform."

The potential reform candidates are certainly less well-known, if more qualified (and more alive), than Grandma Moses. Savwoir, however, is betting that after the taste of democracy some members got during the Carey years and the taste of power they experienced with the UPS strike, Teamsters will vote once more for reform, just as they did six years ago when it was promised by a little-known local union leader from Long Island named Ron Carey.



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November 21, 1997, Friday


LENGTH: 680 words

HEADLINE: Investigators Target

Teamsters For A Democratic Union.


Newspapers and Wires.

The Washington Times (11/21, A1, Sammon) reported the FBI and the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee believe the pro-Carey group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union, "may be the missing link in an illegal money-laundering scheme between the reelection campaigns of President Clinton and Teamsters President Ron Carey."

The group "was asked by Senate investigators Wednesday to turn over documents on campaign contributions," and FBI agents "have also begun inquiries in recent days." The TDU link "is important to investigators because it would shatter the defense that Democrats have invoked for months-that they never went through with the scheme to funnel funds into the Carey campaign."

Authorities "now suspect the Democrats funneled the money to TDU, which passed it along to the Carey campaign."

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