Oct. 13, 1997

An Unholy Union?

It used to be that the Teamsters corrupted politicians. Now, politicians corrupt the Teamsters.

The scandal that has overtaken Ron Carey's reformed Teamsters was driven by the whatever-it-takes mentality of a small number of consultants in Carey's 1996 campaign to win re-election as union president.

It seems that this group was able to rig illegal money transfers because certain progressives, eager to play political hardball, either knowingly went along with the scheme or were not sufficiently diligent in checking contribution sources.

Sound familiar? Yes, the ethos illuminated by the Clinton fundraising controversy also afflicts players in the advocacy world (think Christian Coalition), as unions, issues groups both left and right, and others scramble to skirt the complex tax and election laws that govern politicking.

This is not to excuse the Carey advisers because Everybody Does It. This band did break the rules, and then some.

As outlined by the United States Attorney in New York, Carey campaign manager Jere Nash, direct-mail consultant Martin Davis and telemarketer Michael Ansara (all of whom recently pleaded guilty to the charges) hatched a scheme to funnel union funds to issues groups--Project Vote, which mobilizes low-income voters, Citizen Action, a grass-roots advocacy group--in return for donations to Carey's re-election campaign. Citizen Action, which was spearheading a major push to fight the conservative assault on Medicare, Medicaid and environmental regulation, was raising large sums of money for its get-out-the-vote effort and was apparently central to the scheme.

So with good motives--to keep Jimmy Hoffa's son and the old gang from unseating Carey, and to fund a campaign to thwart the conservative Congress--laws were broken.

Carey has labored to clean up and revive the Teamsters union, an effort whose import was evident in the victory of striking U.P.S. workers.

Now his re-election has been overturned, and he could be disqualified from running again.

(Carey claims he didn't know of the funding scam, but it couldn't have occurred without the knowledge of officials close to him.) Yet the scandal's wider impact remains to be seen.

Were Hoffa to gain control of the Teamsters, the balance of power within the A.F.L.-C.I.O. could shift, because Carey's support was vital to the election of John Sweeney as its president.

But at the A.F.L.'s recent convention in Pittsburgh, Sweeney, who has transformed the internal energy and the external image of labor in barely two years, won a vote of resounding affirmation when member unions approved a dues increase to fund increased organizing and political action.

Short-term, the scandal poses a more direct threat to Richard Trumka, number two at the A.F.L., who, according to court records, O.K.'d a questionable transfer of funds from the Teamsters to the A.F.L. to Citizen Action.

Some ideologues on labor's right argue that this reveals the dangers of working with progressive activists and organizations. They hope to undermine the alliance between a revived labor movement and progressive organizations.

Some of Citizen Action's own members, too, have censured it for getting too close to the Democratic Party and too involved in electoral politics, arguing that citizens' groups must remain independent of a political system that corrupts so much of what it touches.

The question remains, Were Citizen Action's managers aware of illegality in the money-go-round? The scandal threatens to spook the small crew of funders who do finance progressive activity.

Yet however Citizen Action and other groups come out of the scandal, the efforts to counter the right and to insure that progressive voices are heard in the political arena should not be abandoned.

Indeed, what's needed is even more organizing at a grass-roots level, more mass movements providing street heat and more sophisticated political action in the electoral process.

No spin, no damage control here.

The arrogance with which the plotters circumvented the laws cannot be justified.

This episode offers few reassuring lessons, except the most obvious: To engage politics vigorously on our own terms, not those of the political operators who use any means possible. And that the web of big-money politics ensnares the good and the bad, and that's ugly.

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