Oct. 13, 1997
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
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
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
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
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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