Ron Carey

A more perfect unionist.

Illustration by Philip Burke

To understand why Ron Carey matters, ignore what he says and listen to how he says it. There are only two acceptable accents for a contemporary American leader–Sincere Southern (favored by Bill Clinton and every other pol who’s ever lived south of New York) and Flat Corporate (preferred by CEOs). But Carey speaks neither. The Teamsters president delivers speeches and strike ultimatums in an accent best described as a Queens Bray. Hearing him on the news this week was a shock: How long has it been since such a broad, brassy voice has been broadcast to the nation? Or, to pose the question another way, how long has it been since anyone outside a union hall paid attention to a union leader?

But while Carey is the first union official in a generation to intrude on America’s public consciousness, and while the UPS strike is the most important and disruptive walkout since Reagan busted the air-traffic controllers in 1981, the Carey backlash is already under way. Carey’s difficulties began last fall, when he narrowly defeated James Hoffa (son of the Late Unlamented) in the Teamsters presidential election. Hoffa accused Carey of campaign-finance irregularities. The Justice Department began probing whether Carey’s political consultants had laundered union dues into his campaign chest. (One consultant has already pleaded guilty to a conspiracy count.) Now Sen. Fred Thompson’s committee is investigating allegations that the Teamsters PAC engaged in a dirty quid pro quo with the Democratic National Committee: The PAC steered funds to state Democratic parties in exchange for Democratic donations to the Carey campaign. Meanwhile, a federal election monitor is refusing to certify Carey’s victory because of the investigations. The New Republic and the Wall Street Journal are stepping up attacks on Carey and his consultants. And now, most damningly, some conservatives are contending that Carey instigated the UPS strike in order to distract attention from his own troubles.

Carey does not deserve the mud. In an organization infected by crime, cowardice, and greed, Carey has been a beacon of honesty, courage, and restraint for 30 years. To appreciate Carey, you must understand the union’s depravity. From the early ‘50s until a federal takeover in 1989, racketeers dominated the Teamsters. Of the six presidents who preceded Carey, three went to jail (including Hoffa), and a fourth died while under indictment. The union czars lived fat on union dues: In the mid-’80s, president Jackie Presser squandered $650,000 on a party where he costumed himself as a Roman emperor and entered on a litter borne aloft by four muscled men. The union’s local bosses were no better: The “barons” padded their payrolls with family members, paid themselves enormous salaries (as much as $500,000 a year), took bribes from employers in exchange for sweetheart contracts, siphoned pension funds into mob-run operations, and generally screwed their rank and file.

Carey didn’t. A UPS driver and the son of a UPS driver, Carey was first elected chief of the Queens, N.Y., UPS local in the late ‘60s, and he has run it cleanly since then. He took an extremely modest salary–less, famously, than the French chef at the Teamsters headquarters. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Carey took his local to the pickets against UPS, and won huge concessions. When national Teamsters leaders negotiated weak contracts with UPS during the ‘80s, Carey opposed them. When mobsters threatened him, Carey defied them. Again and again, Carey’s colleagues returned him to office with huge majorities.

Carey had a small moment of national fame in the mid-’70s, when Steve Brill’s The Teamsters depicted him as one of the union’s only incorruptible bosses. But it was a surprise when he upset two old-guard barons to win the union’s first fair, open presidential election in 1991. As president, Carey has continued his upright ways. He has slashed his own salary by a third, sold the union’s fleet of private jets, and canceled the conferences at five-star Hawaiian hotels. Backed by the federal monitors, he stripped 70 corrupt locals of their autonomy, placed them in trusteeship, and purged hundreds of local officials for consorting with mobsters. In just five years, Carey and his allies have almost banished corruption from a union that was filthy to its bones. His 1996 re-election over Hoffa, an unabashed champion of the barons, may have been the final nail in the coffin of the old guard.

Carey has also fought to restore labor’s national credibility: He spearheaded the campaign to oust longtime AFL-CIO chief Lane Kirkland and replace him with the dynamic John Sweeney. Last year, Teamsters membership rose for the first time in a decade. Carey’s history is a bulwark against the recent charges. There’s little doubt that his consultants broke election laws and no doubt that Democratic officials prefer Carey to Hoffa, but that certainly doesn’t mean Carey licensed or even knew about campaign hanky-panky. He’s a man who’s spent 30 years refusing opportunities to corrupt himself: Why would he start now?

Which brings us to the charge that the UPS strike is a Carey smokescreen. One can debate endlessly about the merits and demerits of the walkout (and that is exactly what Walter Oi and Thomas Geoghegan are doing in Slate’s “Dialogue” titled “The UPS Strike“), but it’s hard to claim that Carey trumped up the strike. Carey has long objected to UPS’ employment of part-time workers and its widely disparate pay scales, two concessions that the old, corrupt union leaders granted, and which are at the heart of the current strike. Carey has spent months rallying the rank and file behind the strike and, UPS’ protestations to the contrary, he seems to enjoy overwhelming support from the picketers. (Union advocates give Carey special credit for picking an opportune moment to strike: The booming economy means that UPS is losing $35 million a day during the strike, and the tight labor market will make it difficult for the company to find replacement workers.)

Carey is, deservedly, a great hero of New Labor, yet a certain pathos clouds his achievements. What exactly has Carey accomplished? He has not been indicted. He has sacked some crooked colleagues. He barely eked out a victory over Hoffa, a mediocre bully. And he has led a strike whose aims are embarrassingly modest by the standards of old labor: a piddling raise, a few more full-time jobs, and a small change in the pension plan. But this is organized labor in the ‘90s, where even a hero must aim low.