the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist
“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx
Nov 1, 1997
On August 19, United Parcel Service (UPS) gave in to the demands of the Teamsters (IBT), bringing to an end a two-week strike whose central issue was the continual increase in part-time, lower-paid work. When the 185,000 UPS workers returned to work, they did so with the sense they had accomplished something important. Ron Carey, re-elected eight months earlier as president of the Teamsters in a close vote, 52% for Carey to 48% for James Hoffa Junior, seemed to have reinforced his position inside the union.
Headlines in the bourgeois press recognized the importance of the UPS strike. "A Wake-Up Call for Business: The Teamsters’ win means that workers can no longer be taken for granted," declared Business Week, in its first post-strike issue. Others talked about a "historic turn" for the labor movement. Echoes spread from the Wall Street Journal to the New York Times to the business pages of every local paper.
Hyperbole aside, it was an important victory, the first such victory by a major U.S. union over a national corporation in two decades. Twenty years ago, Teamster demands at UPS would have seemed exceedingly meager, but we are not in the same situation that we were in twenty years ago. The major contracts being negotiated today, even after six years of "economic expansion" and record high profits for the corporations, continue in one fashion or another to give more concessions to the corporations. The unions declare victory when they don’t give up anything. By contrast, the UPS settlement reversed a trend going back 15 years at UPS regarding the use of a part-time, lower-paid workforce.
With TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) providing many of the troops, the Teamsters, under Carey, organized a different kind of strike at UPS. They had prepared for the strike well in advance, organizing a series of meetings and demonstrations; Carey asked other unions for support; they tried to raise with other workers the issues of their strike which were issues confronting the whole working class; toward the end, they asked other workers to make the same fight, and Carey called on other workers to join a common, work-day demonstration in cities throughout the country. Other workers—especially union activists—paid attention to the strike, to the issues the Teamsters raised, all the more so when UPS retreated from its threat to hire scabs, caving in to the Teamsters’ demands.
Business Week commented: "For the first time in nearly two decades, the public sided with a union, even though its walkout caused major inconveniences. Polls showed the public supported the 185,000 striking UPS workers by a 2-to-1 margin over management. The message: After a six-year economic expansion that has created record corporate profits and vast wealth for investors, Americans are questioning why so many of their countrymen aren’t getting a bigger piece of the pie."
What was true of the "public" in general was even more true of the part of that "public" which was working class.
At the conclusion of the UPS strike, the Teamsters union was faced with the need to begin preparations for another important contract. The National Master Freight Agreement, covering nearly 120,000 workers, is set to expire March 31.
Concerned with the affect the UPS settlement might have, spokesmen for the trucking industry rushed to insist that their negotiations would not be affected by what had happened at UPS. Less than 48 hours after the end of the UPS strike, Art Bunte, chief negotiator for the largest trucking consortium, issued a statement, insisting that the industry wasn’t worried about the UPS settlement: "The issues and the parties will be different."
The Teamsters saw it somewhat differently. Don Smith, the president of Teamster Local 299 in the Detroit area, declared, "Now, we at Local 299 and all other locals with freight members will turn our attention to the NMFA [National Master Freight Agreement] talks. Trucking management is already saying that the UPS contract has no bearing on the NMFA talks. Don’t believe it."
According to Smith, "The Teamsters’ UPS victory gives an emotional lift to all of labor. It’s like a sports team which wins a few big games. It gives the team confidence that it can continue to win. Indeed, the UPS victory is like a labor Super Bowl or World Series victory."
Barely three days after the end of the strike, Barbara Zack Quindel, the court-appointed monitor charged with overseeing the internal affairs of the Teamsters union, announced that Carey’s election had been voided because of improprieties in his campaign. A new Teamsters election would be scheduled, but probably not until December or January.
Carey had been elected in 1991, and then re-elected in 1996, under this same monitorship. In his first five years, he had built up a reputation as the man who had cleaned up the Teamsters union, long known for its ties with organized crime, the violent methods used against dissidents in the union, not to mention enormous salaries and perks for union officials, even when they didn’t dip their hands into Teamster pension funds. In Carey’s re-election campaign of 1996, the main plank on which he stood was his record in rooting out corruption.
The 1996 election had been close, in part because the Old Guard of the Teamsters still had a base it could call on, built over the years by patronage; second because it had the money to fund a big campaign, reportedly spending 3.8 million dollars, almost two and a half times what Carey did. In contrast to 1991, when the old bureaucracy was itself divided and unable to agree on one candidate, much less find a credible one, in 1996, they coalesced behind Hoffa Junior who, in effect, was a front for them. Hoffa Junior has no history whatsoever as a union leader or even just a union activist. He is a lawyer, but this lawyer has a famous name. His father was still honored by many rank-and-file Teamsters, including many who weren’t even around when he was at the head of the Teamsters. Hoffa had two-thirds of the top local officers behind him.
Carey had on his side, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), an opposition grouping that has grown up inside the Teamsters over the last 20 years; his reputation among the ranks of UPS of having led important fights locally; and the support of many rank-and-filers opposed to the kind of corruption that had dominated their union for decades.
Yet, here was Carey himself facing charges of corruption. He was accused—or at least his campaign was accused—of donating $650,000 of Teamsters Union funds to Citizen Action and to the National Council of Senior Citizens, which then, in a series of complicated maneuvers, funneled most of that money into Democratic Party coffers. But $185,000 was sent to a firm printing up brochures for Carey’s campaign. The scam had been organized by three "media consultants," who came from the Democratic Party election campaign.
Even if Carey knew what happened, and that’s not at all clear, it’s not the basis for such an action, not if the standard is what has happened in similar cases, including that of Hoffa Junior in the early months of the campaign.
Nonetheless, Carey’s election was overturned and the headlines radically changed. The question of the hour was no longer what the Teamsters had won at UPS and what would come next. The focus shifted to Carey, personally: was he as corrupt as the people he had replaced?
In the middle of September, government officials raised, "unofficially," the possibility that Carey might not even be allowed to run in the new election.
In mid-October, Kenneth Conboy, who had replaced Quindel as the government monitor, proposed to set the election back, saying he needed more time to see whether Carey should be allowed to run. The courts agreed that ballots will not go out now until February, and will not be tabulated until March 17—that is, the election will not be concluded until the very eve of the National Master Freight Agreement expiration.
At the end of October, in response to complaints filed by Carey’s camp about similar actions taken by Hoffa’s campaign, the government began to investigate Hoffa. He had already during the campaign admitted to taking Teamster money for his campaign, but these were another set of charges. (Obviously, if the government were to prohibit Carey from running, but let Hoffa run, given that he had done the same thing and aligned as he is with those in the Old Guard who continue to treat the Teamsters union as their own private source of wealth, the maneuver might have been too obvious.)
In the meantime, Republican Peter Hoekstra is heading an investigation by the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee into the last Teamsters’ election. Clearly, while the main intent of his "investigation" is to smear Carey, Hoekstra also aims his attack at the union as a whole, since he proposes that the Teamsters is just too big; that it can’t be cleaned of corruption; that it should therefore be "broken up."
Whatever finally happens, one thing is already clear: the intervention of the government in this affair has diverted attention from the UPS victory and the contracts which are to follow the UPS contract. Obviously, the bourgeoisie and its government would like to derail any strike movement before it gets started. Whether this attack on Carey succeeds in doing so doesn’t depend on the government alone, however; it depends on the Teamster activists, on whether they continue to prepare to mobilize for a possible strike in freight.
This is not the first time that the government has taken a special interest in "cleaning up corruption in the unions."
In 1954, the U.S. Senate established a Subcommittee on Welfare and Pension Funds which spent the next two years looking at the way the burgeoning pensions funds were administered. What may have started out as an attempt to oversee the growth and establish some kind of system to regulate the funds, ended up, before the two years of the committee’s hearings were finished, as a kind of star chamber, raising the specter of union corruption.
With the headlines from those hearings still reverberating, the Senate in 1957 established the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field under the chairmanship of John L. McClellan of Arkansas. Interestingly enough, that committee was made up of a number of Cold Warriors, including Joseph McCarthy himself, along with Barry Goldwater, Karl Mundt and John F. Kennedy. Whatever liberal credentials Kennedy’s supporters may have tried to fashion for him in later years, he made his early name in the McCarthy era by attacking civil liberties. He was one of the three major sponsors of the anti-labor bill which eventually came out of these hearings, the Landrum-Griffin act. (While Kennedy was the author of major parts of the bill, Landrum and Griffin got to take the blame for it.) Bobby Kennedy, the McClellan Committee’s chief counsel, framed a series of anti-communist measures, several of which were used against the unions, both before and after his brother took office.
Having pushed the CIO to expel those unions led by communists in 1949, flush with success in carrying out the witchhunt against communists and other militants in the other unions, the Cold Warriors sought to finish the job of taming the unions under the cloak of fighting corruption.
Of course, there was corruption in the unions. But where did it proceed from?
Several unions operated under the heel of organized crime. Those unions worked in industries which were already mobbed up, or where the mob was taking over: industries like construction, or the docks and warehouses, or hotels. But even, as in the vast majority of cases, where there was no mob, there was corruption—because the corporations themselves used a vast array of corrupt means to cement their friendly relations with the heads of the unions.
Union officials did use the pension funds to give loans to their associates, their families, etc., but the wholesale raiding of these funds was carried out by the financial markets which charged high fees and gave low returns for the pension fund money they invested. Moreover, the major corporations used a variety of means, legal and illegal, to tap into pension money, including simply underfunding their obligations.
The committee’s stated goal may have been to look into "improper activities" on the part of both labor and management, but it spent most of its three-year investigation talking about corruption in labor’s house, while it ignored the root of the corruption coming from the actions of the corporations themselves. While 1500 union officials were brought in front of the committee to be interrogated, only a handful of corporate witnesses were ever interviewed. Certainly no major executive ever had to appear.
Stretching the scope of its investigation into corruption, the McClellan committee spent well over a half year in 1957 looking into union actions during two bitter ongoing UAW strikes. One, at Kohler, started in 1954, after the company refused to recognize the union despite an NLRB election. Marked by repeated findings of the courts and the NLRB that Kohler had violated the law, the Kohler strike was to go on for nine years before the courts finally ordered the company to accept the union. The other was a 1955 strike at Perfect Circle corporation, under similar circumstances. That strike was marked not only by the corporation’s repeated flouting of NLRB rulings and court orders, but also by a gun battle which started when the company stockpiled weapons and then ordered scabs inside the plant to fire on an unarmed picket line outside the plant. Despite all the legal findings against both companies, Republicans on the McClellan Committee entered into its record only those parts of the accounts which accused the union of violence and illegal acts. Democrats on the Committee eventually protested this investigation, but they never entered into the record an account of the corporations’ actions. Nor did they balk when the committee’s record on these two strikes was used to buttress the call for further restrictions on what unions could legally do in a strike.
One of the things which came out of these hearings was the passage by a Democratic Congress of the 1959 (Kennedy)-Landrum-Griffin Act. Behind a vague listing of "workers’ rights" hid a long list of restrictions on union activity. Some of those took the form of the multitude of reports unions must make to the government: about their financial affairs; contract negotiations; contracts signed; strikes conducted; procedures followed when calling strikes; bonding of officers. Some of the restrictions took the form of further limitations on what unions could do in a strike. For example, secondary boycotts, that is, strikes in support of a strike, were prohibited; so were "hot-cargo" arrangements, that is, the organized refusal of unionized workers to carry cargo or work on goods produced by non-union companies or companies on strike. Added to the various provisions of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act which had made it harder, as well as time-consuming, to call a strike, these provisions made it illegal for strikes to spread beyond those who were first involved in the issue. Finally, there were more restrictions put on who could be an officer of the union: convicted felons could not run for office until five years after completing any sentence they had served; and communists could not run for office until five years after they had quit being communists.
The other outcome of these hearings was the vendetta that Robert Kennedy carried out against Jimmy Hoffa. Steven Brill, who wrote an authoritative book on the corruption in the Teamsters union, called it "the most sustained legal assault against one person our government has ever waged."
It took Bobby Kennedy almost ten years, using hundreds of lawyers, IRS agents, FBI agents, surveillants, wiretappers, informants and convicted felons who traded their freedom for perjured testimony—not to mention vast sums of government money—to finally put Hoffa in jail.
Why this extraordinary attention paid to one man?
Hoffa undoubtedly had associations with mobsters; and he allowed them to use union resources, just as he himself did when he "borrowed" from union funds to set up companies in his wife’s name. But he was hardly the worst in this regard.
Whatever Hoffa might have done doesn’t begin to explain the vast machinery which was set up against him—all the more so, since his removal from the presidency of the Teamsters did not free that union from the grip of the mobsters; in fact, it gave an open field to the mobsters, who took over the union wholesale, once Hoffa was gone.
It’s, of course, true that the Kennedy brothers wanted to make a name for themselves in these hearings in order to give Jack a chance to run for the presidency. But Bobby continued the stalking of Hoffa long after the two brothers were comfortably installed.
It may well even be true that there was a personal aspect for Bobby in the vendetta: Hoffa had been almost the only one to stand up to Kennedy in the hearings. And he was ready and eager to proclaim to a world which listened that Bobby Kennedy was just "a spoiled brat. He never had to work, wouldn’t know how to work....He’s just a brat that believes everybody is supposed to surrender and give in to whatever he wants, right or wrong."
But whatever personal reasons existed, Bobby was first of all a representative of the bourgeoisie, the chief officer of its repressive apparatus. Targeted behind Hoffa was the labor movement—even if it didn’t defend him from the government attacks.
Hoffa, of course, was a convenient target, in that he was corrupt. But corruption was the cover, not the issue. In the period of the late ’50s and early ’60s, with the unions purged of most of the militants who had been the real organizers of the movement of the ’30s, Hoffa was one of the few union officials who was not cowed by the increasing use of the courts against the union movement. The Teamsters continued to set up picket lines of union members to force non-union companies to accept the union. They even managed to bring large numbers of workers into the Teamsters in the supposedly anti-union South. After the (Kennedy)-Landrum-Griffin act was passed, Hoffa moved to circumvent it by imposing common contract dates on freight agreements, and by trying to equalize the provisions between those agreements. Finally, in 1964, the Teamsters under Hoffa forced through the first National Master Freight Agreement, covering at that time 500,000 drivers.
Robert Kennedy wrote a book, The Enemy Within, to justify his actions in putting together what he called, "the get Hoffa gang." In his book, Bobby explained:
"The Teamsters Union is the most powerful institution in this country—aside from the United States government itself. In many major metropolitan areas the Teamsters control all transportation. ... They control the pickup and deliveries of milk, frozen meat, fresh fruit, department store merchandise, newspapers, railroad express, air freight, and of cargo to and from the sea docks. Quite literally your life—the life of every person in the United States—is in the hand of Hoffa and his Teamsters. ... As Mr. Hoffa operates it [the Teamsters Union], this is a conspiracy of evil." He made clear further on what he meant by "evil": "Hoffa has too much power for one man."
That was exactly the point. Whatever Hoffa was or was not, the U.S. state apparatus did not want any examples left in the labor movement which showed that unions had power and might use it.
So, in 1967, Hoffa went to jail on a conviction which Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren called, "an affront to the quality and fairness of federal law enforcement." Not only did the AFL-CIO or its member unions not try to defend Hoffa, the federation welcomed Hoffa’s conviction. They had already expelled the Teamsters in 1957 after the government had focussed attention on the union and on Hoffa. Now they bade "good riddance" to Hoffa.
The unions, in accepting the attack on Hoffa, thereby imprisoned themselves, effectively accepting the web of anti-union laws and anti-union rulings which were coming down, one after the other.
The attack on Carey today is aimed not just at Carey. It is aimed first of all at the UPS strike, to undercut the example it set, showing that it is possible for labor to organize a response to the corporations.
The attack on Carey was also aimed at the new leadership of the AFL-CIO, which has taken a somewhat difference stance than the federation has exhibited for years.
The investigation into Carey has now extended itself to Trumka, the new Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO, trying to link him with whatever happened in the Teamsters’ campaign. At the same time, the government has been bringing increasing pressure on the internally appointed monitor of the Laborer’s Union to remove Arthur Coia, its president, on charges that he associated with gangsters. Coincidentally, Coia is the new head of the Organizing Department of the AFL-CIO; his union is one of the few which has managed in recent years to increase its numbers.
No wonder Business Week happily proclaimed: "The Teamster’s Mess is Spoiling Labor’s Comeback," when reporting on the recent AFL-CIO Convention. "If Carey or Trumka is dragged down, Sweeney’s progress in reviving the union movement could be undermined."
Basically, of course, the new leadership is not different from the old. It still ties the union movement to the Democratic Party. It still is ready to enter a partnership with those corporations which give it any kind of opening.
But the Sweeney-Trumka leadership has called for more support for strikes, in the form of financial donations and, sometimes, of demonstrations. It is diverting more of the federation’s resources toward organizing. The UPS strike, coming when it did, seemed to point the way this new leadership wanted organized labor to go.
The disciplining of Carey was a way for the bourgeoisie and its state apparatus to say, "Uh-uh, don’t go there. If you follow in this direction, you’re going to pay. We will tear up the gentlemen’s agreement we have with you."
The steps that labor had begun to take, as timid as they may be, went too far for a bourgeoisie which has grown used to being able to set whatever terms it wants.
The Teamsters themselves have the means to give a strong response to these attacks whose aim is the whole labor movement. They can prepare a fight for the next contracts coming up; a mobilization to fight for their own interests would prove that the attack on Carey hadn’t accomplished its goal. Whatever decisions the government may already have taken, can be untaken.
The AFL-CIO, and all its constituent unions, have a choice. They can back off in front of the attacks, debate whether or not Carey actually did what he was accused of doing, and wait for the bourgeois courts to decide the question. In which case, they will fall along with Carey, just as the labor movement of the ’40s fell along with the communists and that of the ’50s fell along with Hoffa.
Or they can mobilize the ranks of other unions to start a real counteroffensive of the whole working class. It’s in organizing to protect the interests of the workers, that real leaders of the workers movement can protect themselves.