Ron Carey: Class Struggle Teamster Leader Dies At 72

Bill Leumer

On December 12, 2008, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a reform caucus in the Teamsters Union, sent out the following message announcing the death of Ron Carey.

Ron Carey, the message stated, “was the first Democratically Elected Teamster President Remembered As A Corruption Fighter And Vindicated Reformer.

“Ron Carey, a former UPS driver and Teamster president who set the standard for American union leaders for courage and honesty and transformed the leadership of both the Teamsters Union and the AFL-CIO, died yesterday at age 72 at New York City Queens Hospital.

“Carey toppled mob rule in the Teamsters, became the International Union’s first democratically elected General President, and used his influence to change the leadership and direction of the AFL-CIO. In 1997, he led a 15-day strike against United Parcel Service–winning the labor movement’s biggest victory in a generation.

“Carey resigned from office in November 1997 to fight allegations that he was involved in an improper scheme to use union funds to finance his reelection campaign. Carey was vindicated of this charge by a jury in federal court in 2001 which found that Carey had no knowledge of, or role in, the scheme.”

The following remarks were submitted to the website of TDU for publication in the Ron Carey “personal remembrance” section by Bill Leumer (IBT 853), on December 12, 2008.

In my opinion, Ron Carey will be remembered by his supporters and unwavering defenders as not merely a militant trade unionist, but as a trade union leader that operated on the basis of a class struggle perspective. At Ron’s appearance before the government Independent Review Board on January 19, 1998 (which I attended to support him and covered in an article titled, “Teamsters head Ron Cary repudiates charges at D.C. hearing,” which appeared in the February 1998 issue of Socialist Action) he was asked while on the witness stand, what motivated him in his union activities? Ron replied by saying that he resented the bad image of the Teamsters, whereby the members came last and they suffered under bad contracts. More importantly, he stated that he wanted the union, “to be a fighting force for workers.”

This statement revealed the essential difference between himself and virtually all other trade union officials. This class struggle perspective of Ron’s is what in fact made him a leader and all the rest mere officials. In addition, it was this perspective that made him a target of the employers and their government, especially after the enormous strike victory at UPS in 1997. One of the remarkable elements of that victory is that the Teamsters, under Carey, championed the needs of the part-time workers at UPS so that they ended up winning even more than the full-time workers, although everyone gained historic victories. The significance of this strategical approach is this: unions are week as long as workers are divided between full-timers and part-timers where the working conditions and rewards are dramatically different. By focusing on the needs of the part-timers, the Teamsters were able to raise them up and erase some of the divisions among the workers so that the union emerged from the struggle much stronger than before.

Unfortunately, at the November 21-23, 1997 TDU convention where Ron Carey spoke right after the Clinton government brought charges against him which eventually led to his being unjustifiably removed from the Teamsters union, the TDU officials consistently failed to challenge the federal government’s bogus charges. Moreover, the TDU officials did not once challenge the right of the government-appointed Election Officer to decide whom Teamster members can and cannot choose as their leaders.

Lastly, for those interested in reading a more in-depth analysis of the class struggle leadership Carey provided, see “Lessons of the 1997 Teamster Strike at UPS” by Bill Leumer, at <www.workerscompass.org>.

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About the Author: Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.), former member of IBT Local 216 and was a pro-Carey TDU member. He is a writer for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.