Ron Carey is not a crook

The former Teamsters president made a stupid mistake, but don't forget he's the guy who wrestled unions away from the mob in the first place.

Published January 31, 2001 9:00PM (EST)

Last week, Ron Carey, who served for a time as president of the Brotherhood of Teamsters, was indicted on seven federal charges, each of which could bring him five years in prison. Carey is accused of having lied to federal officials back in 1997, when the officials were investigating a fundraising scandal in the union. The fundraising, back in 1996, had been sneaky and illegal, and Carey denied knowing anything about it, which did seem a little hard to believe.

On Thursday, Carey is going to be arraigned. The indictment, in the language of the New York Times, "indirectly points a finger" at Richard Trumka, too. Trumka is the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO and is said to have played a part in the fundraising scheme. But Trumka hasn't been indicted.

The funds that were raised back in 1996 came from various sources, and I can reveal that one of those sources was myself. I have never admitted this before, but it's true. A friend of mine was working for Carey, and told me that Carey desperately needed to raise money for a union election drive, and quickly, too, and would I help?

In a gesture of Soros-like munificence, I wrote a check for $25. It was perfectly legal (I think). And now that I have confessed my own participation, I figure that I am entitled to comment on what has happened to my money and to the union movement.

What has happened to Ron Carey, and I suppose what might happen to Trumka, strikes me as a distortion of justice. Thirty years ago the American labor movement was in pathetic shape -- not in numbers or in political power (the decline in numbers and power came later) but in its integrity and honor.

Gangsters and thugs commanded some of America's biggest organizations -- to begin with, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Union, where Mafia hoodlums had risen to power under the leadership of the notorious James Hoffa Sr. and his friends. Mafia control of the Teamsters represented what was probably gangsterdom's single biggest triumph in America. The United Mine Workers was likewise under corrupt leadership. But, beginning in the early 1970s, a number of grass-roots reform insurgencies got underway, some of them staffed by young people who had come out of the student movement of those years.

Does anyone remember how much courage went into those reform campaigns? The gangsters and corrupt officials had come by their reputations honestly, so to speak. In the miners' union, gangster officials arranged for their share of murders. Yet the campaigns persisted, and, in the miners' union, Trumka, the reform candidate, eventually came to power. He and his group beamed a spirit of honesty into union preserves that had exuded nothing but darkness for many a year. (It was later, having effected his reforms in the miners' union, that Trumka moved over to the job of secretary-treasurer at the AFL-CIO.)

Then came the reform victory in the Teamsters, in 1991, which represented an even bigger victory. Ron Carey came to power. He did a lot of good. He got rid of some of the gangsters. He led the union on a strike against United Parcel Service, which turned out to be quite a militant strike. He won, and the victory was a huge benefit for the UPS workers, and by extension for people working in similar companies, where wages have to compete. Nor does UPS seem to have suffered, meaning that everybody won and nobody lost. But soon enough Carey faced an enormous campaign by Jimmy Hoffa's son, James P. Hoffa Jr. and his allies to bring about a restoration of the ancien regime, or at least the restoration of a few of its aspects.

You could wonder why Hoffa Jr. would have had any chance at all against Carey and his allies, given the reformer's success at getting rid of some of the old gangsters, and the wonderful victory over UPS. But the old Hoffa regime had sunk deep roots in the Teamsters, and in union locals all over the country, minikingpins and satraps were still in office, and they feared Carey and his reformers.

So the old-timers organized a campaign for Hoffa Jr., and did it with a lot of zeal, too. And Carey, in order to retain the presidency and preserve the reforms, suddenly needed to raise a lot more money than anyone had imagined, when he first came to power.

Thus the ridiculous and shady fundraising scheme of 1996. Student militants from the early '70s had gone directly into union reform campaigns. But there were other students from that time, members of Students for a Democratic Society, who had gone about building social-change institutions of their own, such as Citizen Action. Those people, the ones with institutions at their disposal, seem to have come up with the idea of receiving donations from the Teamsters' union, which they could turn around and donate, through still other people, to the Carey reelection campaign.

It was a scheme to take union money, which ought not to have been put to factional purposes, and spend it on the factional purpose of getting Carey reelected.

The scheme was illegal. It was idiotic. It was self-destructive. It led to a judicial order prohibiting Carey from running for reelection, which, in turn, led to the victory of Hoffa Jr. in 1998. The scheme has now led to Carey's indictment, given that, when he was asked about the fundraising shenanigans, he did the natural thing and denied knowing anything about anything.

The scheme made Carey and his allies look no better than any other corrupt union officials. The scheme was bad, bad, bad. And yet it ought to be pointed out that, in spite of appearances, Carey and his allies back in 1996 were not, in fact, corrupt union officials -- not in the classic sense of that term anyway. For what was Carey's motivation, and Trumka's, and the other people active in the Carey reelection campaign?

Those people were not trying to get rich, nor to bring the Mafia kingpins back into power. They were trying to prevent the bad old days from returning. They had spent their lives fighting for the simplest honesty in some of America's largest and more powerful institutions, and their fight had been successful, until that moment, and, in their panic, they were doing all too much to preserve what they had won.

After they were caught, a weird unholy alliance of critics stood up to point fingers at them -- frustrated Cold War ideologues of the labor movement, from the long-gone era of Lane Kirkland; federal judges and prosecutors; nostalgics of Mafia power; and the champions of Jimmy Hoffa. Republicans pounded the table, demanding legal action against Carey. And now they have got what they demanded, and Carey faces trial, with a possibility of jail.

The Ron Carey affair, as it has played out over the last four years, has made the unions seem as corrupt as in the past. But the unions are not as corrupt. Even the new Hoffa regime in the Teamsters has had to mind its p's and q's, so far, due to the legacy of reform. There is more citizenly liveliness in the AFL-CIO today than at any time in recent memory. It is because of people like Carey and Trumka and their allies.

You might have thought that Carey would have won a little gratitude from the public for the role he has played, and the gratitude would tell in his favor now. But no, here he is at age 64, facing the worst. The man is (mostly) a hero, and is being treated like a criminal. The injustice ought to be obvious.

By Paul Berman

Paul Berman is the author of "A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968.

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