Teamsters Ranks Still Between a Rock and a Hard Place

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In the Nation of Sept. 29, labor commentator David Moberg, senior editor of In These Times, rightly says that the neither the government’s intercession into the Teamsters Union nor internal efforts at reform have yet succeeded in establishing “a culture of democracy within the union.”

Nevertheless, Moberg suggests, the government’s 12-year supervision of the union should be continued indefinitely-that is, until the Teamsters officialdom demonstrates that its own still dormant anti-corruption board, championed by Teamsters President James P. Hoffa, “can do the job and establish a final review board independent of the Teamsters officialdom.”

Moberg’s conclusion echos the views of the leadership of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the Association for Union Democracy.

Although Moberg says that the decisions of the government’s oversight board “have not been beyond criticism,” seemingly his criticisms are so minor that he gives the oversight board and the federal judges that oversee the board the benefit of his doubts.

Hence, Moberg tells supporters of former Teamsters President Ron Carey, who was ousted from his post by the government agents, that “without some independent outside force, there would have been less progress in reforming the Teamsters.”

Seemingly then, Moberg holds that Carey’s ouster was regrettable, but still it was a reasonable price for the Teamsters ranks to pay for the Fed’s “oversight.” Moberg concludes, “Democracy, including ferreting out corruption, is worth the price, and democracy in the Teamsters still needs outside help.”

No doubt Teamsters democracy-that is, rank-and-file control of the union from top to bottom-needs all the help it can get. But the ranks’ experience during the past 12 years would indicate not that the ranks need government intervention (“outside help”) but rather that the ranks are between a rock and a hard place.

On the one hand they confront a well-entrenched and relatively wealthy labor autocracy, and on the other they confront the government, beholden to corporate America-that’s opposed, on principle, to union militancy.

Moberg’s apparent call for many more years of federal intrusion into the Teamsters Union is hardly a realistic program for union democracy. Rather, if the past 12 years are any guide, it is a program for continued dominance of the ranks by the government and the union’s bureaucratic officialdom.

Moberg should talk to meatpackers in Washington State and in Colorado who are learning that what works is their independent mobilization against the Teamsters bureaucracy and the corporate interests the bureaucracy seeks to defend.

The Washington Teamsters have won a large measure of power and now run their local, after defeating an attack by the Hoffa administration, seemingly ignored by the government’s oversight board.

The Colorado Teamsters, largely an immigrant workforce like their Washington counterparts, still have a ways to go, but they are on the same path as the Washington militants. Northwest flight attendants, also Teamsters, have learned that the power of mobilization is necessary to free themselves from the union’s bureaucracy that tramples their autonomy with the full knowledge of the Fed’s appointees.

All three groups of Teamsters, as well as others, have been aided and supported in their fights for democracy by the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a union caucus founded in 1975. Time and again, TDU has urged badly treated Teamsters to mobilize themselves and force their opponents to confront a rank-and-file united front.

The TDU leaders understand, advocate, and practice the strategy of the democratic mobilization of the ranks, but not consistently. In the three local unions mentioned, the TDU urges the members to rely on their mobilized strength; but when it comes to the government’s monitors over the international union, the leaders are submissive-no matter what the provocation.

Since Carey’s ouster, TDU has failed to censure the government’s appointees, even when they refused to slap the wrist of a Detroit Teamster kingmaker who rallied the bureaucracy to get behind Hoffa, though TDU obviously believed that the Teamster official was guilty of multiple corrupt acts.

More recently, as Moberg points out, the federal monitors did oust some Hoffa backers caught cutting a deal for themselves with bosses; and Hoffa admitted to having a “general overview” of the crooked deal. Yet the Feds did not go after Hoffa, and TDU has failed to vigorously expose the lop-sided, anti-democratic conduct of the monitors.

TDU was influential both in winning the right of the ranks to vote for international officers and in Ron Carey’s consecutive elections to the union’s top post. Before his 1989 election Ron Carey opposed the government’s takeover from the floor of the Teamsters Convention.

If TDU differed with Carey on the issue, TDU never publicly said so. Nevertheless, when Carey was ousted, TDU did no more than pass a resolution in solidarity with Carey, a resolution that lacked the slightest criticism of the government.

TDU leaders no doubt believe that TDU’s loss of momentum since Carey’s ouster has nothing to do with their turning their backs on Carey. So if they had to do it all over again, no doubt they wouldn’t change a thing. Unfortunately, that attitude only deepens the pit that the Teamsters ranks have to get out of.

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