Specter of Hoffa Haunts Teamsters

There now seems to be no question that the election victory of Ron Carey as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was tainted by crimes committed on his behalf. Three of his campaign aides have pleaded guilty to money-laundering schemes in recent days, and there is a reasonable suspicion, if no proof yet, that Mr. Carey himself may have had knowledge of their activities. If he did, he will be disqualified from running in the new presidential election that has been mandated by a Federal monitor, and he may even be indicted.

Let’s hope that his denials are true-because if Ron Carey is ruined, the bad old days soon may return for the teamsters’ union.

Despite blaring headlines, in historical perspective the sins of Mr. Carey’s aides were as nothing compared with the endemic corruption and violence that once made “teamster” synonymous with “goon” and “crook.” Mr. Carey came to power backed by a rank-and-file movement, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which struggled for almost two decades against domination by the mob, and he fearlessly set about cleansing the union: doing away with private planes and other lavish perks, kicking out mobsters and their lackeys in dozens of union locals and aligning the teamsters with the rest of the labor movement rather than against it.

The latter move was Mr. Carey’s worst political offense in the eyes of the Republicans who are now so eager to undo him. Since Mr. Carey’s ascension, the teamsters were no longer the only union where the likes of Ronald Reagan and Orrin Hatch felt welcome no matter how badly they treated workers. The Republicans who now rail so loudly against the abuses of Mr. Carey’s associates were silent when the mobbed-up teamsters were helping G.O.P. candidates and causes, and getting favors from the White House in turn. Quite naturally, the Republicans preferred “business unionism” as practiced by the old teamsters, and the G.O.P. did plenty of business with them.

Whatever his faults, Mr. Carey disdains business unionism. He has largely fulfilled the promise ascribed to him almost 20 years ago in Steven Brill’s classic book The Teamsters , which called the New York local he headed in those days “a model of honest, concerned representative democracy.” And, as the recent strike he led against United Parcel Service proved, Mr. Carey is more than capable of leading, and winning, a strike against a tough, wealthy employer when necessary.

The same cannot be said of James P. Hoffa, his opponent in the current struggle for control of the union. As the son of the legendary boss whose name he bears, Mr. Hoffa also might be expected to want to cleanse the union of the mobsters who killed his father, even though he grew up in the shadow of his father’s criminal associates. But the tenor of Mr. Hoffa’s campaign for the teamster presidency has been anti-reform, as suggested by its slogan, “Restore the Pride.”

Restore the pride? Pride in what, precisely? In the dirty deals his father made with leg breakers and killers? In the truck-leasing company his mother owned, which served as a conduit for payoffs to his father? In the reign of terror, which tolerated no dissent and no fair contests for any union position? In the squandering of workers’ assets on real estate deals with con men and gangsters?

Presumably Mr. Hoffa is referring to pride in his late father’s record of organizing truck drivers and winning good wages. That would be natural, although Mr. Hoffa himself is not and has never been a union leader; he has never led a strike or organized a factory. In fact, he has always been a lawyer whose practice thrived on the good will of the old-line teamster leadership in his hometown of Detroit.

Even if Mr. Hoffa means well, his choice of companions is not reassuring. His spokesman and at least one of his attorneys are veterans of the strange crew that once surrounded Jackie Presser, the late teamster president whose dual fealty to the Mafia and the F.B.I. made him a certain kind of legend, too. Now managing Mr. Hoffa’s campaign to overthrow Mr. Carey, these are the same people who fought bitterly against reform-redbaiting crusaders for democracy within the union, lending intellectual and moral support to gangster elements, and trying to thwart the Government intervention that eventually insured the first truly democratic presidential election in teamster history.

These are, in fact, ex-members of the Lyndon LaRouche political cult, and they used to swagger around the teamster conventions in Las Vegas during the 1980’s with thugs they had befriended, trying to intimidate journalists and union dissidents. The horrifying prospect of such people running a major American union may explain, though it does not excuse, whatever excesses Mr. Carey’s allies committed to prevent that outcome.

The irony is that Mr. Hoffa did not dare to seek the presidency of the teamsters for almost 20 years, until the democratic forces he derides made it safe for him to do so without risking his life. If Mr. Carey falls, those same union democrats will have to find another champion to safeguard their historic achievements.