IN Dallas last March, officials from Teamsters union locals gathered to listen to their national leaders outline critical issues in upcoming negotiations with United Parcel Service (UPS).
Of all the issues, one concerned the officials so much that they demanded it be removed from the bargaining table: asking UPS to give any member who becomes a union official a leave of absence.
Why would they be so angry over this innocuous-sounding proposal? Because it was another attempt by Ron Carey, the reform-minded president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to bring democracy to the nation's largest union. Mr. Carey, who is also attacking corruption within the union, reasoned that more members would run for office if they could get their old jobs back. The entrenched officers were livid at the prospect of competition for their jobs.
Trustees take charge
The battle - which Carey won - is typical of the turmoil in the 1.5-million member union.
Since February 1992, Carey has named trustees to run 28 local unions or joint councils around the nation. Twelve of these trustees are located in the New York region. These ``emergency'' trustees oversee the operations and investigate the locals for corruption. They also make institutional changes in the local's bylaws to try to prevent corruption in the future.
``The historic weakness of the Teamsters has been corruption, but the people I know who have been appointed trustees are passionate about changing it in the right direction,'' says Dan Swinney, executive director of the Midwest Center for Labor Research, a think tank and consulting firm in Chicago.
Carey has been trying to clean up the union leadership as well. He sold the union's two jets with gold plated faucets, gaming tables, and engraved liquor cases. He got rid of a white stretch limousine. He cut his own salary by $75,000 to $150,000. He has also ended a Teamster practice of allowing officers in the international to continue to collect multiple salaries from their locals, pension funds, and other sources.
Carey has been battling allegations that he has had links to organized crime. The allegations were raised when Time magazine reported that a mob informant, Alfonso (``Little Al'') D'Arco, formerly a boss in the Lucchese crime family, told the FBI that Carey was linked to the late Joseph (``Joe Shrugs'') Trerotola. (See story next page).
The Investigative Review Board (IRB), a three-man government agency that oversees the union (and includes former FBI director William Webster and former federal Judge Frederick Lacey), will only comment that ``the matter is under review by the IRB.''
``You have to look very carefully at what is in the public record - it is very political between Mr. Carey and his opposition,'' says John Cronin Jr., IRB administrator.
The bad blood between Carey and his opponents is the result of an election forced on the union by the federal government, which threatened to prosecute union leadership on charges of corruption if the leaders did not allow a truly democratic election. Carey, who had been running a local in Queens, N.Y., won the election and began cleaning up the union. Even before Carey was elected, there was a small reform movement under way in the Teamsters. Those reformists say they are generally pleased with Carey's efforts. ``He has gone in the direction he said he would go once elected,'' says Ken Paff, national organizer of the Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
Mr. Paff, who says he still has some disagreements with Carey, rates him high on openness. And he says the allegations about Carey's ties to the mob are false. ``He is clean,'' Paff says.
Cleaning up the Teamster image is critical to its future. The union is one of the most active organizers in the country. ``Employers point to the Teamsters' history of leadership by individual's convicted of corruption or clear ties to criminal activity, which makes it hard to recruit new members,'' explains Richard Hurd, director of Labor Studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
The battles are going on at the same time that the union is struggling financially. After he was elected, Carey discovered that in 1989 the old leadership had moved $34 million from the strike fund to the general fund to help make up the union's operating deficit.
Carey increased strike benefits from $50 a week to $200 a week. The fund has been shrinking because the union has so far paid out $8 million to 500 workers engaged in a three-year strike at Diamond Walnut cooperative in Stockton, Calif. ``It [has] cost every Teamster $5 per head, but we think it's worth it,'' Paff says.
Strike fund short
The result is that the strike fund will be out of money by June. ``That is a real crisis,'' says Carey, who is asking members in a referendum beginning this month to approve a dues increase of 30 minutes of wages a month. Since teamsters average about $12 an hour, this works out to $6 a month.
Getting the dues increase passed will not be easy. Carey faces many enemies within the union's hierarchy. Recently, the four chairmen of the Teamsters Area Conferences in the United States sent a letter to all members opposing the increase and proposing a convention of union leaders ``to decide on a less-costly alternative'' and submit it to a membership vote. Carey responded with a vitriolic letter.
While the union is fighting internally, Carey is also negotiating new labor contracts. In May 1992, the Teamsters reached an agreement with the car-haul industry, after the former leaders had been deadlocked for 15 months. Last year Carey negotiated a new contract with Atlanta-based UPS. He wanted changes in the grievance procedure. If an employee did something that warranted a suspension or firing, the worker had the right to appeal to a grievance panel but was suspended during the process. Carey got the company to change to an ``innocent until proven guilty'' policy. UPS also agreed to a ``25 years and out'' retirement policy.
Ken Sternad, a UPS spokesman, says the company expected a lot of contract changes (there were more than 100). As a result, the negotiations took far longer than prior contract talks. ``The pace of the negotiations were a source of real consternation,'' he says.
With the new contract, UPS maintained the ``operating flexibility'' it needs to compete against nonunion Federal Express and Roadway Express. The contract is for four years instead of three, which will help the company to price its services in landing national contracts.
The Teamsters' next contract negotiations are with the major freight haulers, such as Yellow Freight, Roadway, and Consolidated Freightways. The major issue is job security, Carey says. He says he wants to make some impact on the funneling of work to non-union trucks owned by the freight companies. ``The major issue is not money - I am not out there negotiating for Uncle Sam so that our members pay 33 cents out of every dollar to the government,'' Carey says. The contract deadline is March 31.