I first met Ron Carey in the early 1980s. We always met at a diner in Queens, New York, where he would order his signature tuna sandwich. We discussed how reform of the Teamsters could be possible, and we were checking each other out, too.
By 1984, Ron was ready to start to make some national connections, and he traveled to a few cities to talk about the upcoming UPS contract. In Cleveland, we set up a meeting chaired by Local 407 president Sam Theodus. Then General President Jackie Presser met with Carey and tried to intimidate him out of attending a meeting on Jackie’s home turf. Carey turned his back on the mobbed up General President—and walked out the door.
In 1986-89, TDU organized a campaign on several fronts to win the “Right to Vote:” to directly elect the top Teamster officers. We built support, and pressed ahead steadily, picking up surprising support in the media, in the President’s Commission on Organized Crime, and of course wide support from the members. Ron told me he was skeptical, but hopeful.
On March 14, 1989, TDU’s plan for the Right to Vote was a key element in the consent order that the International Union officials signed with the Justice Department. We won the Right to Vote.
My next trip to Queens was one month later. I nervously sat down to meet with Ron, where I planned to ask him to run for Teamster president. It turned out that he was thinking the same thing, and was asking about getting support from TDU.
It was an eventful meeting indeed. Ron Carey had the courage and audacity to take the lead in the battle to reform the Teamsters Union.
That summer the background was laid for what became the most historic campaign for union office in US history. Ron met with the TDU Steering Committee to answer questions and talk about a platform and slate. In September 1989, Ron announced his candidacy at a big meeting at his own Local 804, then addressed the TDU Convention in Pittsburgh, where TDU endorsed him. The campaign was launched.
Ron was a leader in the best sense: he brought out the best in those around in and the members. On the campaign trail, he had an immediate rapport with members. His humanity and integrity always came through.
Thousands of Teamsters got active, many for the first time, in the campaign. It grew around TDU, but became much larger than TDU. Ron traveled the country and campaigned tirelessly.
In December 1991, Ron Carey was elected by a wide margin, along with a progressive slate of vice presidents.
My relationship to Ron continued and deepened, though now our meetings were usually not in Queens but in Washington or in the field somewhere. In nine years, Ron addressed eight TDU Conventions.
TDU remained a key part of the “Carey coalition,” though in different ways at different periods. Early on, Ron told me he wasn’t sure TDU was needed anymore. He was hopeful that most Teamster officials would accept his election, and work with him. He quickly found that was not to be: powerful Teamsters officials worked harder to undermine Carey than to represent the members.
TDU played a support role, and also provided pressure from below.
TDU members were taking on officials who resisted progressive change. Sometimes winning, sometimes not, but making progress. We coordinated with Ron, but charted our own course.
Ron maintained his integrity, and expanded his vision, throughout his six years in office. He went on to attack corruption in the union, eliminate most of the wasteful perks, start the first real Teamster organizing program, and take a whole new approach to bargaining.
Above all, Ron opened up the union to the members. Instead of fearing or avoiding members like his predecessors, Ron sought them out, and didn’t mind if they disagreed with him. Membership participation grew.
Changing the Labor Movement
Ron Carey helped change the labor movement. The AFL-CIO had its first-ever contested election in 1995, thanks in large part to Ron Carey, who cast the Teamsters’ 1.4 million votes for challenger John Sweeney.
Carey changed the labor movement even more with the 1997 UPS strike victory, labor’s greatest victory of the decade. It was a strike that we laid the basis for over many years, building a network of TDU activists at UPS. But it took Carey’s leadership to make it happen.
For a year, Carey put 20 activists on the union staff to work the UPS hubs and centers across the country in a year-long contract campaign: building unity, solidarity, getting input, getting members involved.
UPS management took on the union, encouraged behind the scenes by old guard officials who had scabbed on Carey’s one day safety strike at UPS in 1994. But Ron Carey was ready for the fight.
Encouraged by Ron, members took over the strike. They spoke to the media. They went to all their customers, leaflets in hand, to explain the strike. They built labor and community support. The issue of “Part Time America Won’t Work” struck a chord with the American people.
The strike won, pure and simple. New full time jobs, created from the low-wage part time jobs. No company take over of the pension plan, but instead pension improvements and new early-retirement options.
The labor movement took a leap.
Within days of that August 1997 victory, Ron was under attack, and by November, Ron gave his last public speech, at the TDU convention in Cleveland. His speech was as exciting and visionary as always. But powerful forces, inside and outside the union, brought him down.
Members who want to read more about the attack on Carey—and his vindication—should read labor reporter Ken Crowe’s excellent article, The Vindication of Ron Carey.
For the past ten years I’ve missed Ron dearly. He kept in touch with us and stayed in tune with rank-and-file movements to rebuild our union’s power—both at the International Union and in Local 804, his home local. Teamsters everywhere missed his voice, presence and leadership but honored his legacy by continuing his cause.
Ron Carey’s contributions to the Teamsters and the US labor movement tower over those of his contemporaries. He’s a modern day labor hero, and he was a good friend.