Ron Carey: Working Class Hero
Ron Carey, who led the Teamsters in perhaps the most important strike of a generation—the 1997 UPS strike—died of lung cancer on December 11, 2008 in New York City at age 72.
Carey will be remembered by all the people he inspired with his courage and commitment. As a young UPS driver in the Queens UPS hub in 1955, Carey was infuriated by the way in which workers were treated by management. He said of that time:
I immediately found that the daily conditions at UPS were not good. It was very frustrating to me, the way they demeaned people, the way they talked to them in such a condescending way. . . . Many times I found myself biting my tongue not to strike out at the manager. I wasn’t a shop steward at the time, and I felt like shouting out “Wait a minute! That’s a human being you’re talking to—my God! Give the guy a chance to answer, and get out of his face.”
Carey then turned his anger into a commitment to spend the rest of his life fighting for workers’ dignity. He first ran for shop steward, then trustee, recording secretary, and then president of Teamsters local 804. In his struggle for workers’ rights he not only had to go up against UPS, but also the corrupt leadership of the Teamsters union. If workers faced humiliation and hardships on the job, they had little sympathy from union representatives. As Carey put it, “Union guys would come down, most of them were six-foot-two characters . . . why would you tell them about your problems, and did they really care? They never came to see the members. …It was the Hoffa years, it was a time of mobsters and good old boys.”
During these years, Carey developed a method that he would return to often: listen to and mobilize rank-and-file members, and speak out and organize against the company. Once in office, as President of Local 804, he carried through on his promises. He slashed the bloated salaries of union officers, he set up a system of 24-hour representation where at least one member of the union board was available at all times to listen and respond to workers’ problems. He led the Local for 20 years, during which time he negotiated some of the best Teamsters contracts in the nation. After two decades as president of Local 804, Carey ran for president of the Teamsters with the support of the rank-and-file group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU),
His 1991 election victory against entrenched old guard candidates spoke to a desire for change within the union. Carey once again eliminated all the perks enjoyed by the old guard. As he explained, “We got rid of the limousines, the luxuries, the union’s private jet. I cut my own salary from 225,000 to 150,000. We eliminated one of the layers of union bureaucracy . . . [and] put the IBT on a financially sound direction. …We expanded and strengthened the organizing department. We tried many different strategies to mobilize members, involve them in the union, [and] make the union stronger.”
He was able to win some gains for UPS Teamsters in 1993, but it was in 1997 that a real victory for the union movement was won. A full year before the contract with UPS expired in 1997, Carey and his organizing team had distributed surveys to rank and file members to determine what they wanted with the new contract. Members were then engaged in the process through the contract campaign strategy. Yet, UPS was determined not to give an inch to the Teamsters.
On August 4, 1997 Carey called a national strike against UPS. 185,000 Teamsters walked off their jobs and ground the company to a halt. This was perhaps Carey’s finest moment. As a union leader who had risen from the rank and file, who had experienced the frustrating and humiliating conditions of work at a giant corporation, and who had spent his entire life fighting for workers’ dignity, he was able to give voice to the anger and aspirations of not only UPS workers but the U.S. working class as well.
By the mid-nineties, workers in the U.S. had lived through over two decades of wage stagnation, job loss, lengthened working hours, greater stress, and a lower quality of life. Carey gave voice to these conditions and challenged the hubris of corporate America:
This is really a fight about good jobs. This is not just a fight about Teamsters and their families; it is about working people in this country. You have big companies in this country that are shifting to part-time, low-wage, throwaway, disposable jobs, subcontracting the work out. Those are some of the vital issues. And as I say, it’s a shame, and working people have said, “Enough is enough.” I think this is a fight for good jobs in America. It’s a fight that working families have been taking on the chin.
The UPS strike shifted the terms of discussion around the economy and cast a spotlight on inequality. In a country founded on the myth of class mobility and the American dream, class polarization was exposed and the corporate media were forced to acknowledge this disparity.
The UPS strike could have marked a turning point for the labor movement. The Teamsters won their best ever contract with UPS, and they had the support of the American people. The public supported the Teamsters 2-1 over UPS, indicating among other things a shift in favor of labor unions. This was the moment when the one-sided class war being waged against workers since the 1970s could have been turned into a two-sided war.
Yet, the momentum was lost. Carey was expelled from the Teamsters union for supposedly violating campaign fundraising rules. The corporate elite heaved a collective sigh of relief that a militant union leader was punished for daring to stand up to them. And instead of defending Carey, the labor movement stood by and let him fall. In September 2001, Carey was cleared of all charges against him in a federal court. Yet, he still remained banned from the Teamsters union. The Teamsters under the leadership of Jimmy Hoffa Jr. sought to erase Carey from the union’s history. Rather than remember the lessons of the UPS strike, and learn from Carey’s successes, the Teamsters leadership wanted to bury his memory.
It was in this context that I met Ron Carey. While working on my book on media coverage of the UPS strike I was amazed to read everything that Carey had said and done. I had to record his life and his experiences and so set up an interview with him. When I went to meet him at his lawyer’s office in Washington DC, I expected to meet a person who bore the scars of a witch hunt that drove him out of the union, as well as the weight of a life spent fighting an uphill battle both against powerful companies and corrupt union officials. Yet, Carey was not worn down; instead, he was enthusiastic, lively and animated. And it dawned on me that it would take that kind of fighting spirit to lead the life he had.
I will never forget this encounter. And when Carey came out of ten years of being out of public life to speak at my book launch in 2007, I was humbled and grateful to this kind man for his gesture. His speech was fiery and inspiring, as if not a moment had passed since the strike. Rather than dwell on the injustices done to him, Carey spoke to the potential of ordinary working people to fight against corporate greed. To the end, he had faith in the rank-and-file. As he put it, “I am very proud of all the members who fought and who sacrificed to win respect and dignity, not just for themselves, but for their co-workers and for their union and for workers all over the world. . . . It was an honor and a privilege for me to serve the Teamster membership.”
Ron Carey inspired and touched the lives of thousands of union members and activists. In my conversations with Teamsters around the country, I have heard a range of stories that exemplify Carey’s compassion, his courage, and his dedication to fighting the good fight. He showed through example that it is possible to reform a corrupt union, to mobilize rank and file workers, and to stand up against a powerful multinational company like UPS and win. These are important lessons to leave behind as the U.S. economy grinds deeper into recession. Ron Carey will not, and should not, be forgotten.
Deepa Kumar is the author of Outside the Box: Corporate Media, Globalization, and the UPS Strike, which includes a lengthy interview with Ron Carey.
Carey’s speech at the book launch in 2007 remembering the UPS strike can be found on YouTube at: youtube.com/watch?v=Q_-upPC7E7k