JUST AS WORKERS and pro-labor progressives across the country were celebrating the victory of the Teamsters in the UPS strike, the federal monitor appointed to oversee the union's transition to democracy has voided the election of its president, Ron Carey. The reason? Carey's campaign had benefited from a money-laundering scheme in which Bill Clinton's greedy fundraising machine raised big bucks for Carey, in return for huge contributions from the union treasury to Clinton's re-election. Carey's margin of victory over James Hoffa, son of the legendarily corrupt Teamsters president, was so paper-thin that the laundered money could have made the difference between winning and losing, and so the monitor had little choice but to overturn the tainted vote.
This is a huge tragedy for the labor movement and for the Teamsters members in particular. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney had thrown the weight of the labor federation behind the strike, seeing it as a winnable test of worker solidarity in which a victory could demonstrate the value of unions to a new generation of workers. It's been nearly two decades since Ronald Reagan began his class war against organized labor in the PATCO strike, and in contrast to the consciousness- and confidence-building union struggles their fathers experienced, today's youthful workforce has grown up in an era of union-busting and givebacks.
If the Teamsters' victory over UPS was seen as a symbol of a revitalized union movement, struggling to cast off the authoritarian legacy of the somnolent Meany-Kirkland years that marked organized labor's decline, just think what it meant to the Teamsters themselves. Ron Carey's election as union president was the culmination of a 20-year struggle led by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a rank-and-file movement that wanted to cleanse the leadership of mob frontmen like Jimmy Hoffa, Roy Williams, Jackie Presser, and their ilk. The UPS strike could never have been won without seamless support from ordinary union members convinced that the era of sweetheart contracts negotiated behind their backs was over, and that with the election of Carey they were making the union their own.
Now, the Teamsters are forced into a rerun of their presidential election, one that young Hoffa--the candidate of the corrupt old guard, which still retains power in many puissant locals and joint councils--could well win. In Carey, the reformers are stuck with a candidate tarnished by his million-dollar raid on their dues in a money-laundering scheme cooked up with the connivance of the corporate shakedown artists who peopled the Clinton machine. Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who comes from a right-to-work state, is sure to deploy the full arsenal of union-busting rhetoric when his committee's campaign-fundraising investigation takes up the Carey/Clinton scam in the fall. The scandal also gives aid and comfort to the likes of Rep. Newt Gingrich and Kentucky Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, who are pushing for legislation that would entirely forbid unions from using members' dues for partisan political activity.
The odoriferous and probably illegal Carey/Clinton arrangements underscore how Washington's culture of corruption pollutes not just the political classes but the whole society. By their willingness to interfere in the election of a union only just emerging from a history of institutionalized malfeasance, the Clintonoids displayed their utter contempt for union democracy and for the labor movement itself. Clinton's assiduousness in pressing for a fast track for new, NAFTA-imitating trade agreements that will only encourage corporate outsourcing of union jobs shows how little organized labor got for its Bubbaphilia.
Only last week, the press uncovered two new Clinton administration scandals: FedEx bought an Oval Office meeting to lobby Clinton on trade policy for $275,000 in contributions to the Democrats, and omnipresent Clinton funny-money hustler Johnny Chung confessed that he'd been shaken down by then-Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary for a $25,000 donation to a favorite charity in order to get a meeting. Add to these the long series of corrupt fundraising practices culminating in the Carey/Clinton deal, and Janet Reno's continued refusal to appoint a special prosecutor in the fundraising mess appears more deliberate and politically motivated than ever.
Ultimately, only full public financing of our political campaigns can prevent the commonweal from being drowned in the sea of big money in politics. It's worth remembering that if the Kerry-Wellstone Clean Money/Clean Elections Bill had been in effect, the Carey/Clinton scheme could not have happened--and the labor movement would have been spared a body blow to its integrity that it can ill afford.
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