The Teamsters Strike Back

April 23, 1994

The 17-day-old Teamsters trucking strike is a no-win situation for both employees and their employers, given the industry's economics, but the job action signifies a revitalized spirit in what was once the largest U.S. trade union.

After decades of corrupt officials, payroll padding and concessionary contracts imposed from above to avoid strikes, the Teamsters union under president Ron Carey, a former dissident, has demonstrated a will to take difficult, tough stands in collective bargaining.

It's the first national trucking strike in 15 years, following a threatened Teamsters walkout against United Parcel Service over package-weight rules that was stopped only by court injunction. This is no cause for celebration: jobs will be lost, income will be lost, companies may go out of business.

But the Teamsters union will have shown its resolve to fight for members' jobs and survival. The deregulated transportation industry is increasingly shifting to lower-paying part-time jobs, replacing full-time union workers, and shifting freight from trucks to railroad. The union had to take a stand or to signal complaisance in the decline of jobs and membership, even as its contracted employers lose business to non-union haulers.

The Teamsters strike reflects the restiveness of union members who were formerly forced to accept minority-approved concessionary contracts. That resolve is bolstered by higher striker benefit pay, but the strike fund is fast running out of cash.

And it reflects a spreading dissent within the newly democratized union, seen in the hostile anti-Carey pickets at union headquarters this week.

Mr. Carey, a former UPS driver and New York local union leader, ran in 1991 as an outspoken reform candidate in the first national direct election by rank and file Teamsters members, a vote supervised by a court-appointed review board. Though he benefited from the government oversight, Mr. Carey says the union is again democratic and that court supervision should end.

That may be a reasonable wish for the union to regain control of its affairs after five years. But critics of Mr. Carey recently suggested his personal finances deserve close scrutiny by government overseers. Citing a string of real estate investments he made around the country over the past decade, critics claim that his reported income would not have been sufficient to finance the property deals.

The Teamsters are also torn by Mr. Carey's failed attempt to raise dues, forcing the near-bankrupt union to borrow money to replenish the strike fund, and by internal political struggles with old-guard officeholders. That challenge for him will be to effectively contain expenses while demonstrating that the new union is strong enough to tolerate democratic dissent from within.

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