Ron Carey, Nineties-Era Teamsters President, Dies

He arrived in Washington under a glow of reform. And he left under a cloud of scandal. It’s a narrative that describes all too many careers in American politics – and organized labor. Ron Carey (in photo), general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for a crucial period during the Nineties, was a classic case. Carey died of lung cancer this past December 11 at age 72, his federally-imposed lifetime ban on Teamster activity still intact. The union has been James P. Hoffa’s for the last decade. But the Carey era in a real sense made it possible.


Born in 1936, Ronald Robert Carey, the second of six children, grew up in Queens, N.Y. His father was a Teamster driver for United Parcel Service who often took his son to union meetings. By 20, Carey, eager to follow in his father’s footsteps, joined Teamsters Local 804 in Queens. It was the start of a long career. In 1958, he was elected shop steward of the 7,000-member local. Carey eventually would be elected president in 1967 and re-elected numerous times thereafter. During his tenure, he won hefty wage increases, led successful strikes and kept the union free of organized crime. Having secured a reputation as a tough reformer in an international union with a reputation for cutting deals with the criminal underworld, he became a favorite of the IBT’s dissident caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union. By 1989, the year of the union’s civil RICO consent decree with the Justice Department, Carey announced plans to run for general president. His ambition would be reinforced the next year by what he saw as a sellout by International President William McCarthy during UPS contract talks. The time was right to go for the brass ring. The Teamsters had become a ward of a Manhattan federal court. McCarthy, losing rank-and-file support, decided against seeking a full term. And his most likely opponent, James P. Hoffa, longtime union attorney and son of disappeared union President Jimmy Hoffa, was ruled ineligible to run. 


Turnout was relatively light in the December 1991 secret ballot election, the first of its kind in Teamster history – previously, boss-appointed delegates chose union presidents. Carey won with a 48.5 percent plurality. Once in office, he made good on his campaign vow to end profligacy. He dismissed headquarters staff, closed regional offices, sold off union assets including its two private planes, and cut his own salary. Under the watchful eye of the new three-person court-appointed entity known as the Independent Review Board (IRB), Carey also went after corrupt locals, putting more than 70 of them under trusteeship. Among the more notable takeovers were New York City-area Locals 97, 237, 819 and 875.


Yet Carey’s own incorruptibility was not beyond the pale. Federal investigators accused him of putting Teamster Airport Division Director William Genoese, a man with documented ties to the Lucchese crime family, to oversee Local 295 of “Goodfellas” fame. Carey also allegedly had attempted to block probes by court-appointed trustees. It didn’t help that former acting Lucchese crime boss Alphonse “Little Al” D’Arco claimed he had a close working relationship with Carey going back to the 1960s and 70s, a charge the Teamster leader called “preposterous.” Carey also was accused of conflict of interest for failing to disclose nearly $2 million in UPS stock he inherited from his father’s estate, though he had sold the stock back to the company in August 1992. In 1994, the IRB conducted a probe of Carey’s real estate investments, accusing him of forging his estranged wife’s signatures on several documents. Carey later confessed, but claimed he had her permission, and had financed all purchases with his own money. The IRB cleared him of all charges.


What led to Carey’s downfall was his apparent tacit approval of a complex scheme of illegal donations kicked back to his 1996 re-election campaign. The two-man race between him and the now-eligible James P. Hoffa was close, expensive and bitter. Hoffa, knowing his last name still carried a lot of currency among rank and file, held nothing back. He denounced Carey as a “chicken” and his campaign literature as “slimy pieces of half-truths.” Carey returned the favor, characterizing his opponent as an old-guard flunky, “the same old mobbed-up, on-the-take Teamster his daddy was.” When the dust cleared that December, federal overseers declared Carey the winner by a 52 percent-to-48 percent margin. Hoffa, unwilling to concede, demanded a recount of more than 30,000 ballots. The challenge was short-lived; election supervisors confirmed the vote count the next day and certified the results in January 1997. But Hoffa’s forces weren’t through. That March they provided investigators with information about what appeared to be a money-laundering scheme run out of the Carey camp.   


Carey actually had to come from behind to win. As of July 1996, his prospects were poor and looking worse by the week. Internal polls showed him trailing Hoffa and running short on cash. Carey aides were convinced that winning required bypassing local chieftains and appealing directly to rank and file. Having political roots in the progressive Left-George McGovern wing of the Democratic Party, certain among his key allies decided to tap their connections. 


Carey’s campaign manager, Jere Nash, met with Martin Davis, co-owner of a direct marketing firm called The November Group. The pair concluded that a direct mail and phone bank effort would cost about $700,000, and that they’d split the difference nearly 50-50. Davis then contacted a Massachusetts-based telemarketing fundraiser, Michael Ansara, to work out a plan. In October, Ansara traveled to California to meet with some 300 donors known for their affinity for liberal causes. One of them was Charles Blitz, a fundraiser for a nationwide public-interest nonprofit coalition, Citizen Action. Ansara and Blitz worked out an agreement: The Carey campaign would donate $475,000 to Citizen Action. In turn, Citizen Action would give Carey’s campaign $110,000, with Ansara serving as the conduit. Davis, for his part, allegedly had worked out a separate secret agreement with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka: The Teamsters would give $150,000 to the AFL-CIO for get-out-the-vote efforts; the AFL-CIO would funnel the same amount to Citizen Action, who would pay $100,000 to The November Group, who in turn would use the money for direct marketing.


Some of the proposals were carried out; some weren’t. Either way, the web of relationships walked and talked like money-laundering. Indeed, only days after Carey’s upset re-election win, Barbara Zack Quindel, the court-appointed election monitor, issued a report concluding as much. While stating Carey likely was unaware of the scheme, the report didn’t rule out the possibility. Quindel referred the matter to federal prosecutors, who then conducted a review and overturned the results. The IRB opened its own probe in August 1997 and nullified the election, but without disqualifying Carey from running in a new campaign. Twice Carey testified before a grand jury that while he had approved donations to Citizen Action, he was unaware of the larger scheme. At this point, he was riding high, fresh from a victorious two-week strike against UPS that cost the company $750 million and netted 10,000 new union members. He would not enjoy success for long. 


In November 1997, federal union overseer Kenneth Conboy concluded Carey knew and approved of the kickbacks, which totaled a reported $885,000. He proceeded to ban the union president from entering the re-run election. Carey sued to have his disqualification overturned, but a U.S. district court denied the request, a decision upheld in appeals court. Carey stepped down from his post for an indefinite period, only hours before the Independent Review Board accused him of making illegal use of campaign money. With Ansara, Davis and Nash now pleading guilty, the end for Carey was only a matter of time. In July 1998, the IRB formally ousted him from the union for life. The following year, a Manhattan federal jury would find Carey’s former political director, Bill Hamilton, guilty of fraud and conspiracy. Federal prosecutors indicted Carey in January 2001 on perjury charges. He pleaded not guilty – and this time prevailed. In October 2001, a Manhattan jury found Carey not guilty on all charges. Whatever due diligence he had failed to perform, the jury concluded, he didn’t have criminal intent. And with Islamic terrorists striking Lower Manhattan the previous month, killing nearly 3,000 people, the jury just didn’t have the stomach for a long and protracted affair. By now Hoffa was in charge of the Teamsters, having won a mandated re-run election three years earlier by 55 percent to 39 percent over his nearest rival, Tom Leedham.                  

To the very end of his life, Carey protested his federally-imposed lifetime ban on Teamster activity, arguing that such extreme action ought to apply only to cases of conspiracy with the Mafia and other organized crime syndicates. At the time of his death, he had been working on a book recalling his union experiences. He reportedly had taken a highly critical view of Hoffa, not only as an opponent, but as Teamster president as well. What, then, ought to be the final verdict on Carey? It’s fair to say that although he was tainted, compared to his predecessors – especially Dave Beck, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Fitzsimmons, Roy Williams and Jackie Presser – he looked pretty clean. He leaves behind a wife, five grown children and 13 grandchildren. (American Spectator, 11/98; New York Times, 12/13/08; International Business Times, 12/13/08; Teamsters for a Democratic Union, 1/09; other sources).