The Teamsters' Mr. Clean
01/13/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
IT IS 7:45 ON A COLD DECEMBER MORNING, and newly elected Teamster president Ronald Carey is back in the UPS warehouse complex in New York City where he was a driver for 12 years. As soon as Carey walks through the front gate, a crowd gathers around him. "How's it going, Mr. No. 1 Teamster?" asks one of the men. "You gave me the best Christmas present ever," chimes in another. Any notion that their old pal might have let his newfound power go to his head vanishes as the grinning Carey exchanges hugs and kisses with his followers. "I'm so proud of you folks," he tells them. "You made it happen."
In fact Carey himself deserves a lot of the credit for his stunning election victory in mid-December. In recent years he battled corruption and mob influence in the 1.6-million member union, which had become a grim joke in the labor movement. Of the past seven Teamster presidents, three, including Jimmy Hoffa, have gone to jail for criminal activity, and another, Jackie Presser, was indicted for embezzlement but died before he could be tried. It was that sorry record that ultimately infuriated many rank-and-file members, who also bristled at the lavish salaries and expense accounts enjoyed by top union officers. Thanks in part to new democratic rules imposed by federal authorities, which put an end to closed-committee election procedures, Carey was able to pile up 48 percent of the vote in defeating two rivals who owed their allegiance to the old-line leadership. "He's somebody who actually cared about the people in that union," says Steven Brill, author of The Teamsters, a scalding look at the organization.
Given Carey's background, that shouldn't be terribly surprising. His father, Joseph, was an ardent union member who drove a UPS truck in East Harlem for 48 years. Born and raised in Queens, young Ron turned down a swimming scholarship at St. John's University and enlisted in the Marines. While in the service he married his sweetheart—and downstairs neighbor—Barbara Murphy, with whom he had five children. After his discharge in 1955, he went to work for UPS and four years later became a shop steward. Though devoted to the union, he objected to the shady business practices long employed by local leaders. Elected president of Local 804 in 1968, Carey immediately instituted strict reforms, over resistance from both local and national leaders, including a crackdown on nepotism and the abolition of union credit cards, which had often been used for personal expenses.
He also endeared himself to members with his regular-guy manner. Then, as now, he buys his suits off the rack at Macy's and spends his vacations sitting around the above-ground pool at the home he and Barbara have owned in Queens for 32 years. In contrast to other Teamster local leaders, some of whom have made hundreds of thousands of dollars by holding multiple jobs in the bloated union bureaucracy, Carey refused to accept such perks. As a result, this past year he earned only $42,500, less than the salary of the French chef employed at International Teamster headquarters in Washington, D.C. As the new international president, Carey is entitled to a salary of $225,000, though he says he will only draw $175,000. "I want to set priorities," he says. "This is no longer a union that's going to be run by millionaires."
Carey is well aware that his anti-corruption crusade poses personal risks. During the recent election campaign he received death threats, presumably from mobsters or their minions within the union. Though he doesn't have a bodyguard, Carey does try to watch out for himself. "I'm very cautious," he says. "I'm always looking, making sure things look right." It is an open question whether he will be able to break completely the grip that organized crime has often exerted on the Teamsters. If nothing else, though, his victory has already restored pride among many members who had become almost ashamed of their affiliation with the union. "He was our inspiration," says Joe Cascone, a UPS driver in Queens. "It's nice going to sleep at night knowing Ron's there."
TOBY KAHN in Long Island City