Ron Carey’s recent downfall as head of the Teamsters Union carried with it genuine overtones of tragedy. His ascension to the presidency some years ago seemed just reward for his own incorruptible dedication to the rank and file and for the indefatigable efforts of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which contributed immeasurably to his rise. Then came the stirring victory over United Parcel Service last summer, an inspiration to all who look to a resurgent labor movement to help prevent the final “incorporation of America.” A victory for democracy inside the country’s most notoriously corrupt union had led, or so it seemed, to a victory for democracy for all. So when it turned out that Carey was going down, implicated in, of all things, a scam to manipulate his re-election through the misappropriation of union funds, it was dispiriting news indeed.
But this scandal is also a reminder that union democracy has been, for nearly a century, a quixotic crusade pursued, oddly enough, with comparable fervor and little success by both right and left. Today, Ron Carey’s disgrace provokes as much lamentation in the columns of the Wall Street Journal as it does in the slimmer pages of New Politics, both journals saddened and outraged by yet another defeat for the cause of union democracy. This dirge has been heard before . . . and even before that. Already by the turn of the century, Daniel DeLeon, Socialist Labor Party and Industrial Workers of the World founder, had skewered the conventional trade union leader as a “hopelessly gangrened” appendage of the capitalist octopus. Such functionaries were in his eyes inherently corrupt, ruling their fiefdoms much like machine politicians, without any regard for the democratic desires of their constituents. They were, in a word, “traitors.” This became an article of faith for assorted left-wing socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists. In some form it remains so to this day, encouraging among a diminished circle of left-wing trade union activists a sense of their own righteousness.