The Queens Chronicle reports on the Celebration of the Life & Work of Ron Carey.
by Jon Blau, Chronicle Contributor
Tim Sylvester, a shop steward with the Local 804 union, surveyed the ballroom packed to remember Ron Carey. While he did so, Sylvester focused on one of the few empty chairs among a couple hundred at Saturday’s memorial, a reminder of the late union leader, who died in December.
The first democratically elected president of the oft-corrupt Teamsters, Carey’s profile remains familiar to organized laborers. News clips replayed the Queens native’s guidance in a successful strike against United Parcel Service in 1997, while Carey’s grandson, who wasn’t alive at the time, expressed pride that his grandfather said “no” to President Bill Clinton when asked to halt the 15-day walkout. “I like to think of Ron as sitting right there, listening to hear us speak about everything he did for us,” Sylvester said, pointing to a lone vacant seat in the front row at the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel.
While Carey of Bayside passed away from lung cancer Dec. 11 at 72, it had been more than a decade since the union icon had been exiled for improperly financing a re-election campaign.
But those in the room called out for Carey’s spirit. They sought to exalt Carey for “putting the members first,” while denouncing current heads of the [Teamsters Union], and Local 804, for shunning opinions below the executive level. Their fervor grew as supporters noted that Carey, in death, still has no standing in the union, and no labor leaders attended the memorial.
“Working Teamsters were not allowed to speak to Ron in his last years, but nobody is going to keep us quiet today,” Sylvester continued, now banging his fist on the podium, signaling everyone in attendance to rise with a deafening applause. “We will speak of Ron today.”
Carey, a UPS driver in the ’50s, politicked his way up through Local 804, becoming general president of the Teamsters in 1991. He worked to defeat mob influence, fought nepotism at crooked local unions and repossessed luxury items bought with dues money — all for the “mem-bahs,” colleagues chuckled, impersonating Carey’s Queens accent.
Union reps from all over the country marched to the podium. Willie Hardy, a truck driver stationed in Memphis, Tenn., spoke of Carey as a color-blind leader who “rested down in the muck and the marsh” to support his work as one of the first African-American organizers in the union.
There was also Ken Crowe, a former reporter for Newsday and the author of “Collision: How the Rank & File Took Back the Teamsters,” who tried to vindicate Carey of claims that sullied his union status. He bashed Carey’s campaign manager, Jere Nash, for the money-swapping scheme in 1996, which paid union dues money to organizations in exchange for campaign funds. Moreover, he reminded everyone that Carey was only found guilty of not recognizing and stopping those improprieties.
“Our obligation is not to torch the past, but to pass the torch,” friend and Local 804 shop steward Jim Reynolds said before starting a chant of “Carey, Carey, Carey.”
“I’m sure he heard that one,” Reynolds joked.
To a chorus of “Carey on, Carey on, Carey on,” UPS employee and Local 804 member William Riley Fernandez sought to “carry on” his idol’s vision, calling the memorial a “historic event.”
If it were not for gatherings like Saturday’s memorial, history could be lost. Younger Teamsters could forget how shady their past leaders were, how it all changed under Carey and, according to Local 804 members, how unions have reverted back to bending for corporate greed, “going along to get along,” Fernandez said.
Furious at the podium, Fernandez called for the ousting of Local 804’s current executive board, including President Howard Redmond, a cry which ignited a roar from the crowd.
“When Ron was alive, they turned their backs on him, on their brother in arms, on the man who helped them attain the position they now own — with so much greed,” Fernandez said. “Sadly, as a final act of betrayal, they did the worst thing a human being can do to another.
“They turned their backs on him in death.”
Deepa Kumar, a professor of media studies at Rutgers University and author of “Outside the Box,” which chronicled the UPS strike, recalled how she showed up to her first interview with Carey expecting a blacklisted leader who would display much of the same bitterness exhibited by his confidants. Kumar saw none of that.
Instead she was greeted by the same charismatic figure who unified 185,000 UPS workers against a “team program,” a way of limiting full-time staff by employing most of the workforce part-time. He was always passionate about his cause, even if the front men of the cause did not want Carey.
And what union members might have unnecessarily created was a “martyr,” Kumar said, wondering why the kind of outrage displayed at the memorial didn’t resonate right after Carey’s ban. Nevertheless, the Local 804 Teamsters are taking Carey’s memory with them now.
“The time came where Ron left home,” Reynolds said, noticeably holding back tears, “but he left the light on.”