Jim Harper could have been Ron Carey?

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Updated Dec 14, 2009

When former Teamsters president Ron Carey passed away earlier this month, reading the obituaries I was struck by the differing trajectories of two men whose beginnings closely resembled each other. UPS driver Carey rose to the position of Shop Steward in his Queens, N.Y., local in 1956 looking to improve member services (a decade later he’d become secretary of that local). That same year, Jim Harper (pictured with his wife, Mary, in 1953, the year he hired on with the company he would drive for as a Teamsters member) of Minneapolis began his course toward events that, a little more than two years later, would put him in the crosshairs of then-general president Jimmy Hoffa. Harper’s story was chronicled in his son Steven Harper’s 2007 book Crossing Hoffa: A Teamster’s Story, which I blogged about here. In 1958, with Jim Harper at their lead, the so-called Rank and File Group of the Minneapolis local led an insurgent campaign to root out corruption in their union local, offering a slate of candidates against Hoffa’s preferred leadership there. That Hoffa took an interest in Harper the book ties to the ongoing McClellan committee’s investigations into corruption within the union and various incidents leading back to improper use of Teamster dues in the Minneapolis area. Harper ultimately is forced out of the union via various methods of intimidation. The story is put forward in great detail in the book and, to a much lesser extent, in a story I wrote about it here.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who thought about the similarities between Carey and Harper’s early lives upon the former’s passing. “>I was thinking about my dad when I read of Carey’s passing,” Crossing Hoffa author Steven Harper told me. “>It looks like Carey never ‘crossed Hoffa’ in the way my dad did at a critical time. Ironically enough, if their situations had been reversed — and Hoffa Sr. had not had his own reasons for wanting to silence my dad in Minneapolis from 1959 to 1961 — it seems plausible, maybe even likely, that my father would have followed a career path similar to Carey’s. That is, Carey became secretary of his local in 1965 and its president in 1967. But for Hoffa’s involvment in my dad’s insurrection, I think my father would have wound up leading his Minneapolis local, and, knowing my dad, it could have led to remarkable things for him…. In any event, the parallel lives of Harper and Carey show how fate and fortuity shape lives. Minor situational differences can produce dramatically different outcomes. Even more ironically, I suppose, is that Carey wound up ‘banished’ from the union for life and, in the long run, another Hoffa replaced him as the union’s leader.”

There’s a good round-up of the politics involved in that 1990s “>banishment,” for those who care to delve into it, at the website of The Nation here.

And a Happy New Year to all. We’ll be back at it Friday.