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Passing of Peter Camarata: Teamster and working class hero

by Richard Berg |
February 12, 2014
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Pete Camarata (left)
Pete Camarata (left) (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Do I remember when I met Pete Camarata? Yeah, I remember. It was in Pittsburgh in the late 1980s before the national convention of our reform caucus, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). All the Teamster reformers were there.

We were excited because we had just won the right for rank-and-file Teamster members to elect the top national officers of our union. Many TDU leaders were busy trying to build a consensus around Ron Carey’s candidacy for General President of the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters (IBT). But Pete Camarata had some tough questions that needed answering before he would support Carey or anyone else.

Pete Camarata was always the guy in the Teamsters with the tough questions. If this guy Carey is really a reformer why isn’t he in TDU? How do we know that he won’t turn into the same as the rest of our so called leaders? He is a UPS [United Parcel Service] guy, what’s he going to do to stop the erosion of the Master Freight Agreement? Is he going to put TDU members on his slate? What about those who have been excluded from leadership like Blacks, Latinos or women? Eventually the questions got answered and in 1991 Ron Carey was elected with Pete’s support, the only reform International President in Teamster history.

Pete always had the tough questions, whether it was in the TDU caucus, his local union or just hanging out. Everyone at the convention knew Pete. How could you not know him? Pete was a founding member and one the co-chairs of TDU. He saw the need for a strong national caucus that could challenge the mob controlled IBT that was selling out its members. And the night before the TDU convention his hotel room was always buzzing with debate.

As a young Teamster I looked up to Pete. In 1976, as the lone reform delegate at the Las Vegas Teamster convention he spoke out against preposterously high salaries for officers. Pete was the lone voice from the convention floor objecting to the election of International President Frank Fitzimmons by unanimous consent. He then went on to remind the delegates of the mob hit on Jimmy Hoffa less than one year earlier. Trying to run him out of Las Vegas, the mob beat him up and left him for dead.

Pete had the courage of ten thousand Teamsters. Unafraid, after the 1976 convention he testified about mob control in the Teamsters before the U.S. Senate. He then ran for president of the IBT at their next convention in 1981.

Like most Teamsters, Pete was a worker. He worked on the dock and then later he drove a truck. He also worked as staff at Teamsters Local 722 and my old Local 743. But unlike most, he could talk to any worker like he grew up next door to them. He was a real leader.

Once I asked Pete if he could talk to some of my coworkers about TDU. The housekeepers and food service workers from the University of Chicago Hospitals, overwhelmingly African American, at first wondered about the big Italian American truck driver from Detroit. But, in no time Pete had them discussing plans for petitions, rallies and other activities to fight their oppression on the job.

Pete was always there when you needed him. He didn’t care what neighborhood or what time of day. If there were workers fighting the boss, Pete wanted to be there.

Peter Camarata was a great friend, but also he inspired me to fight for justice. Pete understood that unions are the organizations of the working class. His life continues to be an example for those who believe in class struggle unionism.

Pete was this year’s recipient of the Big Bill Haywood Award at Fight Back!’s annual People’s Thanksgiving in Chicago.

Richard Berg is the past President of Teamsters Local 743 and currently works as a staff representative for AFSCME Council 31.

 

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