Teamsters officials had already fired Pete Camarata from his job with the union local. They’d heaped threats on his fellow dissidents, even frightening some away from meetings. And at the Teamsters convention in Las Vegas in June 1976, then-President Frank Fitzsimmons had warned the delegates present that anyone grumbling about reforming the union should, as he put it, “Go to hell.”
But Pete Camarata had a spine that wouldn’t bend.
The next day at the convention, before voting began for Fitzsimmon’s re-election, the 30-year-old dockworker from a Detroit trucking company stood up to condemn the Teamsters leaders’ hefty salaries, to call for a ban on union officials who took bribes from employers, and to oppose Fitzsimmons’ presidency.
At the time, the delegates didn’t listen to Camarata — Fitzsimmons handily won his re-election campaign. Later, Camarata and a colleague attended Fitzsimmons’ victory party, but opted to leave because they felt unwelcome. As Lester Velie tells it in his 1977 book Desperate Bargain, as the two were exiting, several “sergeants-at-arms” acting as escorts at the convention jumped them, kicking and beating them savagely.
“He said he thought he was dead,” Camarata’s wife, Robin Potter, a prominent labor lawyer in Chicago, now says about the incident. “He thought he was having an out-of-body experience.”
The assault, paired with Camarata’s public criticism of Teamster higher-ups, brought a surge of energy to the then-nascent dissident group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). It also catapulted Camarata, one of TDU’s leaders, into becoming a symbol for rank-and-file workers rising up.
Calling him “the best-known insurgent in the union,” a 1977 New York Times article described him as “a hulking six-footer with a bald scalp and a dark beard framing a gentle, brooding expression,” and whose beliefs were not theoretical but driven by his “working-class experience.”
Camarata died February 9 at home in Chicago after a long battle with renal cancer. He was 67 years old.
“He was a guy who fought against insurmountable odds. When people would have said it was impossible, he stuck to his guns and promoted a democratic vision,” says his stepson Jackson Potter.
His stepfather’s career and beliefs became an inspiration to him, adds Potter, a one-time Chicago high school teacher who co-founded the Caucus of the Rank-and-File Educators. Potter is now staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union.
From Camarata, he says he learned, “You can have courage and fight for what you believe in. You don’t always come out on top, [but] even then, you did what was right and you can look yourself in the mirror.”
Camarata grew up in a working-class Italian neighborhood in Detroit. His father, Caspar, was an Italian immigrant who worked for 36 years at the Packard Motor Car Company before the company shut down. After several years at Wayne State University, Camarata dropped out to work first as a dockworker and then as a freight driver.
He quickly rose through the ranks to become a steward in Teamsters Local 299, which was also the home of one-time union president Jimmy Hoffa. He championed Hoffa’s return to union leadership after Hoffa’s prison term ended in 1971; in 1975, he became the leader of a small group that called itself Teamsters For a Decent Contract.
“It was for democracy and against fat cats and against corruption,” recalls Ken Paff, one of the group’s founders. “But it was also for tough bargaining … Fitzsimmons was seen as a sellout.” The group soon changed its name to the Teamsters for a Democratic Union; Paff is now its national organizer.
In 1981, Camarata ran for the Teamsters’ presidency, an unprecedented endeavor for a union that, at the time, did not generally welcome challenges to its leadership. Though Camarata lost that effort, the TDU kept up an unrelenting campaign to fight what it saw as the union’s corruption and failure to work on behalf of IBT members. The TDU’s ranks eventually grew to more than 8,000, making it one of the largest and longest-lasting dissident movements within U.S. labor unions.
And in 1989, its efforts were vindicated: The U.S. government reached a court settlement with the Teamsters that established federal monitoring of the union. In the legal battle preceding the agreement, federal prosecutors said the union’s leadership “[had] made a devil’s pact with the La Cosa Nostra.”
As part of its agreement with the government, the union held its first ever rank-and-file election in 1991. The new president, Ron Carey, echoed the concerns the TDU had been voicing for decades; he vowed to clean up the Teamsters.
For his part, Camarata kept his steward job at the union, which he had won back soon after his firing in 1976. While he held the position, one of Camarata’s philosophies was the workers had to study their contract, Robin Potter remembers. As a result, she says, “[the workers] were smarter than anyone could imagine.”
He poured himself into standing up for his comrades, she says, adding, “I don’t think he lost any grievances.”
In 1980, Camarata left dock work and began driving a freight truck for the same company, where he stayed until he was laid off in 1995. He later worked with several Chicago-area Teamsters locals, bringing his decades of experience to younger workers.
He “was charismatic in a sort of quiet way,” says Paff. “He was an articulate speaker and thoughtful.”
In addition to his commitment to integrity within the Teamsters, Camarata was also known for his social conscience and charity. “He was a very ardent Catholic, and his religious upbringing helped him understand issues of social justice,” Robin Potter explains.
“Pete definitely had an influence on me on helping others and caring for the world,” agrees Camarata’s stepdaughter Aimee Potter, a social worker with the Veteran Administration. She describes him as a “gentle giant who would and did help anyone.”
In turn, Camarata felt that encouraging future generations’ activism would be the best way to preserve unions’ ethics for years to come. Because of his illness, he could not take in the TDU’s convention in Chicago last fall. Robin Potter was present, though, to deliver a short speech from her husband. In his written speech, Camarata praised and pointed to the work of Aimee and Jackson Potter as efforts to “bring the movement back into the labor movement.”
“Teach your children well what we have done and carry it on — go back to your workplaces and build TDU,” he had written.
Stephen Franklin is a former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, was until recently the ethnic media project director with Public Narrative in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East.