Teamsters Union Enters Era of (Direct) Democracy

March 03, 1991|By MICHAEL K. BURNS

Like the thaw of frozen power structures behind the Iron Curtain, the autocratic scandal-scarred Teamsters union is undergoing a democratic transformation that could signal a new era not only for its 1.6 million members but also for the rest of organized labor.

Democratic reforms, imposed by the government two years ago to settle a massive racketeering suit against the largest U.S. labor union, will allow rank-and-file Teamsters members to vote directly for the national officers for the first time.

Already, the court-ordered government oversight and wide open election have cracked the solidarity of the formerly close-knit, tight-lipped members of the general executive board, who are jostling for power in the new order.

And, ironically, government intervention has revived the spirit of Jimmy Hoffa, the controversial Teamsters president who ruled from 1957 to 1971 before going to prison and then disappearing four years later. His son, James P. Hoffa, last month launched a surprisingly popular campaign for the presidency.

The younger Hoffa, a lawyer, has been a Teamsters member for 22 years, but has never worked the two years "in the trade" required by the constitution to be an officer. His bid places the federal overseers in the difficult position of fighting any democratic effort (at the union convention) to amend the rules to allow Mr. Hoffa's candidacy, even though the government's stated objective has been to free the union's election from the tyranny of the incumbents.

The incumbents have engaged in their own brand of democratic electioneering. Earlier this year, four national vice presidents filed a racketeering suit against President William J. McCarthy, charging him with misusing union funds and illegally suppressing political rivals. A remarkable turn of events, considering that nary a peep of discontent was heard from other national officers as four of the past seven Teamsters presidents came under criminal indictment.

Mr. McCarthy, who took over the presidency in 1988 on the death of Jackie Presser, set the tone by openly battling with friend and foe alike since signing the consent agreement with the government to allow court overseers. He caused three of the litigants to lose union posts and encouraged union charges against the fourth.

The civil suit against Mr. McCarthy (who is retiring for health reasons) came just as the union's court-appointed administrator charged that the Teamsters president had abused his office by giving his son-in-law the union's $3.5 million annual printing business. Noting that the relative did not even own printing equipment, administrator Frederick B. Lacey said it reflected "the pervasive nepotism . . . to be found at every level of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters."

The federal crackdown on the Teamsters has led to court investigator scrutiny of 60 officials for underworld ties or for financial misconduct, resulting in the ouster of more than half of them from union office.

"I think the atmosphere is changing in this union," said Susan Jennick, executive director of the nonprofit Association for Union Democracy. "Government supervision is working; it's opening up the union." The executive council is disunited and openly critical of each other, she noted. "Having all these officials jockey for positions of power like this just shows that they all have their own political interests at stake."

Charging that three decades of deep-rooted Teamsters corruption was "a great American scandal," the government set in motion a wave of change in 1988 when it brought a civil racketeering lawsuit to establish a trusteeship over the national union. The Teamsters leadership "made a devil's pact" with organized crime and systematically deprived members of their democratic rights and fair contracts, the Justice Department claimed.

The March 1989 consent agreement stopped short of trusteeship. It created court oversight of union activities, investigation of crime and corruption by officials, and set up the first direct national elections in the union's 87-year history.

Traditionally, the Teamsters union's top officers were elected by open vote at a convention, the delegates mostly hand-picked by the incumbents in a self-perpetuating ritual that ensured only token opposition or the risk of retaliation.

Incumbency was aggressively defended, even by violence, according to the government, and the financial rewards were unequaled among U.S. labor unions. More than 150 Teamsters officials earned more than $100,000 in 1989, many of them holding multiple well-paid union positions. Harold Friedman, a former vice president convicted of embezzlement and racketeering, headed the list with $1.3 million from various Teamsters and Bakers unions posts.

The lavish lifestyle of Teamsters bosses is highlighted by the fleet of executive jetliners and the French chef serving headquarters staff. The Teamsters' political action committee, funded by payroll deductions, is the richest PAC in the United States.

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