Long arm of the Teamsters Union: Organizers for the Teamsters are wooing Maryland state troopers and police officers in Anne Arundel and Washington counties.

August 08, 1996|By Scott Wilson | Scott Wilson,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The Teamsters, once the union of Jimmy Hoffa and the Mafia, are fast becoming the union of police officers.

The union is organizing across the country, department by department, in cities like this renowned resort.

This town has become a proving ground for the union as it works to overcome a history of corruption.

Since 1990, 20,000 police officers have become Teamsters.

Union leaders say the groundwork is in place to triple that by 2000.

"We've got them waiting in the wings," said Danny Peterson, president of Teamster Local 385 in Orlando, which has grown by 25 percent in two years.

"The police are asking for the Teamsters."

It is an unusual marriage.

In the past five years, police officers in California, New York, Washington, Minnesota and Florida have joined a union that the U.S. Department of Justice doesn't trust to run itself.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters escaped federal racketeering charges in 1989 by relinquishing autonomy to the Justice Department.

A presidential commission reported three years earlier that the union had made a "devil's pact" with the mob in the 1950s.

Three of the past seven Teamster presidents have gone to jail, including Hoffa before his 1975 disappearance.

The union still reports to a federal review panel.

And Teamster General President Ron Carey, a former UPS driver from Queens, N.Y., has forced 60 locals into trusteeship during his five-year tenure.

James P. Hoffa, the son, is challenging Carey in an angry campaign that will be settled in a November election.

For Maryland, this central Florida resort could prove instructive.

This summer Teamster organizers are pitching their 1.4 million-member, "full-service" union to Maryland state troopers, Anne Arundel County police officers and Washington County sheriff deputies.

Annapolis and Salisbury officers have also contacted Teamster organizers, operating out of a funeral home turned Teamster Hall in Brooklyn.

Certification votes could come this fall.

"The patrol officer is where our strength lies," said Billy D. Mendenall, a former police officer from Flint, Mich., and now chief Teamster organizer in Maryland.

His previous assignment was Florida.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is the future of this union," Peterson said.

Two years of contract talks

The Teamster push began here, a city of 62,000 known for its broad beach, spring break and NASCAR.

Since then a controversial police chief has been ousted.

A slate of four pro-labor city commissioners was elected last year.

Five federal lawsuits, paid for by the Teamsters, have been filed against an administration historically hostile to organized labor.

After two years of negotiations, the union has yet to produce a contract for its 225 members.

An agreement will be sent to the membership this month, and once ratified, will be held up as proof of union strength for as many as 25 other area police departments considering the Teamsters.

"The problem has been with a couple of renegade administrators who have decided to declare war," said Ernie Canelli, the burly organizer.

"One thing I can tell you about the Teamsters -- if you declare war, you will get it."

That bravado has blown across central Florida in the past two years. More than 130 police officers in neighboring New Smyrna Beach and Kissimmee, a sleepy annex of Orlando, voted in the Teamsters earlier this year.

The Florida Highway Patrol is considering membership.

Officers have been dissolving Police Benevolent Associations. The only thing the PBA has won for police is the right to wear a mustache, officers say.

"This is the biggest problem facing police right now," said Pat McGuire, executive director of the Coastal Florida Police Benevolent Association.

"We've spent as much time fighting each other as we have fighting the cities."

To city administrators, the Teamsters are spreading like a virus -- quickly, quietly, and with potentially poisonous effect.

Size and resourcefulness

The movement's roots are more commonplace, a product of shrinking city budgets, suspect management practices, and a shrewd union incentive: New members pay no dues until Teamster lawyers win a contract.

"It's a no-brainer," said Mark E. Durbin, city manager of Kissimmee, population 35,000. "They had nothing to lose.

"If I were over there, I would have done it, too."

With an annual budget exceeding $100 million and a political action committee that gave $2.5 million nationally in 1994, the Teamsters are everything the Florida police departments are not: big and resourceful.

Truckers, sanitation workers, flight attendants all belong to the union. In Orlando, Mickey Mouse is a Teamster. About 50,000 police officers from more than 10 states belong to the union.

But the union's legacy has shadowed it to central Florida.

"People have a right to be leery of this," said Tracey Remark, a Daytona Beach city commissioner. "You cannot ignore their history."

Teamster organizers arrived in Daytona Beach, at the request of disgruntled police officers, in late 1994.

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