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Purging the Teamsters; why not try union democracy?


Why Not Try Union Democracy?

More than thirty years of legal skirmishes between the U.S. government and the nation's largest and most racket-ridden union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, may soon culminate in a corruption case to end all corruption cases.

Justice Department sources confirmed in June that Federal prosecutors are now preparing a massive civil racketeering suit against the teamsters, to be filed this fall under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. According to press reports, the government will seek to remove teamster president Jackie Presser and his seventeen-member national executive board, an action unprecedented in the history of American unions. The government will argue that the current teamster leadership--and its predecessors back to the Jimmy Hoffa era--have been part of an organized-crime conspiracy to control the union for illegal ends. Evidence to support that claim will be drawn from the hundreds of past criminal cases brought against teamster officials involved in theft, extortion, murder, benefit-fund fraud, racketeering and gangsterism of all kinds.

Among the many "Teamos' who have been indicted and jailed since the early 1950s are three of the union's past five national presidents. Presser, the latest, is a millionaire Cleveland businessman who faces trial on Federal charges that he embezzled more than $700,000 in local union funds in a payroll padding scheme. Imprisoned former teamster president Roy Williams, in several recent court appearances and a sworn statement to the President's Commission on Organized Crime, claimed that the mob has influence over many big-city teamsters' union locals. He attributed his own 1981 elevation to the union presidency to the backing of organized-crime figures. And the government has attempted to show, through corroborative testimony by former Cleveland mob underboss Angelo Lonardo in the prosecution of convicted Genovese family leader Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, that Presser became teamster president four years ago in the same way.

Convictions and imprisonments only change the names of the crooks operating within the union; the teamsters' organized-crime connections and appalling culture of corruption remain the same. If successful, the RICO suit could sweep out the union's entire top leadership and put day-to-day affairs in the hands of an outside administrator for an extended period of time. This new and drastic remedy, available only since 1970, has been applied previously in cases involving mob-dominated locals in New York City and New Jersey but never to a national union of the size and scope of the teamsters. Among labor lawyers, academic experts, teamster members and other trade unionists there is growing controversy about the necessity, desirability and even feasibility of cleaning up the teamsters through government administration.

The teamsters' union has, as always, denied any mob connection and denounces the impending RICO suit as the most serious threat to the "free trade union movement' anywhere in the world. "Takeovers of unions are nothing new--Communists and Fascists have been doing so for decades,' Presser says. "However, it is a sad day in the history of the United States and the American labor movement when such tactics are employed.' A fervent supporter of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, when the teamsters were the only major union to endorse the Republican presidential ticket, Presser now accuses the Administration of attempting to divert public attention from its political problems by launching a "groundless attack' on the teamsters.

Reaction to the suit from the rest of the labor movement has not been enthusiastic either. The teamsters' union has embarrassed other unions since its expulsion from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in 1957 for being "dominated by corrupt influences.' But concern about a dangerous precedent unites both the right and left in labor, from the handful of A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions with their own organized-crime problems (who fear they may be future RICO case defendants) to radicals who are opposed on ideological grounds to judicial meddling in internal union affairs. A.F.L.-C.I.O. president Lane Kirkland spoke for many trade unionists when he told the Los Angeles Times that a teamster trusteeship was not "the proper relationship between a government and a private institution in a free society.' Victor Kamber, a prominent Washington labor consultant who works for the Laborers International and the United Food and Commercial Workers, used a New York Times Op-Ed piece to blast the idea as a new form of Reagan Administration union-busting "threatening to fundamental liberties.'

At least one influential liberal, Representative William Clay, chair of the House Subcommittee on Labor-Management Relations, has also sided with the teamsters. Clay told a teamster testimonial dinner gathering in St. Louis that the government was out "to destroy an integral part of organized labor,' and he warned that "the same kind of takeover of three other unions--the International Longshoremen, the Hotel and Restaurant Workers, and the Laborers International' --was also being considered by the Justice Department. Encouraged by Clay's stand, the teamsters' union is reportedly trying to enlist other unions in a pre-emptive campaign against the RICO suit. Presser's top lawyer, John Climaco, says the teamsters have received messages of support from "four or five' A.F.L.-C.I.O. unions, including the Laborers International. Presser personally has requested meetings with several national union presidents to discuss the situation.

The RICO case has created both a political opening and a serious dilemma for the 10,000-member Teamsters for a Democratic Union (T.D.U.), which has long argued that greater internal union democracy is the only real solution to the problem of teamster corruption. In its national campaigns and local chapters, the group has promoted membership education and mobilization as the most effective means to win honest leadership, structural reforms, better working conditions and stronger teamster contracts.

Even hard-core T.D.U. members who favor major alterations in the union's Constitution, to insure membership control and deny mob allies their traditional power, are wary of trusteeship. In their view, it is both undesirable and unworkable to have court-appointed outsiders negotiating teamster contracts, overseeing strikes and organizing campaigns or dealing with government agencies on workplace issues. The Federal government's record in trucking deregulation, truck safety enforcement and labor law administration gives teamster members little confidence that their interests as workers would be properly defended.

T.D.U. activists also point to the mixed results in the only teamster local in which a successful RICO suit has already led to the replacement of mob-influenced officers by a court-appointed trustee. From the early 1950s until last year, the largest trucking union in northern New Jersey-- the 9,000-member teamster Local 560--was controlled by the notorious Provenzano brothers (Tony, Sammy and Nunzio) or their allies, all of whom had close ties with the Genovese crime family. The Provenzanos' long reign was maintained by the use of union patronage and by the kidnapping and murder of one of "Tony Pro's' rivals in the union, the public assassination of a prominent Local 560 dissident, and innumerable threats, beatings or union-instigated firings of other opponents. All three Provenzano brothers are now in Federal prisons, variously for murder, extortion, fraud and racketeering. But it was not until the Justice Department won a civil RICO suit against Local 560 in 1984 that a Federal District Court judge, Harold Ackerman, was able to evict the many relatives and sycophants installed by the Provenzanos to run the union and its lucrative benefit funds in their absence. Finding that Local 560's members were the victims of a "multifaceted orgy of criminal activity,' Judge Ackerman appointed a former United Auto Workers organizer and onetime president of the New Jersey A.F.L.-C.I.O., Joel Jacobson, to administer the local until new officers could be freely nominated and elected.

During his ten-month stint as trustee, Jacobson worked hard to restore normal union functioning, deal honestly and effectively with employers and convince members that they could prevent the still-powerful faction aligned with the Provenzanos from returning to power. T.D.U. critics inside and outside the local contend, however, that the trustee's "good government' approach wasn't enough to overcome debilitating rank-and-file fear and passivity. According to those activists, Jacobson's unwillingness to be identified with the larger teamster reform movement led him to move too slowly in organizing members into a political force capable of defeating the group that is aggressively campaigning for an end to the trusteeship.

Membership complaints eventually reached Ackerman, who replaced Jacobson in May with a new trustee, former Assistant U.S. Attorney and New Jersey criminal justice division director Edwin Stier. Stier added to the controversy surrounding Jacobson's abrupt departure by telling the press that he was "a cop' rather than a union man. Although Stier has since appointed an experienced labor official to act as one of his deputies, Jacobson remains bitter about Ackerman's decision to replace him. "To delegate the court's RICO authority to individuals who are more proficient at blowing whistles than defending workers and challenging employers is a monumental blunder,' he wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed essay. "The measure of success [of RICO trusteeships] will not be the number of capos who can be thrown into jail but, rather, convincing the union's members that democratic, militant trade unionists provide better representation than a less-noble "brotherhood.''

A staff member who has served under both Jacobson and Stier indicates that the heavy load of day-to-day work in the local--for example, the job of negotiating and enforcing 400 separate contracts--has made it difficult for his colleagues to rally the membership. "We've barely made a dent' in the Provenzanos' machine, he admits, agreeing with Jacobson that "there must be empowerment of the rank and file if government trusteeships are going to work. Otherwise, it's just political retaliation and interference--a disaster for the union.'

To avoid such an outcome at the national level, the T.D.U. is proposing a more limited form of Federal intervention. In a legal memorandum submitted to the Justice Department earlier this year, the T.D.U. urged the government to use RICO only to democratize the national union's leadership-selection process.

"The RICO statute provides for "reorganization' of any enterprise found to be racketeer-controlled,' explains Ken Paff, a former Cleveland truck driver who has served as the T.D.U.'s national organizer for the past ten years. "It could be the basis for court-ordered changes in the I.B.T. [teamster] Constitution that would require a membership referendum vote for the top officers every three years.' (Currently, officers are elected by about 2,000 convention delegates, almost all of them full-time officials of the union, who meet only once every five years.) Pointing out that Presser never won a single contested rank-and-file vote for union office, Paff contends that if "given half a chance, members of our union will stand up for democracy, for good contracts, for solidarity, for honest leadership.' They will not, he insists, "elect Presser or anyone else who would trade away our hopes and aspirations for the interests of organized crime.'

Paff and other T.D.U. leaders argue that the first teamsters' union one-member, one-vote balloting for national officers and regional vice presidents should be government supervised. This arrangment enabled a T.D.U.-style group called Miners for Democracy to unseat Tony Boyle, the corrupt and dictatorial head of the United Mine Workers, in 1972. Such supervision has also been widely used by the Labor Department to insure fair elections at the local union level. T.D.U. members note that, unlike trusteeship, the "right to vote' has strong support, as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of rank-and-file signatures collected last year on T.D.U. petitions in favor of direct elections. (A T.D.U.-backed proposal for referendum elections at the teamsters' 1986 national convention, however, was voted down by a large margin.)

There are several major obstacles to implementation of the T.D.U.'s plan. First, there is no indication that the government is interested in using the RICO law to reform the teamsters. Many of the conservative Republican prosecutors working on labor racketeering cases--and the Reagan-appointed judges likely to hear them--are willing to throw the book at mobsters, but they are not ready to empower union members through democratic reforms that might also influence collective bargaining and strikes. (Judge Ackerman, still handling the Local 560 case, appears to be the only former C.I.O. activist in the Federal judiciary.)

A membership-controlled teamsters' union would, for example, deal much more aggressively with employers who have long benefited from the cozy labor-management relationship available for a price under the teamsters' old regime. Employers are aware of that; when the American Trucking Association's industry newsletter, "Transport Topics,' surveyed managers about the possible effect of trusteeship on future contract negotiations, concern was expressed "that the government could replace the present union executive board members with militant dissidents who in the past have bitterly opposed wage concessions and work rule changes.'

Unfortunately, the rest of the labor movement is also unlikely to support the T.D.U.'s bid for voting rights. Most A.F.L.-C.I.O. leaders have no love for dissidents either, and do not permit referendum election of top officers and board members in their own unions. While most unions use the convention election method more democratically than the teamsters have, there have been enough recent legal challenges and membership complaints about alleged irregularities at conventions, even in liberal unions like the United Auto Workers, to make mainstream officials unsympathetic to court-ordered referendums in the case of the teamsters.

There is also no assurance that referendums would immediately lead to the election of a reform leadership or even the complete elimination of mob-backed figures. The T.D.U.'s active chapters and its members and fellow travelers in local office are still concentrated in fewer than a hundred of the union's 700 locals. The T.D.U.'s ability to develop candidates who could compete in and win costly referendum election campaigns involving hundreds of thousands of potential voters throughout the United States and Canada remains untested. But it is to be hoped that the continuing controversy over a possible teamster trusteeship will at least help the T.D.U. keep the "right to vote' issue before the union's members, even if it's not on the agenda of their would-be protectors in the Justice Department.

Regardless of the outcome of a national-level RICO suit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, there are certain to be many more cases against mob-dominated local affiliates of the teamsters and other unions around the country. Sooner or later, the labor movement may even be forced to take a stand against the undemocratic practices that facilitate mob influence or control. Until groups like the T.D.U. finally get the backing they need from other trade unionists in their struggles for union democracy and reform, labor's arguments against outside intervention will seem hollow.
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Author:Connolly, Jane
Publication:The Nation
Date:Sep 5, 1987
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