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Teamster Presidents: Union Deserves Better

May 28, 1986|Harry Bernstein

Why has the vast, honest majority of the 1.6 million members of the Teamsters Union never booted out any of the presidents who have given the entire union and the members themselves an undeserved reputation of being a huge army of mobsters?

Three of the four past presidents have been convicted of crimes and imprisoned; the fourth died before investigations of him were completed. One of the four, Jimmy Hoffa, mysteriously disappeared in 1975, presumably a victim of the underworld.

Incumbent President Jackie Presser was indicted two weeks ago on charges of embezzlement and racketeering. His now-imprisoned predecessor, Roy Williams, admitted under oath that he had close ties to the underworld and accused Presser of having similar links to organized crime. More than 100 other lower-ranking union officers--mostly in the East--have been convicted of a host of crimes, including murder.

Despite this array of evidence that criminals have infested the union for nearly three decades, the members have not been stirred to rebellion.

There is a widespread but mistaken belief that the union's top officers retain their power by actual violence or a widespread threat of violence against dissidents. There have been a few ugly incidents, but far from enough to keep more than a million and a half members in line. Others wrongly believe that almost all of the members are themselves corrupt or at least see nothing wrong with mob control of the top level of their union. But the reality is that the average teamster and most of the union's officers are typical, honest Americans. Even the White House Commission on Organized Crime, which recently issued a harsh attack on the union's leadership, estimated that fewer than 5% of the union's 700 locals are influenced by criminals. That's a far higher percentage than is found in almost any other union but still evidence that the entire union is far from being permeated by crime.

The truth is that corrupt top leaders maintain their power by using a wide variety of benign, nonviolent tactics to minimize the impact of dissidents. Similar tactics are used by many political machines, other unions and corporations. It is rare indeed that corporate executives invite dissidents to join their boards of directors or put them in key managerial positions.

Probably the power-retaining tactics used by top Teamster officers can be compared most closely to those of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who for more than two decades tightly controlled his city's ruling political machine and retained his role as a national Democratic Party kingmaker.

There was a relentless federal investigation of corruption in the Daley machine, of stolen and bought ballots, stuffed ballot boxes, of city contracts going to Daley's friends and family members. While Daley himself was never charged with criminal acts, many of his close friends and associates were prosecuted and some convicted of crimes.

Like Daley, top Teamster officers retain loyal, decent supporters by using a patronage system through which they make appointments to well-paying jobs. They also help loyalists build their local unions as Daley helped the precinct captains, or "ward heelers," strengthen their wards. Beneficiaries of the top union leaders' patronage system are often appointed department heads, regional officers or international organizers. F e w have ever been accused of any crime or links to mobsters.

Take the case of Mike Riley, president of the 150,000-member Southern California Joint Council of Teamsters. Last week, Riley was praised as a "man of absolute integrity" by Douglas Allan, an officer of the dissident Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and one of the union's most militant, articulate opponents of corruption at the top. Yet Riley is loyal to the union's leaders and has benefited from their patronage.

Roy Williams, the former president, appointed him to an additional, well-paying job as a general organizer of the international union. And when an international union vice presidential vacancy occurred, Presser appointed Riley to fill that post. Riley was then almost automatically elected to the position last week as a member of Presser's slate at the union's convention in Las Vegas.

In contrast, M. E. Anderson, the appointed former head of the Western Conference of Teamsters, was dumped by Presser, who felt that Anderson was not loyal enough. Anderson, like Riley, has never faced corruption charges.

There are other methods that top Teamster officers use to maintain their positions. Like Daley, they use their influence to help elect, or defeat, local and regional officers. Like the late mayor, they can help rank-and-filers get jobs for their friends or family. And top union officials can give, or withhold, substantial financial help to striking locals.

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