The Teamsters Union has launched a political and public relations counteroffensive in an attempt to head off a possible Justice Department takeover of the 1.7-million-member union.
On Sunday and Monday, the union placed full-page ads in 15 newspapers around the country, including the New York Times and the Washington Post, asserting that a court-ordered trusteeship of the union would be no different than suppression of the Solidarity movement by the government in Poland.
Next Tuesday, several thousand Teamster leaders from all over the country will assemble at the Cincinnati Convention Center for a meeting designed to galvanize them into action against a possible Justice Department civil lawsuit seeking such a trusteeship.
"We want to make it clear to our members what's at risk," said Barry Feinstein, president of a large Teamster local in New York City, who is one of the coordinators of the event. "We're talking about mobilizing 1.7 million people to do the traditional things--plus some not so traditional things--done by labor and civil rights groups to bring pressure on the government."
In June, the Los Angeles Times disclosed that the Justice Department was considering a suit seeking a court-appointed trusteeship under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 to run the Teamsters. Justice Department sources told The Times that they believe the union is dominated by organized crime interests and that a trusteeship is necessary to clean it up.
John Climaco, Teamsters general counsel, said that "the meeting will have an educational purpose. We will be explaining to our people what civil RICO is and what power the government has to use it." The Justice Department has previously used the statute to take over a scandal-ridden Teamsters local in New Jersey and has filed two other cases, seeking to put other local unions in trusteeship, but none of those remotely approaches the breadth of what may be done in this case, Climaco said.
Duke Zeller, the Teamsters director of communications, said that the union has invited all the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to speak at the meeting. "Some presidential candidates" will appear, either in person or on videotape, he said, but he declined to say which ones. Zeller also said that officials of other labor unions will speak.
The Teamster campaign could last six months to five years, depending on what the government does, Zeller said. Feinstein said that Teamsters President Jackie Presser will present a detailed plan of action at the meeting.
Michael J. Riley, an international vice president of the union based in Los Angeles, said that Teamster leaders at Cincinnati will be asked to circulate petitions, write letters, talk to their congressmen and get their members involved in similar activities.
Board in Jeopardy
After disclosure that the Justice Department was considering seeking a trusteeship, the Teamsters executive board likened the action to that taken by communist and fascist regimes. In a formal statement, the union said that "organized crime has never, does not today and never will control the international union."
Sources have told The Times that the Justice Department suit, which is unprecedented, would attempt to force the Teamsters' 21-member executive board out of office, including President Jackie Presser. The union would be run by court-appointed trustees until it was determined that the union was free of criminal influence, the sources said.
Riley, in an interview here this week, asserted that such an action would be Draconian. "It's a ridiculous idea to say people like myself on the union's executive board who aren't accused of anything will be kicked out for not getting rid of some Mafia guy somewhere," he said.
"We are not without some bad guys," he added. "But the government has more than enough tools to go after them, rather than throwing a blanket over the whole union--700 locals in all 50 states."
A 1985 report of the President's Commission on Organized Crime said that the relationship between the Teamsters and organized crime is "pervasive." During the last five years, more than 100 local Teamster officials and consultants have been convicted or indicted for embezzlement, mail fraud, bribery, racketeering or defrauding union health and welfare plans, according to government statistics.
During a criminal trial in New York this year, Roy L. Williams, former president of the Teamsters, and other individuals testified that his election in 1981 and Presser's first election in 1983 were controlled by New York Mafia leader Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno through members of the Teamsters executive board.
Since June, organized labor opposition to the contemplated Justice Department action has grown steadily, even among union leaders who have been critical of the Teamsters.