MIAMI BEACH — Facing federal prosecution and battling cancer, Teamsters President Jackie Presser received several standing ovations here Thursday as the union was welcomed back into the AFL-CIO after a 30-year exile.
"Today, without question, is a historic event," said Presser, after flashing a thumbs up sign and thanking the delegates to the AFL-CIO convention for their enthusiastic welcome.
"I believe the future will hold that the Teamsters Union being back in the AFL, joining forces together . . . are going to create the greatest political giant that this country has ever seen," said the heavyset union leader, who wore a gray suit, white shirt and red tie, and a black and gold baseball cap to cover a head bald from radiation treatments.
Presser, 60, was introduced by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. "This federation welcomes the renewal of our historic solidarity with the members of the Teamsters and the certain belief that our unity strengthens the voice of all American labor," Kirkland said. "Certainly, over the past 30 years, our mutual adversaries have continued to attack us with equal fervor and fine impartiality."
The Teamsters were expelled from the AFL-CIO 30 years ago, in the wake of labor racketeering hearings chaired by Sen. John L. McClellan (D-Ark.). Four of the union's last five presidents have been indicted on federal charges and three of them--Dave Beck, Jimmy Hoffa and Roy Williams--were convicted and sent to prison.
Presser is scheduled to go on trial in a Cleveland federal court in February on charges of embezzlement and racketeering. He has pleaded not guilty.
In addition, the Teamsters stand in the shadow of a potentially unprecedented suit by the Justice Department to take over the union on the grounds that it is dominated by organized crime.
These looming problems did not prevent Thursday's gathering from being a near love feast. Leaders of a score of AFL-CIO unions came over to the guest section of the convention ballroom at the Fontainebleau Hilton Hotel and shook hands and embraced Teamster leaders, including Harold Friedman, a Teamster vice president who faces charges along with Presser in Cleveland.
"We're happy to have the Teamsters home," said Jack Henning, executive secretary of the California Federation of Labor. "We've had a perfect relationship in San Francisco," he said, noting that the Teamsters and the independent International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union had banded together in a joint strike defense council last year.
"I'm pleased to be back," said Donald Peters, a Chicago-based Teamsters vice president. Peters was present at the 1957 AFL-CIO convention in Atlantic City, N. J., when the Teamsters were thrown out of the labor federation.
"George Meany and Walter Reuther treated us like dogs," he said, referring, respectively, to the former presidents of the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers, both of whom are now dead.
'Tense and Hostile'
Eugene Moats, a Chicago-based vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who was an assistant to Meany then, recalled the Atlantic City gathering as "tense and hostile." He said the difference between then and now "is like night and day. Everybody feels a certain elation."
A small band from a Pittsburgh local of the National Assn. of Letter Carriers played briefly in the background. After concluding his speech, Presser shook hands with Kirkland and the rest of the AFL-CIO Executive Council, a body he was elected to later in the day.
Only one labor leader here publicly expressed any dismay about the unanimous decision of the Executive Council last Saturday to take the Teamsters back. That was Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, a union that has had years of ferocious battles with the Teamsters as both sought to win the right to represent California field workers.
Although he had risen to his feet when Presser was introduced, Chavez said in an interview afterward: "They were corrupt when they were kicked out in 1957 and they're corrupt now."
However, Chavez, like virtually every labor leader in the country, said the idea of the Justice Department using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act to attempt to take over the Teamsters is unconstitutional and potentially a threat to all unions in the country.
When the possibility of such a suit was disclosed by The Times in June, some in the labor movement thought that it would further isolate the scandal-marred Teamsters. But just the opposite has occurred.