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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Reconciliation Will Benefit Both Unions

November 03, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

The decision of the leaders of the 1.6-million-member Teamsters Union to rejoin the 12.6-million-member AFL-CIO is indeed another significant milestone in labor history, and it will bring some pragmatic gains for all of labor and relatively few negative effects.

The negative is the probability that at least some of the Teamsters' image as a mob-connected union will rub off on the AFL-CIO.

But the Teamsters' "homecoming" to America's only federation of labor unions after a 30-year separation will not do serious image harm and will not result in any major upheaval or even substantive change within the labor movement.

It might cause some company executives to worry a bit about dealing with a strengthened House of Labor, as the AFL-CIO calls itself, but the reaffiliation will upset few union-management relationships.

The fact is that the separation itself was far from a complete divorce. Generally, Teamsters and most AFL-CIO affiliates remained "best friends" during the long separation. That means that, although the reconciliation may be sweet, even dramatic, it will not require major adjustments by either side.

When the Teamsters were ousted from the federation in 1957, they did not become pariahs among unionists, as many labor leaders, like the late AFL-CIO President George Meany, hoped and expected.

Meany thundered against the corruption and mob connections of top Teamster leaders, especially James R. Hoffa, then the union's president. Hoffa was finally sent to prison and, after doing time there for a few years, was pardoned by President Richard M. Nixon, only to later disappear mysteriously, a presumed murder victim of mobsters.

Meany argued for ouster of the Teamsters from the federation in 1957, saying it would offer Teamster members a chance to "get away from corrupt control. We have got to free them from this dictatorship."

There was a furious debate then within the federation about both the morality and the effectiveness of ousting a union led by mob-linked officials from the House of Labor. The answer then was a resounding, "Yes, kick them out."

However, at last week's AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Miami Beach, there was no public debate--and little in private--on these issues. There was little talk either about recent charges by the Justice Department that the Teamsters' top leadership is still firmly under the control of organized crime--an accusation that mirrored the AFL-CIO charges three decades ago.

In 1959, the nation's law enforcement agencies were equipped by tough provisions in the Landrum-Griffin Act enabling them to stamp out corruption in unions. The consensus last week among federation officers at Miami Beach was that now it is the job of the government, not the federation, to deal with allegations of crime in unions and industry.

With good reason, AFL-CIO leaders are now more afraid of the Reagan Administration's plan to put the entire Teamsters Union under a government trusteeship than of any mob ties some Teamsters still may have. The plan--by Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, himself a target of a federal grand jury investigation of his ties with the scandal-plagued Wedtech Corp.--is a disaster.

Meese wants to make the Teamsters a government-controlled union to save it from alleged mob control. That sounds somewhat like the American artillery official who told an Associated Press reporter after shells had wiped out half the village of Ben Tre during the Vietnam War that, "We had to destroy it in order to save it (from Communist control)."

Ironically, Ronald Reagan and his allies had warmly embraced the Teamsters when the union endorsed Reagan for president in both 1980 and 1984.

The Teamster-AFL-CIO reconciliation last week was initiated two weeks ago by Teamster President Jackie Presser, with the approval of his union's other officers. He was belatedly responding to an invitation extended to the Teamsters in 1979 by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland when Kirkland first took office.

At that time, Kirkland was just facing reality: The ouster did not clean up the Teamsters, and AFL-CIO affiliates did not ostracize them.

Presser's motives in accepting the longstanding invitation to come back to the AFL-CIO stemmed, in part, from the threatened government takeover of his union. But others say he wanted to cap his career with something more honorable than the acquittal he expects, but may not get, from his federal court trial beginning next February on charges of racketeering and embezzlement.

And he probably wanted--and received--some positive recognition that could help him psychologically and, indirectly, physically, with his serious health problems. At age 61, Presser has had a multiple-bypass heart operation; part of one cancerous lung has been removed, and he weighs well over 300 pounds.

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