WASHINGTON — At least 240 members of the House have signed a letter protesting plans by the Justice Department to place the Teamsters Union--accused of being strongly influenced by organized crime--under a court-supervised trusteeship, it was learned Wednesday.
The protest, organized by Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.), a longtime Teamsters supporter, and signed by 160 Democrats and 80 Republicans, is scheduled to be sent today to Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III. It follows a similar protest letter signed last month by Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) and all 27 Democrats in California's congressional delegation.
The latest letter, whose signers include House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) and House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), asks Meese for "clarification of the department's efforts thus far and information regarding its future intentions." It expresses "serious reservations regarding both the utility and equity of imposing federal control over private institutions."
The Times disclosed last June that attorneys from the Justice Department, the Labor Department and the FBI were drafting an unprecedented civil lawsuit, under provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, to place the nation's largest trade union in federal trusteeship.
Although similar RICO lawsuits have resulted in placing some individual local unions under trusteeship, the massive Teamsters action would represent the first use of the law against an entire international labor organization.
Suit Transferred to N.Y.
Work on the proposed suit was transferred in September to the office of U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani in New York. Although Justice Department officials never have discussed the project publicly, the suit is expected to be filed by February.
Without confirming or denying that any such case exists, Deputy Atty. Gen. Arnold I. Burns said Wednesday that any case of that nature "would never be determined on political grounds or considerations but would be decided as any law enforcement matter would be, pursuant to the rule of law."
Some Justice Department officials have criticized the transfer of the suit to Giuliani's office, contending that it could have been filed in Washington by late summer. Burns ordered the transfer on grounds that Giuliani's office had more experience in litigation against organized crime.
Political, Labor Backing
Since summer, the Teamsters have organized powerful political and labor support against filing the suit, and the AFL-CIO's executive committee has voted to readmit the scandal-plagued union after its expulsion for corruption 30 years ago.
The Teamsters have also picked up support from Republican and Democratic candidates seeking their parties' presidential nominations. These include, on the Democratic side, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and, among the Republicans, New York Rep. Jack Kemp and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.
Signers of the latest congressional letter said that they also are concerned about rumors that the department may take similar action against the Laborers International Union, the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union and the International Longshoremen's Assn., all identified by the President's Organized Crime Commission as influenced by the mob.
Calls for Criminal Statutes
Their statement urges the department to use criminal statutes against individual union officers rather than employ the RICO statute against the Teamsters as a whole, calling the latter "a broad and unprecedented enforcement strategy that must, of necessity, undermine the ability of a union to perform its statutory functions as the collective-bargaining representative of its members."
"The imposition of trustees to administer an international union by the government is, on its face, inherently destructive of the ability of workers to represent and speak for themselves through their unions," the protest letter said. "The exercise of such authority by the government to essentially remove one of the major participants in the democratic process establishes a precedent which strikes at the very foundation of our democracy."