Today, Presser is dead. (He died in 1988 after surgery for a brain tumor; the union's executive board replaced him with McCarthy.) Teamsters for a Democratic Union, by contrast, is very much alive. It has sent about 250 elected delegates to this convention, all of them pledged to support reform candidate Ron Carey, the squeaky-clean head of a New York Teamsters local. An April telephone poll of 600 rank-and-file members taken by one of Carey's presidential opponents, union Vice President Walter Shea, found that Carey and Teamsters for a Democratic Union had higher "favorable" ratings than either Shea or the other Teamsters Establishment candidate, R.V. Durham of North Carolina.
"I've seen the good times and I've seen the bad times," said Jack Cox, an international union vice president and the head of a Carson-based Teamsters local who is supporting Shea. "But I've never seen anything like this."
Neither has anybody else in organized labor. Until now, the largest union election overseen by the government was held in 1972 by the United Mine Workers, when about 300,000 members voted.
The government is watching so closely that Judge Edelstein plans to fly here from his New York courtroom, ready to rule in case government overseers charge that the convention is departing from the consent decree.
What is happening on the grounds of Walt Disney World stems from a 1988 Justice Department lawsuit that sought a government takeover of the Teamsters, contending that leaders of the union had "made a devil's pact" with the Mafia.
In accepting federal oversight, the union's executive board agreed to let the government set up a special investigator to purge the union of members who were "mobbed up." The Teamsters also agreed to a three-step process of electing new national officers: Delegate elections in all 662 locals, a nominating convention and a December secret-ballot election for a president, secretary-treasurer and 16 vice presidents.
Most of the convention delegates are the same kind of people who usually go to Teamsters conventions--officers of Teamsters locals, who were automatically delegates in the past, or business agents appointed by those officers.
However, the election process shook up a number of locals. In McCarthy's own home Local 25 in Boston, which McCarthy has run for 35 years, two reform slates won eight out of nine delegate slots--including one Teamster, George Cashman, who'd had his leg broken in a brawl 15 years ago when he was backing convention delegates who opposed McCarthy.
Presidential politicking will probably color much of what the convention does. Most delegates appear to have already chosen sides. The vast majority have gone either to Durham, a union vice president who serves as director of the Teamsters freight division, or Shea, who is best known for having been administrative assistant to every union president since the late Jimmy Hoffa.
Durham and Shea say they are building slates of vice presidential candidates with geographic balance necessary to attract rank-and-file members. Shea's campaign belittles Durham as a man unknown beyond the South. Durham's campaign portrays Shea as a tool of one of McCarthy's rivals, 84-year-old Joseph (Joe T) Treretola, the most powerful figure in the union's 500,000-member Eastern Conference.
Treretola--described in various published histories of the Teamsters as a man who has coexisted with mobsters to maintain his power in the union--is one of more than 100 Teamsters leaders who have been accused by government overseers of tolerating or encouraging corruption. He is appealing the accusation in court.
Of those Teamsters accused by the court-appointed investigations officer, Charles Carberry, about 41 have left the union. Many did so rather than appeal so they could maintain their pension benefits.
Two key members of the Durham campaign--the union's secretary-treasurer, Weldon Mathis of Georgia, and Vice President Arnie Weinmeister of Seattle--voluntarily left Durham's slate of candidates in recent months, saying that they intend to retire. Neither had been charged by Carberry, but both had political weaknesses: Weinmeister makes more than $600,000 a year through multiple salaries, and Mathis's Atlanta local was accused of election fraud.
The Teamsters' relationship with organized crime and their reputation for violence is not unique to organized labor. Government investigations have found smaller-scale problems in some longshoreman, restaurant and laborers union locals. It was not unusual for unions to seek out organized crime figures in the 1930s for defensive muscle against employer-sanctioned violence.
The difference in the Teamsters, according to labor historians and crime experts, is that this symbiotic relationship became institutionalized under Hoffa: The mob enjoyed access to pension fund loans and jobs, and the Teamsters enjoyed access to the muscle needed to win a strike or force a contract on an unwilling employer.