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What Democracy Did to the Mob : COLLISION: How the Rank and File Took Back the Teamsters By Kenneth C. Crowe (Scribner's: $22.50; 303 pp.)

April 11, 1993|Harry Bernstein | Bernstein has been a labor writer and columnist for The Times for 30 years.

No other union in the world has ever been investigated, damned and praised as much as the Teamsters. More than a dozen books have been written about it. Television and theatrical films have dramatized its sometimes sordid history, the murder of one of its presidents, James R. Hoffa, and the imprisonment of hundreds of its other leaders, including several of its presidents.

The giant union was kicked out of the AFL-CIO, the nation's only federation of labor, on charges that it was dominated by mobsters. Former President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert, waged a years-long battle to clean out the racketeers, with limited success that did include sending Hoffa to prison, although he was later pardoned by former President Richard Nixon.

The members themselves were able neither to topple the organization's corrupt leaders nor to break the tight grip the underworld had on the Teamsters for more than three decades. As a result, even lower-level Teamster leaders became associated in the public mind with mobsters, even though the vast majority of them were earnestly and often successfully helping millions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers find relatively well-paying jobs.

Veteran Newsday labor reporter Kenneth Crowe does not review much of the union's stormy past in "Collision," but he does offer a clear, breezy and very well-informed overview of the union's recent history that should appeal to anyone who enjoys well-told stories about bad guys finally getting their comeuppance.

"Collision" begins with the union's first democratically conducted election, which put into the presidency a New Yorker, Ron Carey, the first Teamster president in decades with no mob ties and no history of corruption. Crowe dramatically describes the in-fighting that led the union's top officers to allow court-appointed administrators to supervise the election and remove more than 200 leaders.

Many observers, including this one, reluctantly accepted the idea of the government's deep intrusion into affairs of a private organization. It smacked too much to totalitarian societies where government control of the unions invariably undermines worker representation. Distasteful as it was, though, government intervention turned out to be the essential ingredient that made reform possible after so many years.

Crowe argues persuasively that government intervention may have to continue for years to keep crooked Teamsters out of office. Some of us think that is a dangerous course to follow in a democracy, but Crowe, like many others, takes the more sanguine view reflected in a congratulatory letter Victor Reuther, a founder of the United Auto Workers, sent to Carey after his victory.

"Not since the Thirties, when the (Congress of Industrial Unions) was born," Reuther said, "has there been an event of such profound significance for U.S. labor as your election to the presidency of the Teamsters."

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