The Teamsters Try Something New: Democracy

In an odd way, the recession has bolstered organized labor by focusing public attention on such bread-and-butter union issues as joblessness and the gap between rich and poor. But no event is likely to help labor's image more than the election now under way in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters--the nation's most visible union.

The mail-in balloting, which started Nov. 7 and ends Dec. 10, gives 1.6 million Teamsters their first chance to vote directly for their president, secretary/treasurer, and 16 vice-presidents. That's a dramatic break with the past, when these 18 officials politicked among themselves--often influenced by Mafiosi--to pick a president. Indeed, the hotly contested election for a five-year term in the $275,000-a-year post has become a close race among three candidates, including a local reformer.

WHITE HATS. Regardless of who wins, the union that emerges will be cleaner than it has been since the mob muscled its way in more than 40 years ago. The antigraft campaign run by Ron Carey, the dissident candidate from Long Island City, N. Y., has driven the other candidates into a bidding contest to see who can be most forceful against corruption and fat union salaries. "This election has a chance to have a really big effect on the image of unions," says Thomas Kochan, a labor expert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Teamsters' transformation began with a 1988 racketeering lawsuit filed by the U. S. Attorney's office in New York. To avoid a trial, union officials agreed to a series of changes. A court-appointed investigator was given authority to look into corruption and Mafia links. So far, he has charged 138 local and national officials, including Joseph Trerotola, the octogenarian kingmaker known as Joe T., who left when faced with charges that he had tolerated mobsters in his New York union council. Since his departure on Oct. 25, only one top union officer with alleged links to organized crime--President William J. McCarthy--remains in office, and McCarthy isn't running for reelection.

To settle the federal suit, the union also agreed to allow another court appointee to set up the unprecedented direct election for top officers. The first step involved rank-and-file voting for delegates to the union's convention last June. The delegates then nominated candidates to run in the current election.

Democratization has split the old guard. One faction, led by McCarthy, nominated R. V. Durham, a longtime official from North Carolina. Joe T. chose Walter Shea, who has been the assistant to the past four Teamsters presidents. Most astonishing was the delegates' nomination of Carey, who makes $45,000 a year as the head of a 7,000-member local composed mostly of United Parcel Service Inc. workers.

JET SALE. Carey's presence has turned everyone into reformers. Convention delegates voted to sell off the union's five jets and to raise strike benefits from $50 a week to $200. On the campaign trail, Shea has called for a $10-an-hour "Teamsters minimum wage"--a farfetched idea in a union that includes thousands of farm workers earning less than $7 an hour. And Durham's platform puts ending corruption first on the list. "We have to prove that we're willing to remove the 2% of local officers who are bad," says Durham.

But since Carey is the only real outsider, his rivals are running scared. Both Durham and Shea concede that a low turnout would benefit Carey. But neither has made a move to bow out.

A poll that Carey commissioned in October gave him 29% support, Durham 12%, and Shea 7%. It also showed that less than 45% of members knew anything about the candidates or planned to vote. Many members barely even know they're in the Teamsters, a vast, decentralized organization that sprawls across 50 states and Canada. "I don't know any of the candidates, and I'm not planning to vote," says Leah Brown, a Teamster who works at the Palm City (Fla.) facility of Action Reprographics Inc.

Members who are voting seem to be in a throw-the-rascals-out mood. Carey's poll showed corruption to be the No. 1 issue among those who plan to vote. One telling sign: On Oct. 23, McCarthy lost by more than 2 to 1 in a race for his old job as president of his hometown Boston local. "There comes a point where members want to clean this thing up and break with the past," says Jim Lauer, the president of Lauer, Lalley & Associates, the Washington firm that did Carey's poll.

It may take time for the public perception of the Teamsters to change. But after December, labor's opponents may have to look elsewhere to joke about fat-cat union bosses and their mobster pals.

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