Jackie Presser thinks it's time everyone stopped picking on the Teamsters.
The Ohio Teamsters leader, whose name has often been linked in print with organized crime, says the attention the union is getting from the government and the media borders on "persecution."
"I've never been in front of a grand jury in my life. I've never been indicted. I've never been convicted of a crime," Presser said during a recent interview in his Washington office. More important, he says, "there is no mention anywhere of my ever being identified with organized crime" in the FBI report clearing him for an advisory post with the Reagan administration during last winter's transition period.
"I've been a labor official all my life," says Presser, who reportedly earns $250,000 from the union. "If I was a creep and a crook and a gangster, then I should be in jail. All of us can't be guilty for a few."
State police officials in New Jersey testified before the New Jersey Commission of Investigation late last year that Presser was a contact for the approval of union loans to mobsters. Presser also was named as a defendant in a civil suit filed by the Labor Department in 1978 against trustees of the Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund. The department accused the trustees of a series of questionable loan transactions, including some loans to individuals linked to organized crime.
Presser has vehemently denied any ties with organized crime.
While Presser was giving his interview in Washington, new Teamsters President Roy Williams was being arraigned in a federal court in Chicago on charges of conspiring to bribe a member of Congress in connection with the deregulation of the trucking industry -- a charge Presser calls a "mockery of justice."
Presser wonders why the government waited until just before the Teamsters' convention to indict Williams. "Why wait four years and 50 weeks to indict somebody the week of the convention?" he asks. ". . . Is it prosecution or is it persecution?"
The way Presser sees it, the union has been the victim of politics. "We've been the whipping boy politically," he says. Reciting the litany of Senate investigations of the union, beginning with those of former senators Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), and John L. McClellan (D-Ark.), in the 1950s and continuing into the current Congress, Presser says, "I think the record's worn out. I think the needle should be changed."
The Teamsters, says Presser, are no different than anyone else. "I would think that if you would look, you'd see if there were not more congressmen, doctors and lawyers and bankers in jail [than Teamsters]," he says. "There's a certain percentage of people, no matter where they're from, they're going to get indicted; they're going to get convicted, and they're going to get exonerated. I don't find it strange for an organization the size of ours to have had its normal problems." Two of the last four Teamsters presidents have been convicted and jailed, and the third, Williams, is under indictment.
Normally, the views of Jackie Presser would be only mildly interesting at the national labor level. But Presser's decision to meet the press for two days earlier this month -- interviews set up by the Washington public relations firm of Gray and Co. -- comes at a time when the Cleveland union leader is clearly becoming a national power within the union. The emergence of Presser already has given rise to speculation that he is the heir apparent to the 66-year-old Williams.
But perhaps equally important, Presser is using the same logic in defending himself and his union that AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland used when he took over the federation nearly two years ago. As one of his first official acts, Kirkland invited the Teamsters, which had been booted out of the federation 20 years earlier on charges of corruption, to reaffiliate.
When it was suggested that the Teamsters really hadn't changed since their expulsion, Kirkland said it was no longer the federation's responsibility to police its members. Since the Teamsters' expulsion, he said, the federal government had enacted laws to police labor unions. And if the federal government didn't see fit to take action against the Teamsters, why should the AFL-CIO?