Q: I'm looking around this office for golf trophies. I'm told that since Allen Dorfman was murdered you're the best golfer in the Teamster family.
Oh, no, I'm a bad golfer. I like the game. I used to play every weekend. But I gave that up way back.
Q: Is this the office where they filmed "Blood Feud?" (A TV dramatiziation of the enmity between then-Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa and then-U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.) Where's the big view with the big picture of Jimmy Hoffa?
A: I didn't see that. There is no picture.
Q: You seem to really enjoy dealing with the media?
A: I've got nothing to hide from you. What's the point in hiding? If I don't tell you the truth you're going to get me anyhow. I'm here in Washington. You're going to see me. Know where I go. Know where I eat. Know the type of people I travel with. If I'm a bum I'm a bum. If I'm a labor leader I'm a labor leader. And nobody's going to make up your mind for you but yourself. That's the thing I'm welcoming. We didn't have that here before. They didn't have no communications and stuff like that.
Q: You say that it's a new world, a new day. Some of the people in that (Teamsters) boardroom still live in the old world. Aren't you living dangerously?
A: What should I be afraid of?
Q: Well, I will point out what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
A: Now wait a minute, just a second. You don't know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa.
Q: No, I don't.
A: Then don't point it out.
Q: All right.
A: I'm going to tell you why, honey. It's very important you understand.
Q: There is considerable evidence that he did not meet a happy end.
A: That's right, that's right. There's considerable evidence. I'm 56 years old. I grew up hearing about the Lindbergh disappearance. About a year ago I see that they've discovered a new theory. Maybe this guy didn't kidnap the Lindbergh child. That's news. I know what you're trying to say to me but I've always said what mob? What connection? This is our executive board, okay?
Q: Nice picture.
Aide: This guy was with the Screen Actor's Guild with Reagan.
2d Aide: There's old blood and new blood on that board.
A: That's right. But all of 'em agree. I was the underdog candidate and yet they took me. You know why? I'm outspoken. I've got charisma. I'm gonna do what has to be done. I'm not afraid of anything.
Q: It's been said that you're schizophrenic in that you'd like to "clean up" the union. But because of the world you grew up in, you can't quite do it.
A: That was a writer who was selling a book for a living.
Q: It's not true then?
A: Of course not. If there was anything to clean up I'd clean it up. I'm not saying that we are not the target. But when you look at what's been spent and the years and years and years of investigation --. (To an aide:) "I'll tell you what I want you to do, I want you to get that book, that blue book, I want her to see that."
Aide: Oh, organized strike force?
A: I want her to see that book. There were a lot of convictions, Kathy, of the Teamsters. But I want you to see what they were -- $1,200, $1,800. All clerical. Eighty percent of them.
Q: What I'm still confused about is your view of the old world, changing now to the new. In the old world of your father where he had to struggle to build the unions, is it your view of things that there was a mob and the old guard in the union had to deal with it?
A: I believe that in the old days when my dad was organizing, there was a big drugstore on that corner of Walnut and East 9th Street. The guys who were organizing in the drycleaning and the vending and the factories, it was a gathering place for all of them. In those days it was understood that there were certain elements in organized labor that used to do it for a buck. There was more dedicated guys -- real trade unionists -- than there were the guys that went out to shake somebody down or blackmail them or whatever.
They were like the pool hustlers. They were like the bowling hustlers. They were guys who knew how to make a buck clipping people, okay? It was easy because there were no sophisticated laws at that time to stop the rampant --. There was a great opportunity for the shiftless people to go out and do their thing. Today, there is no mob, there is no control.
Today it's more dangerous to be a union official. If you're going to be corrupt today, there are so many departments of governments and agencies that operate. You go talk to an employer and try to shake him down. Tell him we're going to have a picket line tomorrow morning. He has a place to call. In the '40s and the '50s the guy was on his own. A bunch of guys would come there with picket signs and the guy was down. Who were they going to call?
The writers! These people who make money writing books -- take Fratianno. (James Aladena "Jimmy the Weasel" Fratianno, highest-ranking mob member to turn government witness and subject of "The Last Mafioso," claimed Presser had a connection with an embezzlement scheme. Presser denies it.) Here's a guy that admits killing 11 or 16. Here's a man who's perverted. He was a bum.
What do I know about what happened in 1961 in New York City? Some guy cuts a guy's head off. How do I know about that stuff?
Q: You say that it's all in the past. The name that came up in the hearing -- John Nardi (a confessed embezzler connected to Presser's local). That's a very fresh name. But he's connected to the past. His father was blown up and killed, right?
A: Jackie Nardi. (A murdered Teamsters official.) You're talking about his son.
Q: He's not in the past. He's in the present.
A: He's a thief. He was --.
Q: He confessed to a crime.
A: I agree.
Q: He was in your local. (At this point Presser went off the record concerning the current intestigation.)
Q: What about Dorfman? (Allen Dorfman, who was convicted with Roy Williams of conspiracy to bribe, was gunned down in Chicago last winter.)
A: I had no dealings with Dorfman. I can't tell you what happened to Allen because I really don't know. I knew him, but I never was involved with him on any level.
The Labor Department and George Lehr (new executive director of the Central States Pension Fund, in which Dorfman was long involved) have cleaned up this thing to the extent that it's running without any bad press! That in itself after 28 years of continuous investigations is a sigh of relief.
Q: What advice would you give a son of yours about survival in a world like that?
A: I don't live in a world like that, Kathy.
Q: You live in a world where people have gotten killed or sent to prison or have confronted a hostile public. There are a lot of things to watch out for.
A:Take care of the people and the people will take care of you. That's my philosophy. My own local union speaks for itself. Do you belong to The (Newspaper) Guild (the editorial and clerical workers' union.)?
Q: Yes, I do.
A: The Guild in Cleveland, I've been approached by them more than once. They say why don't you take us? You know the Guild were anticipating a strike in Cleveland last year. This impressed me -- The Cleveland Plain Dealer boarded up windows bigger than this wall, the whole building. When the people came to work the next morning -- my apartment is only two blocks away. I'm walking. I see some of the reporters I know. I said "Hey! They're afraid of you goons!"
Now, you see, I understand that you wouldn't break no windows. You wouldn't stop anybody from going over the picket line. The Guild would say come on, take our jobs, it's okay. But the Teamsters if they go out, nobody takes their jobs. Right, Kathy?
Q: What was your first image of the labor movement? I know your father was involved.
A: Being the oldest of the children, I used to walk with my father in the early days. My dad was an organizer for the union. He used to put newspapers in his shoes because he had holes in them and he didn't have money for carfare.
Q: What surrounded you in Cleveland in the early years?
Q: What we hear about is the jukebox racket and the mob and that stuff.
A: Sure, there was the Kefauver and the McClellan, but that was all part of organized labor. That was in the roaring '40s. Same thing they're doing today. Investigating bodies, headlines -- it doesn't mean that everybody's guilty.
Q: What was it like -- a typical day?
A: You usually got up around 4:30 in the morning and you left the house somewhere between 5:30 and 6 because you wanted to be at the gates of the factories where the workers were coming in for the morning shift. You'd pass out leaflets and handbills and put your phone number and give our self-addressed postcards. I think they were a penny a piece at that time. And you would hope that they would write back to you.
What we could really talk about then was an 8-hour day instead of a 15- or a 14-hour day on an assembly line or working in a warehouse. At that time people were just happy to get an 8-hour day and a 10-cent-an-hour increase. If you would talk to a labor official about environmental protection in the '50s, you may as well be talking about Maid Marian because there was no such thing.
I grew up in a neighborhood where I can remember where my father used to move into an apartment on the first of the month and on the 29th of the month we'd have to move out because he couldn't pay the next month's rent. Labor leaders were tough. It was a jungle out there.
Q: There were some tough characters in the jungle that you had to deal with?
A: Yeah, there was tough characters that were hired by management to keep us tough customers from talking to the workers. In the police department they had a labor squad. Their job was to pick us up whenever they seen us. It was a political jungle. Union people didn't go to the mayor's office or city council. They were tough guys. You couldn't rub shoulders with that element. We were looked down upon.
They used to hire us by the day to go out and walk picket lines and keep the trucks from coming in and things like that. I can remember all of that. I did all of that.
But then came a part of my life when I began to see the new horizon. I began to see that the government was going to put in a National Labor Relations Act to really protect the workers.
Q: What do you say to a working mother. She doesn't make very much money, but she's in the Teamsters. She reads that your salary is $540,000 a year, plus five pension benefit plans?
A: No, two.
Q: Two. Okay. Plus unlimited travel, expense accounts, good restaurants. What do you say to her?
A: I'd say that's why, Kathy, you get out of the Guild and go with a strong, progressive, capable union. That's why our organization is 1.7 million.
Q: Because you make a lot of money?
A: No, because I'm a professional. I could have opened up my own company. I've made big money with investing my personal dollars. That's where I've scored. But I'm sitting at the helm of 1.7 million people, health and welfare, pension programs, dental and optical, holidays, vacations, sick days, legislation, drive programs, publications of newspapers anus? You d magazines. I have as much responsibility as the top executive officers of corporations. Yes, I make big money. But I do big jobs. I don't think I'm a second-class anything.
Q: Is it a big deal to go to the White House?
A: I've been with a lot of presidents. I've been with a lot of congressmen and senators. It isn't strange to me. It's a thing to appreciate.
Q: What do you do for relaxation?
A: I have a girlfriend and I get to see her. Occasionally. She's in Cleveland. She's a nice girl. She really is.
Q: Did you find a place here yet?
A: No. I can't believe the market here!
Q: You've described this office, the chair of leadership of the Teamsters, as an electric chair -- a death chair?
A: I made the inference that if the wrong person sits in the chair it becomes an electric chair.
Q: You've already said that if you're sitting in that chair, you're caught between federal investigators on one side and hoods on the other side. You're already wealthy. You're already powerful. Why did you want to sit in this chair?
A: It's been an ongoing fact of life that for some unknown reason, whoever runs for the presidency of the Teamsters is automatically branded. And I resent that. The Teamsters Union isn't the big goblin everybody has painted.
Q: Can you blame me for thinking that where there's smoke, there's fire?
A: The stories go nowhere. The things they write are irresponsible.
Q: Who needs this grief?
A: For the same reason that writers and correspondents like to go into war zones and take their lives in their hands. You're dedicated. You really feel that you're a professional. I love what I do. I've accomplished a great deal. You don't know about the retirement homes. You don't know about the circus that we have once a year to raise funds for charities. You don't know about our little scholarship programs for underprivileged families. You don't know about the sports programs we have for children. You don't know about the Big Brothers of America that we sponsor and the dinners that we hold. Those really don't mean much to the news media.
Q: You mentioned that it had been tough on your family and your children going through the adverse publicity. You're going through a divorce.
A: You can't work the amount of hours that I work and be a homebody. You can't give to your kids when you have to give to your profession. So I missed the Little Leagues, and I've missed the Girl Scouts meetings. I grew up with some bitter experiences. My daughter's crippled. She was in a car wreck. Coming home from college to visit me. My son was, my son's going to be with me. He's had a very very hard row without a father.
Q: How do you mean he's going to be with you?
A: Well, I'm going to try to teach him a little bit about health and welfare and communications. I'm going to be here alone. And I want to bring him with me.
Q: How old is he?
A: He's 26 now. Gary. And he's backward, he's scared. You know, he's around his father. Very shy.
Q: How do you envision the rest of your life? How do you expect to end up?
A: I'm going to, well, I know, I pray to God that I'm not a victim. I hope that I'm able to communicate and carry myself and perform in such a manner that I don't do the things that create those problems. I will not be making private investments. Just try to keep myself as straight as an arrow if I can do that now.