I'VE SPENT much of my life trying to clean up the Teamsters Union. Yet I don't think the Justice Department's plan to put the union under trusteeship makes sense. The reason is simple: government trusteeship would continue the Teamsters' biggest problem -- the lack of democratic power for the rank and file.

What is needed instead is to reorganize the union under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), providing Teamsters members with something they don't now have: the right to elect their own leaders.

The Teamster rank and file, the men and women who drive and load trucks and work in factories and offices are the people most affected by collusion between top union officials and organized-crime figures or corrupt employers. We are the folks whose pensions, jobs, wages and democratic rights are on the line. We are the ones who have had to face down the goon squads that Jackie Presser has sent to scare off reformers. Even more important, we are the key to any significant change in the union.

Teamsters are already taking matters into their own hands to reform their union. For the past 11 years Teamster members have built a vital, growing and organized reform movement: Teamsters for a Democratic Union. TDU members work in their local unions for basic reforms, fight for workers' rights on the job and sometimes elect new local leadership.

TDU has scored major victories, including twice rallying the troops to vote down national contracts signed and delivered by Presser that would have created second-class union members who do the same work but are paid less. TDU has found a responsive chord for the old union principle of solidarity, long forgotten by Presser -- a millionaire who never worked as a Teamster, inherited his union power from his father and makes over $500,000 a year.

Teamster reformers have made headway even in the toughest territory. In Connecticut, where 12 Teamster officials were recently convicted of racketeering, five of 12 local Teamster presidents have banded together to form an alternative to the present regime. In Presser's own home town of Cleveland, Sam Theodus, head of the largest Teamster local, openly challenged Presser and the union hierarchy last year at the Teamster convention in Las Vegas. Theodus ran for the presidency advocating that rank-and-file Teamsters have the right to vote for their top officers. He did this knowing that he stood no chance at a convention consisting only of full-time officials under Presser's watchful eye and that union officials who step out of line are subject to harsh recriminations from the top.

The point is that given half a chance, members of our union will stand up for democracy, for good contracts, for solidarity, for honest leadership and for ridding our union of organized crime. If the Justice Department is going to sue top union officials, using the RICO Act, let it be to give the members that chance.

The press has talked of a court-ordered trusteeship in which the 18 members of the union's general executive board will be replaced. The only precedent is Teamster Local 560 in Union City, N.J., where the trustee could easily replace all the officers But it is difficult or impossible to see how a trusteeship over the entire union could be workable. Removing 18 top officers would leave more than 99 percent of the full-time Teamster officials in place -- or would a trustee have the power to dump any number of them also? Would a court-appointed trustee bargain major contracts (such as the one being negotiated this month covering 100,000 UPS employees)? And most important, what would follow after the trusteeship except the return of the same old crowd? The idea does not inspire.

What does inspire Teamster members is providing them with the right to elect their top officers, a right Teamsters do not have. The Teamster constitution, unique among North American unions, allows neither direct membership vote nor even the direct election of delegates to a convention. Rather the convention, which is held every five years in Las Vegas, consists almost entirely of full-time officials who are automatically delegates. Jackie Presser was appointed president in April 1983 by the 17 members of the Teamster general executive board -- including Salvatore "Sammy Pro" Provenzano, now in prison for racketeering, and Maurice Schurr, recently convicted of taking employer payoffs.

TDU contends that this system violates the Landrum-Griffin Act, a view backed by the President's Commission on Organized Crime and (as The Post reported in February 1986) some 15 present and former experts in the Labor Department. Incredibly, Labor Secretary William Brock continues to run interference for the Teamster hierarchy, and we are now in court against him.

The RICO statute provides for "reorganization" of any enterprise found racketeer-controlled. Two months ago TDU sent the Justice Department a detailed plan for such a reorganization, centered on changing the Teamster constitution to provide for a rank-and-file secret ballot for top officers every three years. Consider its advantages:

It does not involve any government "takeover" of the union or long-term trusteeship, with all the expenses that this would entail for the taxpayers.

It follows the aims of U.S. labor law as outlined in the Landrum-Griffin Act, which mandates that members have the right to control their unions through an election process.

Most importantly, it has an excellent chance of working. The members of the Teamsters union, given a chance to vote, will not elect Presser, or anyone else who would trade our hopes and aspirations for the interests of organized crime. That's why Presser has never once in his union career stood for a rank-and-file vote. That's why members are struggling right now to get their union back to rank-and-file control. Teamster reformers have no shortage of courage and dedication, but with 700 locals and intimidation from the top, it's a tough task. The election process is the only way for an alternative leadership to develop and challenge for power.

The United Mine Workers have shown the way. In 1969 this union was run by a dictator who ordered the murder of a man who dared to challenge him for the union presidency. The miners cried out for help so loud and clear that even the deaf ears of the U.S. Department of Labor got the message. In 1972 the department supervised a one-member/one-vote election and the miners swept Tony Boyle out. He later went to prison for the murder of Jock Yablonski and his family. The members went on to re-write their union consitution and for the past 15 years have peacefully and fairly elected leaders, often in hotly contested elections.

The Mine Workers rank and file did more to end union corruption and dictatorship than all the commissions, judges and prosecutors have accomplished in the Teamsters. It's time to give the Teamster rank and file the chance to do the same job. They've fought courageously for it, and they deserve it.

Ken Paff has been a Teamster since 1972 and was actively involved in Cleveland Local 407, where he was a truck driver until becoming the national organizer of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in 1978.