Dissident groups within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are mounting an unprecedented challenge to the union's hierarchy in a series of local elections that will come to a head this month.
A mixed pattern of victories and defeats has emerged so far, but-win or lose-the noisy cage-rattling within the huge union could have an impact on its 1979 contract negotiations and the future of the IBT's controversial president, Framk Fitzsimmons.
Although still weak in numbers, the Professional Drivers Council (PROD) and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the two leading groups of union dissidents, are more active than ever before in union elections, backing candidates in about 20 of the roughly 200 local races this year.
"There have always been challenges, but usually it's been the Italians versus the Portuguese or something like that" said TDU spokesman Ken Paff. "This is the first time there's been a challenge over national issues and policies, and there's opposition in locals that have never had opposition before. . .in (Detroit Local) 376 a woman up and announced for one of seven posts, just one of seven and they totally freaked out."
Both groups, charging that the IBT's leadership is corrupt and unressponsive to rank-and-file needs, are attempting to organize grass-roots challenges within the union. The IBT, while showing increasing concern over their activities in recent months, continues to dismiss them as publicity-seeking gadflies and would-be union wreckers.
Although the vast majority of Teamsters locals with elections this yearface no organized challenge, several that do have more than just passing significance, including:
Local 282 in New York, where a PROD-allied group called FORE (Fear of Reprisals Ends) is seeking to oust what is reputedly one of the most scandal-scarred local fiefdoms within the IBT. Local 282's leader, John Cody who has been under federal investigation for more than two years, took the unusual step recently of warning members by letter that he could be under indictment before Sunday's election.
Local 249 in Pittsburgh, where a TDU founder and national leader, Mel Packer, is challenging Tom Fagan, the local's president and a member of the national IBT bargaining committee for the master freight contract covering 400,000 Teamsters. Packer is given little chance of winning but, "if Mel Packer wins, Frank Fitzsimmons won't be albe to hold a peaceful meeting on the master freight agreement," said Paff.
Local 604 in St. Louis, the union's third-largest car hauler local and one of the dissidents' better chances for an upset.
Local 728 in Atlanta, where dissidents are trying to oust Weldon Mathis, the local president who is also an IBT vice president and executive assistant to Fitzsimmons.
Other challenges are aimed at locals in Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Buffalo, Fort Wayne, Ind., Roanoke, Va., and several localities in Pennsylvania. Most elections are scheduled for the next two weekends.
In about one-third of the 20 challenges, according to PROD's Steve Early, National issues such as Fitzsimmons' stewardship are major issues. In Detroit, Fitzsimmons' own backyard a POD-TDU slate is running on the slogan, "A vote for us is a vote against Fitzsimmons."
Packer has said that, if elected, he would "organize with other sympathetic officers around the country to publicly demand an end to the gansterism and dictatorship of the International (union)."
Together PROD and TDU, which normally work at arm's length but are cooperating closely on many of the challenges, represent fewer than 10,000 of the more than 2 million Teamster members. But they have given IBT leaders an endless stream of public relations problems and, in a few cases, have been able to topple local union leaders loyal to the national leadership establishing a foothold for their bottom-to-top strategy for bringing change to the union.
In four cases recently, they backed candidates who ousted entrenched union officials and their allies in Flint, Mich.; Oklahoma City, Okla., Green Bay, Wis. and Jacksonville, Fla. Last year insurgents won in the District of Columbia.
In a separate development, rank-and-file cannery workers upset incumbent Teamster officials in a 17,000 member local in San Jose, Calif.
In the Flint election,a "rank-and-file slate" won a 2-to-1 sweep of all union offices last month in the 3,400 member Local 332, the second-largest car haulers local in the union. In Oklahoma City, insurgents captured four of seven posts in a 7,000 member local.
But there were losses as well, as dissidents were defeated in Los Angeles; Tacoma, Wash., and New Castle, Pa. The narrow defeat in Tacoma is being challenged, but ousted union leaders are also challenging some of the insurgents' victories.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department has sued to overturn at least six Teamster elections from last year that were won by incumbents, alleging that improprieties affected the results of the balloting.
Both PROD and TDU are aiming, through the elections and othe forms of pressure, to have an effect on upcoming bargaining for the master freight contract and supplementary local agreements, including such issues as better benefits, improved grievance procedures, a local right to strike and employer-imposed production standards.
Already, said Paff, some locals are saying they will refuse to work under production standards or without specified benefit guarantees. CAPTION: Picture, FRANK FITZSIMMONS. . . stewardship is a major issue