A career truck driver who campaigned for 15 years againstunion corruption and autocratic rule has survived death threats, bombings and gunfire to move into union headquarters here as president of Teamsters Local 299, the flagship unit of the International Teamsters Union and one of its most controversial.
Peter Karagozian, who was installed last week,says he is going to give more control of the union to its members. He says he will push for the election of key local union officials such as business agents, who now are appointed. He says he will reduce his own annual salary of $66,000by as much as $15,000 and will make other top local officials take similar cuts.
He is also going to "do away with sweetheart contracts" and be tougher in negotiating the hundreds of Local 299 contracts not covered by the Teamsters National Master Freight Agreement.
It's a tall order for a new president who won a narrow victory on a reform ticket overthe local's incumbent president. The last person who made similar promises was James R. (Jimmy) Hoffa, former Teamsters International president, who was attempting to make his comeback as Local 299 president in 1974. Hoffa, the born-again reformer, never made it. He disappeared mysteriously in 1975.
There are those who wish the 56-year-old Karagzian well. They are among the thousands of public Teamster dissidents -- though they are a minority of the union membership -- who have been grumbling for years that their local and international unions are too colored with corruption and carelessness to be effective.
Some of those dissidents, like Karagozian and his Concerned Teamsters, are oriented only toward local change. Others, like the more militant Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), are aiming at national changes. The two groups formed a loose coalition in Detroit to produce Karagozian's 355-vote victory last May 30 over local president Robert Lins. Some 7,019 votes were cast in the local's presidential race.
Teamster reformers across the nation praised the election as a major step toward the eradication of alleged evils in their unions, especially because Local 299 is the home base of Hoffa, who did much to give the union the mixed reputation it has today, and of International president Frank E. Fitzsimmons.
"A reformer's victory heretells rank-and-file Teamsters in other locals they can do the same thing," said Peter Camarata, a TDU leader who ran for Local 299 vice president in the last election.
However,Camarata's more militant TDU slate in the TDU-Concerned Teamster coalition was badly defeated. Of the 6,310 votes castin the vice presidential race, he lost by 708. Of the 6,041 ballots cast for the Local 299 recording secretary's seat,Camarata's TDU running mate, Jim Carothers, lost by 793.
By comparison, Karagoziah's Concerned Teamsters won four of the top seven spots -- including the presidency -- in the Local 299 race.
Camarata said he is not embittered by his loss, nor is he wavering in his support for the more moderateKaragozian.
"We see the international union as a huge pyramid," said Camarata. "You can't attack a pyramid at the top. You have to start changing it from the bottom."
Stillas demonstrated by Karagozian's experiences, that approach can be dangerous in a local union with a well-documented history of violence, corruption and intolerance toward rank-and-file opposition.
"I don't get caught late at night eating out by myself," Karagozian said, referring to telephoned death threats he saiid he received after his election. "I take precautions. Forewarned is forearmed, and I've been forewarned."
He and his supporters say they have reasons to believe the threats. In 1977, when he was running unsuccessfully for the local presidency, Karagozian's car and his wife's car were bombed. Karagozian was shot at.
In 1971, Karagozian spoke publicly against some members of the Local 299 leadership who had several jail terms. Shortly afterwards, someone placed a box containing 15 sticks of dynamite on hisfront porch. The dynamite didn't explode, "but the messagewas clear," Karagozian said.
This time, friends and supporters advised Karagozian to "lay low and cool it for a while" after his election.
Karagozian left town for a while.
"But, now I'm in office," he said after his inauguration July 1. "I'm always concerned about possible violence, of course. But you have to expect that kind of thing when you upset the apple cart."
Robert Lins, the incumbent challenged by Karagozian in 1977 and defeated by him last May, was appointed to the Local 299 presidency in 1976 to fill a resignation-caused vacancy, hotly fought over by Hoffa and Fitzsimmons loyalists. Though he says he was "neither a Hoffa or aFitzsimmons man," he was widely perceived as being a strongsupporter of the union's international leadership -- meaning Fitzsimmons.
Karagozian had been a supporter of Hoffa, who, after his release from the Lewisberg Penitentiary in 1971, sided with Karagozian and others seeking to "return the union to the rank-and-file."
Hoffa had hoped that his unlikely alliance would allow him to recapture control of the international union by first regaining the top job in Local 299, according to author Dan Moldea and others who have studied the Teamsters.
Lins' 1976 compromise appointment came as a result of developments in Local 299 that followed Hoffa's disappearance. And the nastiness of the 1977 Lins-Kkaragozian race, most observers agree, was due in part to that Hoffa-Fitzsimmons legacy.
The 1977 election, which Lines wonby 244 votes of the 7,258 votes cast, was overturned by theDepartment of Labor because of campaign irregularities -- Lins allegedly received contributions from the trucking firmshe bargained with as a union leader -- unrelated to the violence.
Last May's election was the product of the Labor Department's ruling on the 1977 contest.
There has been anaudible sigh of relief here among Local 299 members -- reformers and otherwise -- that at least the election has been settled.
Their local, despite its reputation as the flagship of the international union, has fallen on hard times of late. With 10,000 members, it now ranks 11th in size among the international's 742 units.
Barely 20 years ago, Local 299 was the largest Teamsters unit, with 20,000 members. The membership decline came about for a variety of reasons: internal bickering, corruption investigations, changes in the trucking industry and in the international union's drive fordiversified memberships and, more recently, the recession.
Because of its location in the heart of the nation's car and truck manufacturing industries, Local 299 has always played a major role in national trucking contracts governing the transportation of automotive products. But it is in danger of losing that clout.
For example, a year ago, Local 299 had 2,800 members involved in car hauling. But the steep drop in U.S. automotive production has whittled that member to 840, according to local union officials.
"I believe 299 still has the same basic power and strength it's had in previous years," said Karagozian, rushing between meetings in his new capacity as president.
"But," he conceded, "we have our problems. We have a lot of work to do."