It comes as no surprise that the President's Commission on Organized Crime has found mob links to the Teamsters. The union has been the focus of corruption charges for at least 30 years; three of its former presidents have gone to prison, and the current president, Jackie Presser, has been the target of a Justice Department strike force investigation and extensive grand jury proceedings. Still, the union continues to be dominated by men who, according to the commission, "have been firmly under the influence of organized crime since the '50s." What, other than continuing the investigations and prosecutions, can be done to change the situation?
One possibility is to focus on the election process within the union. Federal law requires labor organizations to elect their national leadership by one of two methods: members vote by secret ballot directly for the president, or they elect delegates to a convention that makes the selection. The Teamsters and one other national labor organization -- the Amalgamated Transit Union -- use a somewhat different method, which was described in detail in a recent article in this paper by Peter Perl. In these two unions, members vote for local officers, some of whom eventually become delegates to the national convention. In the case of the Teamsters, some local elections are held as long as 30 months before the national convention, and only 40 percent of those elected actually become delegates.
In 1966 the Labor Department approved this procedure, holding it consistent with the requirements of the law. That view was reaffirmed in 1971, but since the last year of the Carter administration, department officials, both career and appointed, have sought to reverse the ruling. So far, they have not succeeded, which may be due to the political clout of the Teamsters or to the legitimate objection that the law really is unclear.
Teamsters for a Democratic Union, an organization of union members fighting Mr. Presser, took another tack by asking a federal court to require timely and direct elections for president. But this week, the TDU suit was dismissed for the procedural reason that the law does not authorize pre- election court challenges. An action can be refiled after the next election in May.
There is a third way to address this problem, and that is in Congress. Labor Department officials do not recall any recent efforts in the legislature to amend the Landrum-Griffin law and clarify the rules for union elections. Arthur Fox, a lawyer for the TDU, claims that the Teamsters' aberrational election process "is the method they have used to have a string of bad apples elected." Requiring a truly democratic procedure for electing the union president might make an important difference. If the department and the courts are unable or unwilling to act, Congress has an obligation to do so. The labor committees in both houses should start the ball rolling.