Amid reports that his indictment is once again likely, Teamsters President Jackie Presser testified -- in absentia -- yesterday at a Senate hearing on a bill that critics charged would give a big boost to his union and to organized crime.
The controversy over the proposal -- a one-word change in the National Labor Relations Act about the meaning of the word "guards," and which unions can represent them -- packed the Senate Labor subcommittee hearing room for hours.
Presser didn't show up in person, encumbered as he is by fresh reports that he faces indictment on payroll-padding charges that were vetoed by the Justice Department last year but that may be resurrected by a federal grand jury in Cleveland. As one Senate aide put it, "The man would have to be crazy to come up here" and leave himself open to grilling.
However, Presser did send a 30-page statement in which he protested that thousands of armored-car drivers have lost their Teamsters union representation in recent years as the result of a 40-year-old labor law and "misguided" interpretations of it by the National Labor Relations Board.
Presser said the situation has become especially onerous since 1984 when the NLRB held that Wells Fargo had the right to terminate a longstanding bargaining relationship with Teamsters Local 807 in New York. Since then, Presser said, "Wells Fargo and its competitors, such as Brinks, have substantially rid themselves of union relationships throughout their systems."
At issue is a provision Congress enacted in 1947 to eliminate "divided loyalties" on the part of "guards" in a labor dispute between their union and the employer whose property they were supposed to protect. Congress decided that the guards should belong to their own unions, not mixed ones.
At first, the NLRB treated the rule as applicable only to plant guards, but in 1953 it decided that the rule also covered armored-car and courier guards.
By then, however, the Teamsters had organized the workers at Brinks. Presser said the union expanded to other companies on a voluntary basis but was unable to compel recognition or obtain NLRB certification. Finally, in 1984, the NLRB came out with its Wells Fargo ruling.
Yesterday's hearing was on a Teamster-backed proposal by Sen. Slade Gorton (R-Wash.) and 16 other senators to limit the law to "plant guards." Gorton said the rule has been extended far and wide, covering even doorkeepers and hat-check attendants, with sharp reductions in wages and benefits. He said his bill would "end the second-class labor rights of thousands of Americans" by giving them the right to pick the union they want.
Critics, however, pointed out that the Teamsters would be the main beneficiary, and quoted from the President's Commission on Organized Crime and from recent court testimony about the extent of Mafia influence in the union.
Gorton's bill "is an invitation to organized crime, through unions it controls, to increase its financial empire and its stranglehold on legitimate businesses," U.S. Chamber of Commerce spokesman Mark A. de Bernardo said. "Domination of security and protective-services unions would present organized crime with the most lucrative access to an employer's assets."
Eugene Methvin, a member of the recently disbanded crime commission, cited Presser's own deposition last August when he was shown a transcript of remarks he made to a Teamsters Joint Council in 1983. Presser was quoted in the transcript as saying that he had suggested two names for NLRB appointment, that he was "positive we are going to get one of the two," and that "we have firm commitments that the armed guards will come under the jurisdiction of being unionized."
Asked last August where he had gotten those "firm commitments," Presser invoked the Fifth Amendment.
"Apparently, Presser as Teamster president has given a high priority in his union's lobbying efforts in Washington" to getting the guard rule changed, Methvin said. "The guard bill," he said, "is especially important to the LCN [La Cosa Nostra] gangs in New York who helped engineer Presser's election."
Teamsters staff attorney Wilma B. Liebman, the union's chief witness at yesterday's hearing, said afterward that "the attempted connection between the [commission's] organized-crime report and this bill is just outrageous . . . . I think the record is devoid of any evidence of problems of this nature with these [armored-car and courier] companies."
On the question of Presser's possible indictment, Teamsters spokesman Duke Zeller said he knew nothing about it. "We have no comment on that," he told a reporter.