The indictment of Teamsters union President Jackie Presser will not deter his election to a full five-year term at the Teamsters' convention next week in Las Vegas, but it may fuel a growing "right-to-vote" movement by Teamsters seeking to change the union's long-criticized method of election, union officials and others said yesterday.
Presser, who was paid more than $750,000 in 1984 in union salaries and expenses, is the fourth of the last five Teamster presidents to be indicted on criminal charges and is expected to become the third Teamster chief elected while under criminal indictment.
"It is another black eye for the Teamsters, and it is exactly why I am sticking my neck out and running for this office," said C. Sam Theodus, president of Teamster Local 407 in Cleveland. Theodus, a former truck driver, is the first Teamster officer in 15 years to challenge an incumbent for president.
"An indictment makes absolutely no difference as far as his being reelected. It didn't for former Teamster presidents Roy Williams or Jimmy Hoffa, and I don't see it changing anything," partly because of the lack of direct elections, Theodus said.
Williams was elected in 1981 after he was indicted on charges of attempting to bribe a public official, and Hoffa was elected in 1966 while appealing a conviction for jury tampering. Dave Beck, who preceded Hoffa as president, was convicted of larceny and income tax violations in the 1950s.
The 1.6 million-member union elects its presidents for five-year terms. Presser became president by appointment.
Nearly 100,000 Teamster members have signed petitions seeking the right to vote, according to Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a Detroit-based group that has pushed for election reform for more than a decade. The current system allows some 2,000 delegates -- virtually all Presser loyalists -- to elect the next president.
"These elections are rigged. Jackie Presser would be elected even if he stood up at the convention and anounced he planned to steal money from the union and would also double his own salary, and said he hated the union members," said Kenneth Paff, a TDU spokesman. "Honest union members are getting tired of this."
The President's Commission on Organized Crime, citing Teamster union ties to organized crime, earlier this year criticized the Reagan administration for its "contacts" with Presser, saying that they could "lead to an erosion of public confidence." Presser was influential in swinging the Teamster endorsement to the Republicans in 1980 and 1984, and has maintained a close relationship with the administration.
But the Presser indictment also is not expected to change the guest list of politicians and dignitaries, many of them Republican, who will address the 2,000 delegates and 6,000 guests at the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Vice President Bush, who attended a Teamster conference in 1984 to accept the union endorsement for the Reagan-Bush ticket, declined a Teamster invitation several months ago, citing schedule conflicts. But Bush has recorded a five-minute, videotaped speech to be aired at the convention, said his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater.
"We were anxious to do the videotape and regretted we were not able to appear," Fitzwater said. "The Teamsters have been supportive of the vice president and the administration, and we continue to hope for support. The indictment does not change that. Our position is that the union has, in its membership, good, honest, hard-working people who deserve recognition."
Labor Secretary William E. Brock, Republican National Committee Chairman Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr., Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), former secretary of state Alexander M. Haig Jr., and Rep. William L. Clay (D-Mo.) are among the officials scheduled to speak at the convention, which opens Monday.
Brock agreed last summer to speak because "the Teamsters are the largest single union in the country, and he, as labor secretary, has a responsibility to talk with all unions," Brock spokesman David Demarest said.
The Teamster election system, which many present and former Labor Department officials believe to be illegal, allows local officers to select -- from among themselves -- most of the 2,000 delegates empowered to elect the union president. The system favors incumbents by potentially weeding out opposition, Labor Department election specialists have said.
Teamster dissidents have unsuccessfully challenged parts of the election process in the courts. And Brock has directed his staff to study whether the department should challenge it.