More than 5,000 Teamster officers and guests -- surrounded by buffets of shrimp, crab, beef, sausages, and lavish desserts -- were crammed into the Caesars Palace ballroom last night when Teamster President Jackie Presser was carried in.
Amid a fanfare of Olympian music, four husky men dressed as Roman centurions bore in the president of the nation's largest labor union on a golden sedan chair. The music may have been Olympian but their task was Herculean: Presser weighs about 300 pounds.
As colored floodlights flashed and Teamsters cheered wildly, they carried Presser through the jammed ballroom in Caesars Palace's inimitable style and deposited him on a dais, where he grabbed a microphone, welcomed the guests and said the ride caught him by surprise: "I never knew I would be carried by four gorillas."
Then they carried him out. Presser, clad in a cream-colored suit, smiled beatifically, looking for all the world like a reclining Buddha and shook the hands of the Teamster faithful who pressed forward to see him.
"If I hadn't seen this myself, I never would have believed it," said Patrick Cleary, a Labor Department aide who was among the onlookers overwhelmed by the Teamster spectacle.
Presser's entrance reflected the strong popularity he enjoys among Teamster officers -- despite his indictment last week on federal racketeering charges involving the alleged embezzlement of union funds, and despite persistent reports of his role as an FBI informant and a crony of organized crime figures.
Here at the Las Vegas Convention Center, Presser is beloved among most of the 2,000 delegates who are expected to overwhelmingly elect him to a five-year term on Wednesday.
One of the best-selling convention items is the "official Jackie Presser quartz wristwatch," which carries Presser's picture on its face and sells for $35.
Labor Secretary William E. Brock surprised many Teamsters Monday with his blunt warning in a speech that the union must "clean house" wherever it finds criminal influence -- although Brock took pains to stress he was not presuming guilt in the case of Presser, whose indictment resulted from an investigation initiated by Brock's department.
But among Teamster officers, Presser can do no wrong, judging from numerous interviews with convention delegates. They describe him as a hard-working union leader and believe he has been wrongly accused of crimes, victimized by overzealous prosecutors and unfairly attacked by the news media.
Underscoring Presser's popularity, the convention today resoundingly defeated a proposal by union dissidents to cut Presser's salary by $100,000 and prohibit him from collecting multiple union salaries that bring him more than $500,000 a year.
Several delegates, in fact, proposed a raise to $1 million for Presser, already the nation's highest-paid union officer. "I see $1 million as too low for you, for the kind of guff you have to take," Jack Mendelson, a Toledo union officer, told Presser.
Presser expressed his thanks, but gavelled down the proposed salary increases, ruling them out of order. This action, like others, brought him loud applause.
Union officers said in interviews that members support Presser largely because he has improved management of the giant union, has not raised union dues (currently assessed at two hours' wages per month), and because the Teamsters in many cases have continued to secure good contracts for members.
"Jackie has done a fine job, and I don't believe what they say about him," said John Allen, an Atlanta truck driver, "We're the biggest and best union and they keep going after us."
"Maybe 10 to 15 percent of my members think Presser is dishonest," said Joseph S. Comeaux, head of a Louisiana Teamsters local. "But most of our members back him 100 percent, and they sent me here to vote for him.
"I think Jackie is innocent. It is total political harassment. Why does the government indict him just before our convention?" asked Comeaux. "In my opinion, it's like the indictment of our governor in Louisiana, Edwin Edwards. The government didn't like the man and they went after him. He got found innocent . . . But if the government doesn't like you, they will try to get you."
"Republicans and big corporations run most of this country, and they don't like labor unions because we cut into their profits. You have a Republican president and prosecutors who also don't like unions and they go after us," said Comeaux, 41, a former ditch digger and 20-year union member.
The convention today also overwhelmingly voted down a "right-to-vote" amendment submitted by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a dissident group, that would have required direct popular elections for top union officers. Delegates said it was too costly and unnecessary, citing the fact that most unions use an elected delegate system.
The convention did, however, adopt an election change that prohibits local union executives from deciding among themselves, in many cases, which officers become convention delegates. Labor Department officials had criticized the process because it could allow incumbent officers to weed out challenger delegates.