Jackie Presser, an eighth-grade dropout and former jukebox delivery boy who rose to become head of the nation's largest labor union, was overwhelmingly elected today to his first full five-year term as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
Indicted five days ago on charges of embezzling $700,000 in union funds, Presser was nonetheless given a rousing, near-unanimous endorsement by the 1,900 union delegates and 3,000 guests packing the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Presser, 59, is the fourth Teamster chief indicted and the third elected while facing criminal charges. His opponent was C. Sam Theodus, president of Teamster Local 407 in Cleveland and the first Teamster officer to challenge an incumbent president in 15 years.
Presser loyalists booed lustily when Theodus, 55, was nominated and each time he received a vote during the roll call of 700 local unions.
Ninety minutes into the nearly four-hour roll call, Theodus attempted to concede, but Teamster chiefs insisted on completing the vote to show the magnitude of Presser's mandate.
The vote was 1,729 to 24.
When the tally was complete, Presser was greeted with tumultuous applause as he flashed a V-for-victory sign and blew kisses to the audience.
"I thank you all from the bottom of my heart," Presser said, smiling and embracing his wife, Cynthia, a former Teamster secretary. "We must all work together to protect our status as the No. 1 union in the free world."
Presser said that "the American public has been conned" into believing he had substantial opposition within the giant union. "But let the record show that there were not even 25 of them present to vote," he said.
Presser's critics, primarily in the small splinter group Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), had portrayed him as an ineffective executive and a millionaire union boss, with organized-crime connections, who has enriched himself with four union salaries totaling more than $500,000 a year.
But local union officers were not swayed, viewing Presser's indictment as the latest attempt by the government to attack a powerful labor union. Presser's predecessors who were convicted of crimes -- James R. Hoffa, Roy Lee Williams and Dave Beck -- also enjoyed broad support among union members, who saw the criminal charges as attacks by hostile outside forces.
The President's Commission on Organized Crime recently issued the latest of numerous government reports alleging mob control of the Teamsters, but local union officers dismissed that and similar allegations as exaggerated and politically motivated.
"Most of these guys, the delegates, are getting the goodies. They are local officers making maybe $40,000 or $50,000, and they don't want to listen to bad news about Jackie," said a longtime consultant to the Teamsters, who asked not to be identified. "These guys get cars and expenses and trips. And Jackie has helped a lot of them out" by assisting local unions with various problems.
Nominating speeches for Presser hailed him as a leader who could help the 1.6 million-member union continue expanding into the public sector and service industries, while fighting off attacks by "union-busting" trucking firms that have ousted the Teamsters or resisted organizing drives. Truck drivers make up about a third of the union's membership.
"He has given us wise leadership. Jackie Presser is a friend to all Teamsters and all unionists. He has made us proud to be Teamsters, and he has prepared us for tomorrow," Jeremiah Lavell, a Teamster official from Seattle, said in nominating Presser.
Presser was appointed president in 1983 by the Teamster executive board after Williams was convicted of attempting to bribe then-Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.).
Williams later testified that he became Teamster president with the assistance of organized-crime figures, and said he believed that Presser had similar alliances, which Presser denies.
Presser faced only symbolic opposition in Theodus, a former dockworker and trucker who announced three weeks ago that he was running against Presser to publicize the union's lack of direct elections for national officers. Like many other unions, the Teamsters use a delegate system in which officers of the 700 union locals choose the president.
Delegates here had overwhelmingly voted down election revisions proposed by TDU, which asserted that such changes are needed to reduce organized crime's control over the union.
Presser is the first Teamster president who never held a Teamster-represented job and never was a truck driver. He worked his way up through the union after inheriting a local union job from his father, William, a Teamster vice president, who installed his son as head of a Cleveland local.
Jackie Presser was indicted for allegedly making payoffs by creating jobs for mob-linked "ghost employes" to help him retain control of Cleveland Local 507. Under a 1984 law, he would lose his union presidency if he is convicted of the racketeering and embezzlement charges against him. He did not mention his indictment in his remarks tonight.
The late William Presser, who was convicted of misspending union funds and contempt of Congress, was long associated with the Cleveland mob, according to federal authorities, the same allegations that have dogged his son.