Eddie Kornegay put his career on the line yesterday and that's just what the Justice Department hoped he would do.

Kornegay, 50, a former $40-a-week laundry worker who became the $90,000-a-year leader of the Washington area Teamsters union, announced he is a candidate for vice president from the union's Eastern Conference, a job that would put him on the union's powerful 16-member International Executive Board.

Kornegay is one of just a handful of Teamsters who so far have been willing to stand up to the union's national leadership in the first direct, secret-ballot elections in the union's history. The new election process was part of a consent decree the Teamsters signed last year to settle a civil racketeering suit by the Justice Department.

"We will never achieve our rightful place until we confront our internal problems as a first and most important step to building a modern union," Kornegay said in announcing his candidacy.

Kornegay accused the current national leadership of abdicating its responsibility to represent the membership not only at the bargaining table but in the political arena. Pointing to Teamsters endorsements of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Kornegay said, "People naturally have trouble understanding how a labor organization could put its stamp of approval on candidates who are so obviously anti-union."

Kornegay, one of the Teamsters' highest-ranking blacks, said he hopes others will follow his example and run for union offices. He acknowledges that without the consent decree setting up the new election process, he wouldn't have a chance.

In the past, officers were elected in public voting at the union's convention. "The elections were a done deal before you got there," Kornegay said.

This time elections will be conducted in several stages. Delegates to next spring's convention will be elected this fall in secret balloting. At the Orlando, Fla., convention, candidates for direct elections in late 1991 must receive at least 5 percent of the delegates' votes to be nominated.

To run for the executive board, a Teamster must obtain petition signatures from at least 2.5 percent of the regional members. Once certified, candidates will have access to the Teamsters' monthly magazine that goes to all members of the union. This is considered crucial.

Kornegay began 20 years ago as a business agent for Local 922. He rose to be president of the local and three years ago was appointed trustee of Teamsters Local 1714, which represents 3,000 employees of the D.C. Department of Corrections. Last year he became its president.

With the new election rules and court supervision, Kornegay said a new opportunity for change exists at the union's national level. "There is a fundamental change in the way this union goes. That consent decree is real," he said.

Kornegay will try to use the Teamsters Black Caucus as the foundation of his political support, but says that alone will not be enough. "I'm hellbent on not letting myself become just a black candidate. I'm a Teamster, I'm a trade unionist," he said.

Kornegay already has the support of John Morris, president of Local 115 in Philadelphia and head of the 140,000-member Pennsylvania Conference of Teamsters, who also is running for a regional vice presidency.

More than one-third of the union's 1.6 million members are women and minorities, according to Kornegay, yet there are no women and only one black on the executive board. "I believe the board has to open up," he said. "There is no way, if you're concerned about minorities and women, you can sit on the sidelines in this election."