KERNERSVILLE, N.C. -- If you want to know what people think about the Teamsters, said Tom Hope, "Get yourself a CB radio and drive up and down the highway for 24 hours."

Mention the union, said the 44-year-old tractor-trailer driver for United Parcel Service, and other truckers start hollering over their radios that "you're dealing with the Mafia."

Hope wants to change all that next year when the Teamsters elect a new leadership in the biggest government-supervised election in labor movement history. As a candidate for delegate to the international union's convention next June, Hope is part of a small band of dissidents in Local 391 determined to take advantage of the new election process to try to change the union world they live in. "I want to make people proud to be a Teamster," Hope said. "It's time to do that."

So far, it's been an uphill fight. The rank and file here and throughout the 1.5 million-member union have shown little interest in reforms. Even reform leaders such as Ken Paff, head of an organization called Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which since the 1970s has worked to change the union, acknowledge that interest in the elections so far is low. "Most members are only sort of vaguely aware of it {the elections}," Paff said.

Here in the Piedmont region near Greensboro, there are no nicknames like "Tony Ducks," "Fat Tony" and "the Nutcracker," some of the Teamster associates cited in the government's suit against the international union that led to the elections. The local, which with 9,000 members has shrunk by nearly 3,000 since trucking deregulation a decade ago, is fairly typical of hundreds of others around the country located away from high crime areas such as Chicago and New York. To federal officials, locals such as 391 are the key to success of any reform effort.

Like in many other Teamsters locals, only one-quarter of the members are involved in over-the-road trucking, once the majority of the Teamsters membership. Another 25 percent work for parcel delivery services such as UPS and the remainder earn their living in general manufacturing and breweries. And by most accounts, including the government's, Local 391 has not been touched by corruption.

In one major respect, however, Local 391 stands out. Two weeks ago, after a bitter power struggle among the union's national leaders, local president R.V. Durham emerged as the leading candidate to succeed William J. McCarthy as international president in next year's election. Durham received the blessing of a board majority at a meeting in Florida after McCarthy announced he would not seek reelection.

Durham's possible ascension is likely to further strengthen his position in Local 391. "He'll get a lot of support from the local," said Hope.

For Hope and the other dissidents, the issues in the upcoming elections are national, not local -- and their target is what they regard as a corrupt leadership that refuses to stand up for their rights at the bargaining table and in grievances against employers. The only way to bring about change, the dissidents believe, is a wholesale change in leadership.

The direct, secret ballot elections in which they hope to do it, the first in Teamsters history, were the result of an agreement worked out with the Justice Department early last year to settle a massive civil racketeering suit. The agreement also placed day-to-day operations under the supervision of a court-appointed officer, stipulated that another officer be appointed to investigate internal charges of corruption and ordered a third officer to set up and supervise the elections.

After a slow beginning, the government election apparatus is gradually being put in place. Eighteen regional election supervisors have been picked and are in the process of recruiting local election coordinators to work with the more than 600 Teamsters locals across the nation. "We're teaching the bear to dance," said a government source.

Under the agreement, the elections involve a three-step process, beginning in three months with the selection of delegates to the convention in Orlando, Fla., next spring. That meeting will determine what, if any, changes are made in Teamsters operations and who the candidates will be for national union office. The direct election of top union officers will be held in December 1991.

So far the process has attracted little interest within Local 391, hardly even coming up for discussion at the union's monthly membership meetings.

Two insurgent candidates for local office who had hoped to run for delegate were recently defeated by a 6 to 1 ratio, with only 27 percent of the membership turning out to vote. The insurgents considered it a testing of the waters -- and the water wasn't too hospitable.

Hope said his group will field a full slate of delegates, adding, "There will be more interest as time goes on and we get more involved."

Although there have been projections that only 20 percent of the Teamsters membership will turn out to vote -- a turnout that would boost the chances of incumbents -- Durham agrees with Hope that it is still early in the process.

"In the end the percentage will be in the 30 to 40 percent range for delegates," Durham said. "If they don't realize it now, they're going to realize soon that this is important."

Durham, 60, a onetime over-the-road driver who has built his union into the second largest local in the Teamsters Eastern Conference, was elected to his first local union office as a reformer under government-supervised elections 30 years ago. At the time of the settlement with the Justice Department, he was not a member of the international board and was not named in the suit.

"I don't underestimate the negatives that are out there," said Durham, who has told members of 391 that he is committed to the settlement. "I hope we can get this cloud off our heads."

But Carl Rice, another member of the dissident group in Local 391, said he thinks Durham is tainted by "guilt by association," and points to the fact that Durham's only announced running mate is the union's current secretary-treasurer, Weldon Mathis, a board member named in the government's suit. Ten other current members of the board who supported Durham at the Florida meeting are expected to run with him if they are not removed by the court-appointed officer in charge of monitoring corruption.

For that reason, Rice said he thinks Durham's candidacy doesn't offer a real change -- and that even his members will realize that and turn out to vote. "The people in this local understand what free elections can do for them."