There wasn’t much new or revelatory in the 113-page brief filed in federal court last week by Rudolph W. Giuliani, the highly visible U.S. attorney in New York. Giuliani’s charges: that the leadership of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the bosses of organized crime have had a long, abiding and pervasive relationship; that Mafia rulers have come to dominate and corrupt the nation’s largest labor union from the top down; and that among other things, Mafia bosses have gained unfettered access to the billions in Teamster pension and welfare funds. These charges have been spelled out time and again in excruciating detail over the past three decades.
In fact, one of the few surprising things about the whole exercise last month was that Giuliani’s boss, Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, said that he had never known of the links between the Teamsters and the Mafia and if he had, he and President Reagan would certainly never have accepted the support and endorsement of the union and its president, Jackie Presser, in 1980 and 1984. But, Meese explained, “there was no such evidence available at the time.”
Which leads one to wonder where Meese has been all these years. Since the Senate labor racketeering subcommittee, under Sen. John McClellan and the chief counsel, Robert Kennedy, first took after corrupt union leaders, with particular emphasis on then-Teamster president Dave Beck, in the mid-1950s, there has been little secret that the Teamsters were riddled with corruption. And ever since Beck went to prison and Jimmy Hoffa moved into the union’s presidency, there hasn’t been much effort to hide the ties that bound the union and the Mafia.
From Hoffa through his successors--Frank Fitzsimmons, Roy Williams and now Jackie Presser--it’s been there to see for anyone who cared to look. Hoffa, for one, took a certain pride in his friendship with the underworld’s rulers though he claimed, at least in private, that he used them as much or even more than they used him.
Not so Fitzsimmons, who moved into Hoffa’s chair when Robert Kennedy’s “Get Hoffa” squad finally succeeded in its mission and Hoffa went off to federal prison. According to many Teamster insiders, both Hoffa loyalists and honest dissidents, Fitzsimmons got riches and protection from the Mafia in exchange for the keys to the Teamster pension and welfare funds and free rein to continue to run locals around the country. The threatening clouds that hovered around Fitzsimmons’ head never descended, perhaps because he occupied another unique position. He was the Nixon Administration’s in-house labor leader, the one major unionist in the country to give unquestioning loyalty to that President.
But organized crime became ever more entrenched and ever more powerful in the union during the Fitzsimmons years, powerful enough so that when Fitzsimmons died the Mafiosi were able to force the election of Roy Williams as the new president. Later Williams was sentenced to prison for conspiracy and began to sing songs about being on the mob’s payroll for years.
The story of the Teamsters and organized crime is, then, an old and familiar one, reprised now by Giuliani, though with one new twist. Giuliani’s solution to the old problem is to indict the union’s executive board (and a couple of dozen friendly Mafia leaders), boot it out and install a court- appointed trustee to run the union and eventually provide a means for the 1.6 million Teamsters to hold free and honest elections for new officers on every level.
It’s a nice idea, if it works.
There are those, of course, who denounce the idea as monstrous, a perversion of the democratic rights of union members. But democracy has never been a strong point in the Teamsters and the rights of union members have been ignored more often than they have been protected. Elections of Teamster officers, on every level, have traditionally been held under the cold hard eyes of hired strong-arm men who have enforced the will of those in power with their fists, with guns or worse. Dissent in this union has carried a high and often violent price and bitter experience has been enough so that not many Teamsters have been willing to pay it.
And those who have run the union, from Beck to Hoffa to Presser, have run it as they wish. They may have helped raise the drivers from the bottom of the economic barrel into the middle class--thus winning the support of their members. But to some members, economic gain has been the top priority and they have ignored the other high prices that have had to be paid.
“The devil’s pact,” as Giuliani called it, between the Teamster hierarchy and organized crime long ago reached the point where drastic solutions were needed. It was not enough merely to send a Beck or a Hoffa or a Williams or some lower-ranking leader to prison. A thorough housecleaning has become necessary if there is even the barest chance of restoring the Teamsters Union to the Teamsters. Maybe the trustee plan won’t work--but nothing else has so it’s worth at least a try.