Teamsters shift power, but likely not policy

No matter who emerges at the helm of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the power struggle sparked by the passing of longtime president Frank E. Fitzsimmons is not expected to change the established independent course of the nation's largest union.

Mr. Fitzsimmons, who headed the Teamsters since James R. Hoffa was forced out of office in 1967, left control of the organization to be juggled among labor's biggest power brokers.

The more than 2 million-member union allows regional and local leaders considerable autonomy in Teamsters operations in their areas. The policy, which IBT spokesmen say makes the union one of the most democratic in the country, breeds rivalries that must be held in check by a strong and centralized national leadership.

Until Mr. Fitzsimmon's successor is chosen formally at an IBT convention scheduled for this summer, there likely will be problems deep within the union. Some could lead to contract troubles with employers. But, in the long run, the IBT is expected to look and act about the same, regardless of who moves into the president's office.

There are a number of candidates. Ray Schoessling, IBT secretary-treasurer, may take over presidential duties for the next several months, but at 75 he is not considered a viable candidate for a five-year term as president -- and office with a $156,250 annual salary plus expenses of about $20,000 last year. Mr. Schoessling, second in command, now has a $125,000 salary.

The most-likely successor is Roy L. Williams, 66, also a vice-president, considered the most powerful member of the IBT executive board.Mr. Williams is an announced candidate for the Fitzsimmons office and is reported to have had Fitzsimmons's support as his successor. Williams, for years a close associate of Jimmy Hoffa, is chairman of the Central Conference of Teamsters, a 1 million-member Teamsters district in the Midwest. He is also a power in the Central States, Southeast, and Southwest pensions funds which are reported to have more than $2 billion in assets.

Jackie Presser, 54, a union vice-president from Cleveland, is also mentioned as a possible successor to the presidency. But he has said that his health will not permit him to seek the "arduous" top office in the union.

None of the three possible candidates are considered to be innovative leaders but are known to be strong and tough men to deal with. However, Fitzsimmons was similar in stature and background when he assumed the presidency. A beefy leader, who preferred golf to the spotlight as a labor official, he surprised the doubtful by his exercised authority, his contract negotiations, and his relations with political leaders --most of them Republicans.

The names of Williams and Presser have come up in investigations of Teamsters pension fund irregularities and of organized crime links with the union, but the allegations have never been proved. If either is elevated to the union presidency, the present inquiries into the IBT in New Jersey and elsewhere are likely to be intensified.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) -- a vocal insurgent group with a claimed membership of only about 20,000 -- sees Fitzsimmons's passing as an opportunity to bid for more power. The Detroit-based group will oppose the candidacy of anyone from the executive board, labelling such a move just a continuation of years of disregard for IBT's rank-and-file members.

The TDU recently said that Williams "has no respect or concern for the rank-and-file members of our union, nor has he ever shown any respect for the law."

Union leadership traditionally has not had much sympathy for the TDU's criticism -- offering strong rebuffs to calls for re form -- and the attitude is likely to continue no matter who takes over Fitzsimmon's office.

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