Why is it that the two million rank and file members of the largest labor union in the United States -- the International Brotherhood of Teamsters -- tolerate so many of the questionable practices that go on in that union? Such as national conventions made up largely of paid union officials rather than local members; or a convention, this past week, that increased the salary of its president by over 40 percent -- from $156,250 to $225,000 annually, while approving hefty increases for other top brass; or a union that has seen 26 of its national and local officials indicted or convicted since January of this year alone.
And that question on membership toleration is expected to be frequently asked again this week. The current -- and new -- Teamsters president, Roy L. Williams , is facing his own challenge: arraignment in a federal district court on grounds that he conspired to bribe a US senator. Whatever the outcome in the William case, two other Teamsters presidents have served prison terms.
The answer, of course, seems to be that the Teamsters rank and file look the other way at often sleazy practices within their union precisely because they get their own "share of the pie." That is, when it comes to the nitty- gritty of bargaining and writing contracts that provide top pay and excellent fringe benefits to workers, the Teamsters invariably come through for their members, some of whom earn $50,000 or so annually. An employers like the union because it ensures labor peace during the period of the contract.
The union is also known for its adept politi" cal skill, reflected in the current claims of a Washington lawyer for the Teamsters. The lawyer maintains that he was instrumental in selecting the administration's nominee for the chairmanship of the Interstate Commerce Commission. The Teamsters oppose trucking deregulation, which comes under the ICC. Tthe bargaining table -- at which the Teamsters, with a battery of over 500 lawyers at their disposal, re admittedly first-rate -- is not enough in an America of the 1980s that has increasingly sought to curb corruption, dubious dealings, and excess at the governmental level, while making the political process (such as in national nominating conventions) as democratic as possible.
The Teamsters rank and file needs to not only ask some hard questions of its leaders but take some tough and long-overdue action. The sad fact is that a small dissident group at last week's national convention is Las Vegas failed in an attempt at genuine reforms for the union. Such reforms included calls for having conventions every three years, instead of five years, as at present; and direct election of national officers, instead of having them elected by covention delegates, who are usually part of the national structure.
The Teamsters will get the leadership and union structure they most want -- or deserve. The trouble is that, unless the Teamsters change, American labor as a whole, as well as the American public, will also get a union structure that they do n ot particularly want, or deserve.