Concerned about an already tarnished public image, organized labor is particularly sensitive to repercussions from a US Senate inquiry into charges of "criminal or other improper practices or activities" in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
The Senate study criticizes both the Teamsters' handling of its multimillion-dollar Central States, Southeast, and Southwest Areas Pension Fund and the US Labor Department's bungling of an investigation into alleged gangster influence on the union.
The AFL-CIO, on the defensive because of corruption charges and convictions in its Longshoremen's Union and in a few other unions, fears that criticism of the Teamsters could blacken labor generally. It has happened before, and some within the AFL-CIO say it could happen again.
One of Douglas Fraser's first actions as an executive council member, representing the United Automobile Workers, was to propose that AFL-CIO reactivate an ethical-practices committee set up years ago to monitor AFL-CIO internal affairs. The federation says the committee has been inactive because the US Landrum-Griffin Act makes it difficult for the AFL-CIO to police itself.
Labor is concerned over how the current Congress, considered unfriendly by unions, might react to suggestions by a Senate subcommittee that tighter legislation may be needed to protect union members and retirement funds from organized crime.
The subcommittee, chaired by Sen. William V. Roth (R) of Delaware, also chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs, says that Congress should make its position "apparent beyond the shadow of doubt" on breaches of trustee or fiduciary obligations by labor union officials.
Sen. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia, the ranking minority member of the subcommittee , joined in approving the 190- page report, which among other things said that Roy Lee Williams, elected president of Teamsters union in January, should have been more thoroughly investigated by the government.
Mr. Williams, indicted three times but never convicted, and now under indictment again, was questioned by the subcommittee about "connections with organized crime figures and manipulating of fund assets," the report notes. He invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege 23 times on grounds his response might incriminate him.
The report says, "Because of the allegations concerning his fiduciary conduct , because he refuses to account for his affairs as a fiduciary, and because of unanswered charges that he represents organized crime syndicates like the Kansas City Mob, a serious question has arisen which reflects on whether or not Roy Lee Williams has any place in any position of trust in the labor movement."
It calls on the Labor Department and federal courts to give Williams another opportunity to answer questions. If his responses are not adequate, the report says, the Labor Department should go to federal court to seek his removal.
Labor Secretary Ray Donovan has told the subcommittee that there is no procedure for the Labor Department to remove union officers by civil or administrative actions.
Senator Nunn replied that this position "is similar to decisions by the Labor Department going back through both Democratic and Republican administrations." The Georgia Democrat said that department policy "clearly is to support the law in a very narrow manner . . . A hands-off policy designed to protect the union hierarchy instead of the rank and file."
The subcommittee report calls Labor Department probing of Teamster pension fund affairs "a failure, the victim of poor management, incompetence, and bureaucratic infighting." Mr. Nunn, who chaired the group last year, criticizes the Labor Department under prior administrations for "wasting a historic opportunity to rid the Teamsters of the influence of organized-crime figures." He says the losers are "the men and women who contribute to the pension fund and expect one day to live on retirement income from it."
The Labor Department investigation began in 1975 and was prompted in part by public and congressional concern over the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa, and by continuing reports of corruption in pension fund lending policies.