Teamster chief's conviction may affect labor laws

Congressional pressures for tougher labor laws are expected to build quickly if Roy L. Williams, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), goes to jail in mid-April without giving up his union office - one of the most powerful in the country.

Mr. Williams was sentenced March 31 to a maximum 55-year prison term and fined $29,000, despite a plea for probation because of serious health problems. Federal District Judge Prentice H. Marshall refused to stay the sentence pending an appeal, ordering Williams to begin his long term on April 15. Williams was convicted of trying in 1979 to bribe former Nevada Sen. Howard Cannon. The senator has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Judge Marshall noted that Williams is ''president of one of the most powerful labor organizations in the free world,'' and added: ''Those who obtain such a position should expect to be treated very severely when they use their high office for a corrupt purpose.''

The 55-year sentence will be reviewed after Williams spends 90 days in a federal prison medical facility at Springfield, Mo. When there is a question about a prisoner's ability to withstand jailing, imposition of the maximum sentence plus observation and review are mandatory under federal law. Sentences usually are reduced substantially after the 90-day observation.

For Williams, a lighter sentence - or probation - could depend on his willingness to give up the IBT presidency voluntarily before mid-July. His term in the $225,000-a-year IBT presidency runs until 1986.

Under current federal law, a union official who is convicted of criminal charges can continue to hold office - even if he is jailed - until all appeals are exhausted. If the appeals fail, he is then required to leave office and is barred from returning to union power for five years beyond the term of his sentence.

Because appeal processes are often time-consuming, convicted officers could retain power for a year or longer.

Legislation now before Congress would change this. Backed by the Reagan administration, the legislation would require the immediate ouster of a convicted official and extend the period of disqualification to 10 years. A similar measure was passed in the Senate in 1982, but failed in the House.

Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan says the intent of the proposed measure is to bar ''individuals convicted of serious crimes (from) positions of power and influence in labor unions and employee benefit plans.'' Although the law would apply to all of organized labor, its prime target is Williams and other Teamster officials. The IBT says it is a ''vendetta action.''

Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO president, endorsed the bill.

Before the sentencing, Judge Marshall asked Williams why, if he were too sick to go to the penitentiary, he was not too sick to run the country's largest union, with more than 2 million members. The judge was told that ''trusted aides'' are handling IBT affairs during Williams's illness.

They will continue in their duties if Williams remains in jail after his sentence is reviewed. How much control over union affairs he would have remains an open question. Generally, the Federal Bureau of Prisons allows inmates to maintain any legitimate business they had before imprisonment.

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