Freeing the Teamsters

The much-needed revitalization of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters involves far more than the election of a flamboyant new president. Jackie Presser brings many talents to his new office, including an ability to strike reasonable compromises with business firms having Teamsters contracts and a flair for public relations. These abilities will stand him in good stead as he takes over a union that has seen its membership drop sharply as a result of recession and competition from new nonunion firms following trucking deregulation in 1980.

But beyond the nuts and bolts union issues - contracts, freight hauling practices, etc. - there is a more fundamental matter still to be resolved by the Teamsters union rank and file before the union can command a respected place in the world of organized labor. That is the matter of freeing the tarnished union from allegations of corruption and links to organized crime.

The sad fact is that three of Mr. Presser's four predecessors have been indicted for various crimes. Mr. Presser was elected to his new post only because the outgoing president, Roy Williams, resigned last week as part of a court deal allowing Mr. Williams to remain on bond pending appeal of a conviction of conspiracy to bribe a US senator. Although Mr. Presser has never been charged with a crime, allegations of ties to organized crime have continued to follow him over the years. And a federal probe is currently under way involving alleged misconduct involving Mr. Presser's own local union in Ohio.

In addition to dealing with the Ohio probe, Mr. Presser will have to bring a new sense of direction to the Teamsters, following the union's drift in the past few years. That means balancing the need to maintain the union's national master freight agreement with trucking firms while at the same time finding ways of making exceptions to the agreement for economically hard-pressed firms.

Meantime, the legal difficulties of former and current Teamsters officials should spur passage of anticrime legislation now before Congress that would require the immediate ouster of a convicted union official. Under existing federal law, Mr. Williams, although convicted of a crime, would not have been required to step down from his post pending the appeals process. An appeal, however, could go on for many years. The legislation, strongly supported by the Reagan administration, passed the Senate last year but failed in the House. The bill should be enacted as quickly as possible.

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