New Teamsters chief faces major task -- restoring union's integrity
Can Jackie Presser, the new president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), buff up the tarnished image of the country's largest and most investigated union?
Can the Ohio union strong man provide the forceful, centralized leadership needed in a union buffeted by problems of declining membership and power in an ailing industry?
Those questions are being asked both inside and outside the IBT as Mr. Presser, a flamboyant and aggressive Teamsters leader, assumes the office vacated by Roy L. Williams. Mr. Williams, convicted of attempted bribery, resigned last week in a court deal that allows him to remain free on bail while his conviction and sentence are appealed.
His election was unanimous among the 17-member board, although he was opposed initially by supporters of IBT secretary-treasurer Ray Schoessling.
Teamsters locals across the country, with 1.7 million members, accepted the choice of Presser without much enthusiasm. The IBT presidency is, and long has been, far removed from the rank and file. However, a tiny minority of dissidents criticized Presser's election as ''the worst possible choice.''
The Ohio leader acknowledges that he has been investigated ''time and again'' by federal law-enforcement officers, and that a 6,000-member local that he heads in Cleveland is currently under investigation for payroll irregularities. Presser denies ties to organized crime, an allegation that has dogged him for years, and says that he has been ''vindicated'' in past probes and has never been indicted or called before a grand jury.
He says he doubts organized crime has power in the international union. ''The acts of individuals . . . really should not be loaded onto the shoulders of the union,'' he adds.
Nevertheless, the charges of corruption within the Teamsters are problems Presser must face. His concern about this will not be new; he has frequently urged efforts to give the union a new and brighter image, once proposing a $100, 000 advertising campaign to help do this.
Presser's ambition to take over the IBT presidency has been no secret during the past decade. He has been a strong leader in the Midwest, showing an aggressiveness other Teamsters leaders say is vital for the union in its current bad times. Frank Fitzsimmons, who succeeded James R. Hoffa, showed little centralized leadership, running the union from Kansas City, Mo., and letting regional and local factions extend their control over labor matters. This undoubtedly contributed to a general deterioration in the union. Membership dropped from 2.3 million to 1.7 million, and bargaining power and political influence were lost.
Members of the executive board say cautiously that if anyone can turn the tide, Presser can. He has had wide public visibility in connection with charities in Ohio and through participation in a broad range of civic affairs. A strong supporter of President Reagan, he retains ties to the administration, but supports both Democrats and Republicans.
Employers, although cautious about Presser's advocacy of tougher and more unified bargaining, say he ''understands a company has to make money to survive.'' He has shown a willingness to make concessions.
Power rather than money seems to have prompted his interest in the IBT presidency. His annual income as president of Local 507 in Cleveland and from other union offices has been reported to be well over $300,000, making him one of the highest-paid labor leaders in the country. The IBT presidency pays $225, 000 a year, so, in assuming it, Presser may have a somewhat smaller annual income.
Presser quit school in the eighth grade, joined the Navy at 17, and returned to begin his career in labor.