A bill to keep labor unions honest

It is because the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has, in the words of its president Jackie Presser, ''a few torn pages'' in its history that the US Senate will most likely again pass an anticrime bill that imposes tough new penalties on union officials convicted of labor racketeering. Those torn pages refer, of course, to the fact that three former heads of the Teamsters - including Mr. Presser's immediate predecessor, Roy Williams - have been sentenced to prison. Indeed, had the union been more zealous in past years in dealing with the corruption issue, the bill would probably not be before the Senate at all.

The anticorruption bill, which passed the Senate last year but failed to come before the House, would require that union officials convicted of certain labor-related crimes step aside from their union positions during the appeals process, a process that can drag on for years. Convicted officials would also be prevented from holding office in the union for between five and ten years.

The Teamsters opposed the proposal outright under Mr. Williams. Mr. Presser this week told a Senate committee that he supports such a measure in principle, though believing that it sets an unfortunate ''double standard'' for union officials convicted of racketeering and corporate officials convicted of the same crime. Under the Senate measure, corporate officials would have to step aside from any position dealing directly with union matters (such as bargaining) , but could continue on in other positions with the firm pending appeal.

The proposal, it should be noted, is supported by AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. And for sound public policy reasons. At a time when unions are facing enormous organizing difficulties because of economic conditions, corruption on the part of even a few union officials tends to erode public goodwill.

The racketeering proposal is not intended to curb legitimate union activities. Nor should it be allowed to become a law that could be used to penalize union leaders for normal union efforts, such as activities that might stem out of picketing, organizing, etc. Lawmakers should make certain that both the history - and specifics - of the legislation clearly spell out that the penalties apply only to specific instances of conviction for racketeering and corruption, not minor misdeeds that might occur in the course of legitimate union pursuits.

At the same time the Senate may want to give thought to Mr. Presser's argument that trial judges should be granted some discretion regarding the conditions under which an official could be allowed to return to his post at some later time. In the case of corporate convictions, for example, the enforcement division of the Securities and Exchange Commission will under rare circumstances make such suggestions to a trial judge.

Still, given the history of documented corruption in a few unions, the anticrime bill should again be approved by the Senate and then acted upon by the House.

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