Teamsters' Presser faces divided union, need to boost wages

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, divided by internal problems and economic troubles, faces new difficulties in its struggle to regain unity and bargaining power as a former president, Roy L. Williams, appears headed for jail. The US Supreme Court Monday refused to hear an appeal by Mr. Williams. He was convicted in 1982 on federal charges of a conspiracy to bribe Howard W. Cannon of Nevada, then a US senator, to use his influence to block deregulation of the trucking industry.

The court also denied appeals by three other defendants. Mr. Cannon had refused to go along with the efforts by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) to sway his vote.

Mr. Williams, resigned the Teamster's presidency in favor of Jackie Presser. Williams was fined $29,000 and sentenced to up to 55 years in prison.

Mr. Presser has been effective in reestablishing much of the national control of Teamster affairs that had been lost under Williams and, before him, Frank E. Fitzsimmons. But the union (still the country's largest) has substantial pockets of discontent.

Presser is seeking to reverse a three-year trend of job losses in the industry and wage declines that have reduced pay in the industry by more than 7 percentage points. The solution he sees is a nationwide contract.

To win such a contract, union members would have to settle for relatively low wage-and-benefit improvements, perhaps no more than 11 percent over three years. This probably would be less than the cost-of-living increases and would come after a modest 8 percent increase in labor costs since 1982.

Such a low settlement would mean that IBT members in some companies would have to settle for less than the fat increases they might be able to negotiate on their own, but that many other employers could not afford.

But several hundred other companies have been forced out of business as a result of deregulation and the economic recession. About 17 percent of the 300,000 workers in jobs once controlled by the IBT have been lost either to unemployment or to nonunion operations.

The condition of the industry is so poor that the IBT and Presser are at a severe bargaining disadvantage. Employers are suggesting a two-tier wage system that would mean lower hourly wages for new employees and truckers recalled to jobs -- a plan similar to the new Postal Service contracts.

Any compromise would hurt Presser politically, caught in the middle of this year's negotiations. A strike is considered unlikely and unwanted by union leaders.

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