Democracy for the Teamsters

WHEN US Attorney Rudolph Giuliani announced that he was suing top Teamsters and reputed organized crime leaders to free the union from corruption, it was tempting to offer him a hearty, ``Go for it!'' Any political ambitions he may have notwithstanding, he has shown admirable courage and initiative in attacking organized crime and corruption.

The suit is not a union-buster, as some labor leaders claim. Union-busting is an easy charge to make: The suit takes place during an administration that has an anti-union reputation, stemming in part from the dismantling of the air-traffic controllers union during President Reagan's first term. But concerns about links between Teamsters leaders and organized crime stretch back through several Democratic and Republican administrations.

We part company with Giuliani, however, over the essentially undemocratic means he is using to change an undemocratically selected Teamster leadership.

The suit, brought under civil provisions of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, asks the court to remove from office Teamster leaders prosecutors allege to have been involved in racketeering - even though he may not have been convicted of violating criminal racketeering laws. Rank-and-file union members get their say in the leadership process only after the court tosses out any bad apples.

The choice of RICO is understandable. Nailing suspected racketeers under criminal statutes requires that guilt be proved ``beyond a reasonable doubt''; in civil cases, it suffices to show a ``preponderance of evidence'' to establish claims that union leaders have been involved in racketeering. Moreover, sending convicted racketeers up the river does not necessarily break the hold of organized crime.

By seeking court removal of unsavory union officials independent of any rank-and-file choice, the Justice Department seems to be saying that it doesn't trust the collective wisdom of the union's membership to remove corrupt officials if given the chance.

The key to solving the Teamsters' troubles lies in one-man-one-vote elections by secret ballot for national as well as local union elections. The suit acknowledges this to a degree in asking the court-appointed trustee to oversee elections for new officers.

Instead of shouldering its way into the union like a linebacker to remove leaders it suspects of corruption, the government should act more like a referee.

The Labor Department took this approach with the United Mine Workers Union in the 1970s. Rather than remove corrupt officials on its own, the Labor Department relied on the good sense of the membership. It intervened to ensure that the electoral playing field was level; existing leaders and the reformers each had an equal shot at having their say during the campaign. Then the government oversaw the elections to ensure fair balloting.

The old leaders were soundly rejected. The new leaders rewrote the union's constitution to give individual members a greater say in union affairs.

Congress could also tighten loopholes in the Landrum-Griffin Act that in effect allow Teamster leaders to perpetuate an election system that dilutes the votes of rank-and-file Teamsters in picking national union leaders. Then the government should aggressively enforce those changes.

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