DID the Justice Department shrewdly sweep the table with a weak hand, or did it actually fold its cards? That question lingers over the pre-trial settlement the government reached last week with the Teamsters union. Last June the government filed a major racketeering case against the Teamsters, which for decades has been linked to the Mafia. Four recent presidents of the union either were imprisoned or died under indictment. The prosecutors asked for drastic remedies; these included the ouster of the union's entire leadership and the appointment of a trustee with sweeping powers to root out corruption within the ``brotherhood.''
The Justice Department settled for less, allowing the present officers to go on running the union. The government won some key concessions, nonetheless. Most important, in 1991 the union's top officers will be, for the first time, elected directly by the rank and file in secret balloting. Also, through 1991 three court-appointed officials with limited enforcement powers will keep a sharp eye on the appointment of Teamsters executives, the use of union money, and union elections.
Critics of the settlement - some pointing darkly to the Teamsters' longtime Republican ties - say the government developed weak knees, particularly in its failure to remove officials with roots deep in tainted previous regimes. Other observers, though, including Teamster dissidents, believe the settlement goes a long way to cleaning up the union.
All things considered, the government seems to have cut a sensible deal. As the attorney general noted, the settlement takes effect at once, whereas the trial and appeals process promised to stretch out for years. Also, the government's case, while strong, was not ironclad.
In any event, the prospect of a federal trustee running one of America's largest unions - even in a good cause - was disquieting. It compromised the principle of an independent labor movement. When the government's plan to request a trustee became known, it was greeted with wide, bipartisan opposition in Congress. Even Teamster reformers resisted the remedy.
So the settlement looks to be in the interests of the public and the union's members. It leaves the government with a powerful role in purging the union of mob influence. It's up to the Justice Department and the court to police the deal vigorously.