The Teamsters' Trials

One of the more encouraging recent developments in organized labor was the turnaround of the long-corrupt Teamsters Union. The courts and federal government played a dominant role. But also key was top union leadership committed to change.

Hence the irony of the union's latest scandal: the illegal campaign fund-raising practices that now threaten to bring down an erstwhile reformer, Teamsters president Ron Carey. A few weeks ago, Mr. Carey basked in the successful conclusion of his union's strike against UPS. Now, his victory last year against rival James P. Hoffa has been invalidated. He may not be allowed to run in new union elections scheduled for early next year.

The villain in this turn of events was an end-justifies-the-means approach by officials in the Carey reelection campaign. They argued that a defeat by the better-financed Hoffa (son of longtime Teamsters leader James R. Hoffa) could reverse the union's reform momentum.

In desperation, the campaign aides came up with a scheme for using union treasury funds to leverage donations to the Carey election drive - violating federal law. Three campaign staffers have pleaded guilty. Federal investigators are exploring whether Carey himself was a party to the scheme (and thus ineligible for office).

The Teamsters president is vigorously defending himself. He says he doesn't excuse the wrongdoing by his staff, but that Mr. Hoffa's fund-raising also should be subject to scrutiny. He has a point, but the investigative spotlight isn't likely to shift soon.

Elements in this Teamsters drama parallel the campaign finance scandal dogging the Clinton administration - the frantic rush for funds, the need to keep up with a well-heeled opponent. But, if anything, the Teamsters scandal is even more ironic, and sad. Ron Carey laments that his campaign aides' tactics were "a betrayal of all of the reforms I have worked for."

Those reforms must be preserved, even if Carey is forced to go. The Teamsters Union has come a long way toward remaking itself as a modern labor organization with sound management. But it should ensure that it does not slip back into the grasp of old-line local bosses accustomed to using the union's ample financial resources for their own gain.

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