A deal worked out this week between federal prosecutors and the Teamsters union to drop racketeering charges in exchange for basic election reforms leaves a lingering sense of unease.
Is the union, which has a decades-old reputation for being heavily influenced by organized crime, getting off too easily in the deal?Under the arrangement, federal prosecutors will abandon racketeering charges and the union will hold direct national elections by secret ballot, instead of by a convention of delegates. In addition, a three-member review board will be set up in Teamsters headquarters to monitor elections, oversee union spending, and have the power to prosecute corruption and criminal ties.
However, there may be less to this than appears. Direct elections are no guarantee that Teamsters will clean house at the top. Historically, some of the union's most popular presidents have been those with close ties to organized crime.
Court-appointed officers will supervise the union and be housed at Teamsters headquarters until 1991.
After the 1991 elections, a permanent three-member review board will be named. One member will be appointed by the U.S. attorney general, one by the union, and the third to be mutually agreed upon.
There is a lot of cleaning up to do. Over the years, the Teamsters have had local chapters dominated by the Mafia. Crime figures also had influence among delegates who chose the union's top officers and those officers themselves frequently have been under suspicion.
Several national Teamsters presidents have gone to prison, including the infamous Jimmy Hoffa, who subsequently vanished in circumstances that point to organized crime.
If the Teamsters corruption case had gone to trial, the experience clearly would have been painful for the union.
Such a trial probably would have lasted for several years, would have dragged messy details before the public, and might have ended with the government taking control of the union and dismissing all the officers at the Teamsters national headquarters. Under this week's agreement, all the national board members will keep their jobs
The kind of public exposure and shakeup from a public trial might have done more good and been a more thorough house cleaning of the Teamsters. How much change will come from the agreement is uncertain, but the 1.6 million members of the union deserve better than they have had in the past.