Teamsters group wants deal to end fed oversight altered

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A group of Teamsters wants a federal judge to make changes to a landmark deal that would end the Justice Department’s oversight of the union to prevent mob influence.

Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska is set to hold a hearing Wednesday on the agreement that would end the government’s 25-year oversight of the union, though the Justice Department will still have the right to monitor some union functions for another five years. Preska, who has overseen the Teamsters consent decree since 2000, may rule as early as Wednesday on the request.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union wants some reforms to be permanent — especially an appeals system for election disputes and allowing candidates to appear on the ballot if they get at least 5 percent support of convention candidates. The Teamsters union has only agreed that they be part of the 2016 and 2021 officer elections.

Short of that request, wrote Barbara Harvey, the Detroit lawyer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the group wants assurances rules will “ensure a fair, free and democratic election.” Harvey will appear in court Wednesday.

Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell said Tuesday the union’s commitment to democratic elections is second to none, and he noted it enshrined key rights in the union’s constitution in 2001 under President Jim Hoffa.

He said “professional critics seem to forget Jim Hoffa, who was elected by the Teamster membership four times over candidates endorsed by those same professional critics, was the leader who promoted and won one person, one vote in the Teamster constitution.”

The Teamsters agreed to maintain some election reforms required by the consent decree, including direct election of union officers, trustees and convention delegates, secret ballot voting by mail and the ability of candidates to get on the ballot to run for officer if they receive at least 5 percent support of convention delegates. The Teamsters agreed that union officer positions couldn’t be combined, and elections would be supervised by an independent election officer with disputes reviewed an outsider.

The union complains the consent agreement has cost it millions of dollars over the years.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union wants to make sure all candidates have access to voters, the right to campaign in Teamster parking lots, limits on campaign contributions and other rights. The deal says the Teamsters after 2016 can make changes without government consent — as long as they are “substantially” the same.

The biggest issue for Teamsters for a Democratic Union group is the 5 percent nomination threshold. “Candidates challenging incumbent administrations have repeatedly won nomination by a hair’s breadth, scraping by with the minimum 5 to 7 percent,” Harvey wrote.

She noted some candidates that barely enough support to be nominated won substantially greater backing in elections.

In January, the U.S. attorney in New York asked a federal judge to end a consent order that’s been in place since March 1989. The union and government entered into the consent decree in settlement of a civil racketeering suit brought against the Teamsters by Rudolph Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney in New York.

The suit alleged that the union had made a “devil’s pact” with organized crime and was dominated by the mob — or La Cosa Nostra, as the FBI referred to the Mafia. It also said the mob had sought access to Teamsters benefit-fund loans to finance Las Vegas casinos, and that mobsters played a key role in selecting union presidents.

It resulted in the removal of more than 200 Teamsters officers in the first three years of the consent decree, including 50 local union presidents, according to the book “Breaking the Devil’s Pact: The Battle to Free the Teamsters From the Mob” by James Jacobs and Kerry Cooperman.

The President’s Commission on Organized Crime reported in 1986 that Teamsters in 38 of the largest locals including Chicago, Cleveland, New Jersey, New York and Philadelphia were under the influence of organized crime.

Last month Hoffa said “after decades of hard work and millions of dollars spent, we can finally say that corrupt elements have been driven from the Teamsters and that the government oversight can come to an end.”