Federal Watchdog To Let Teamsters Union Off Its Leash

Jan 15, 2015
Originally published on January 20, 2015 3:31 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's a pretty historic moment for one of the country's biggest labor unions. For more than 25 years, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has operated under government oversight. Its budget and finances have been closely watched. Its election of officers has been supervised by a federal watchdog. The arrangement was put in place after decades of corruption and organized crime influence, but now the arrangement is coming to an end. The Teamsters and the U.S. Attorney's Office say they've agreed to phase out the government's role and return the union to full independence. NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea has been covering this story, well, Don, probably for pretty much your entire journalism career, I would imagine.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: I was a dashing, young reporter in Detroit (laughter) back then, or something like that. (Laughter).

GREENE: You know this story well.

GONYEA: I know this story. And let's, you know - let's run some of the history. You talked about the size of the union. Not only big, but powerful and infamous because of its ties to organized crime. Headlines were everywhere in the '50s, '60s, '70s about indictments and Teamsters' presidents being sent to prison. Most famous among them, the legendary Jimmy Hoffa. Recall 1967, he went to prison, pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1971. He disappeared in 1975.

Anyway, let's fast-forward a bit from there. In 1989, a U.S. attorney in New York City named Rudy Giuliani was preparing to bring a suit against the Teamsters under the RICO Act, which targets organized crime, corruption. Anyway, on the eve of that trial, a deal was struck. The Teamsters would let the feds in as monitors. They'd get to see everything - the books, they'd run the elections, all as part of the effort to clean things up.

GREENE: What - did people expect in 1989 this would be sort of, you know, maybe a 25-year process and things would get cleaned up? Or what was the expectation?

GONYEA: No, they didn't think it would be going on this long. But they also didn't think it would be easy - right? - because you not only had corruption at the highest levels, but you had stuff in pockets in different locals around the country, little fiefdoms.

So under oversight, there was a mechanism to monitor all of this and try to crack down. There were elections; there were new officers; there was a change of the guard at the top, but progress was still slow. In 1999, a new president with the very well-known name was elected - James P. Hoffa, son of Jimmy Hoffa. He pledged a corrupt-free union. There were skeptics. He would always answer, look, the mob killed my father. They don't have any role in this union. He has been in office for 15 years. Here's his videotape message to members yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIMMY HOFFA: This is a historic day for our Teamsters. 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.

GREENE: Have corrupt elements really been driven from the Teamsters?

GONYEA: Well, you can't say 100 percent, obviously. There are still occasional racketeering charges that you hear about locally, but the feds feel it's not systemic. And Rudy Giuliani yesterday was quoted as saying they can operate as a normal union, that they've made the progress they need to make.

GREENE: Can they ensure that it stays that way?

GONYEA: That's the key. This will be fazed out over five years. A judge still needs to approve it. That's expected to happen. But for reformers, here is the key thing; they will still have direct election, one man, one vote - one member, one vote of the top-ranking union officials and locals as well. And that is really key.

GREENE: Big change for the Teamsters. We've been talking about it with NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea. Don, thanks.

GONYEA: A pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.