THE BLOG
10/19/2011 03:48 pm ET | Updated Dec 19, 2011

Democracy in the Teamsters Union

Thanks to the blockbuster 1988 civil racketeering (RICO) lawsuit brought by then Manhattan U.S. Attorney Rudy Giuliani, 1.4 million members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) have just received ballots so they can vote for a new General President.

Prior to the lawsuit, the IBT president and general executive board were chosen behind closed doors with the advice and consent of Mafia bosses. Local union delegates, who were beneficiaries of pervasive corruption and racketeering, ratified these selections at quinquenial conventions. If a "dissident" union member managed to infiltrate the convention, he would be shouted down, beaten and dragged from the hall. In 1986, the President's Commission on Organized Crime called the IBT the union most heavily influenced by organized crime. Former IBT president, Roy Williams, cooperating with the Justice Department after his bribery conviction, testified that "every big IBT local has some connection with organized crime." Giuliani's lawsuit was settled on the eve of trial, the parties agreeing that "there should be no criminal element or Cosa Nostra corruption of any part of the IBT," and that " it is imperative that the IBT, as the largest trade union in the free world, be maintained democratically, with integrity and for the sole benefit of its members and without unlawful outside influence."

The current election is supervised by a court-approved elections officer (a former federal prosecutor) who promulgates and enforces comprehensive rules governing every phase and particular of the election process -- voter and candidate eligibility, electing delegates to the nominating convention, convention procedures, campaign donations and expenditures, placing "battle pages" in Teamsters Magazine, and filing protests about election rule violations. Two candidates, Fred Gegare and Sandy Pope, are challenging James P. Hoffa, the incumbent since 1998. While the incumbent still enjoys many advantages (including praise from President Obama and a convention embrace by Vice-President Biden), the election, though vigorously contested, has been free of violence, intimidation and fraud. Today, it would be hard to find a private sector organization that chooses its leaders more democratically than the IBT.

After 22 years of court-supervised free elections and disciplinary actions, organized crime's influence in the IBT has been nearly eradicated. The only blight on this extraordinary experiment in union democracy initiative is low voter turnout. Despite the best efforts of the election officers, in each election cycle fewer Teamsters have bothered to mail in their ballots. In 2006, only 19% of eligible voters voted. Sadly, such formidable apathy threatens the premises and future of rank and file union elections. One is reminded of the wise adage that those who do not participate in democratic institutions are in danger of losing them. That would be tragic for the Teamsters, the labor movement and American democracy.

JAMES B. JACOBS is the Warren E. Burger Professor of Law at NYU School of Law and coauthor (with Kerry Cooperman) of Breaking the Devil's Pact: The Battle to Free the Teamsters From the Mob.