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Labor tries to brush up its image, but with Teamsters back in fold, it will be tough

The morning crackled with excitement. For the first time since it was expelled 30 years ago, a president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters was addressing the convention of the nation's labor federation, the AFL-CIO. Teamsters president Jackie Presser spoke about reconciliation. It was a gesture of new unity, which becomes official Nov. 1. The Teamsters, the nation's largest union, are coming back to the AFL-CIO.

The labor federation is gaining an important but troublesome ally. The scandal-tinged union is rejoining the AFL-CIO just when the federation is preparing a campaign to polish its image.

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American labor is becoming increasingly sensitive to the way it's perceived by the public. Organized labor is desperate to attract new members and it wants a friend in the White House.

But, once viewed as a heroic movement, it is now likely to be seen as autocratic, outdated, perhaps even corrupt.

The AFL-CIO's executive council voted unanimously Saturday to accept the Teamsters, but several labor officials say the federation could have image problems in the short term.

``They don't help,'' says a top official of one large union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. ``Nobody has to tell you the down side.''

Specifically, three former Teamster presidents have been convicted of crimes. The Teamsters' current president, Jackie Presser, is awaiting trial on racketeering and embezzlement charges. The Justice Department says the union is so corrupted by organized crime that the department is considering a lawsuit to take over the union.

The AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters in 1957 because of their corrupt practices. In taking them back, current labor leaders acknowledge they may have hold of a tar baby. But they reject the idea that the union should be put under government trusteeship.

``A government-supervised trade union, like an employer-supervised union, is a contradiction in terms,'' AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland told the convention on Monday. Mr. Kirkland and others argue that individuals, not a 1.7 million-member union, should be brought to justice and that individuals are innocent until proven guilty.

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Ties between organized crime and some union locals are at least as old as the 1920s, says Irving Bernstein, a well-known labor historian at UCLA.

But the common notion of unions as corrupt and authoritarian did not emerge until the 1950s, when hearings chaired by Sen. John L. McClellan found widespread corruption among the leaders of the Teamsters and other unions.

Long term, union officials speculate that the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO can both benefit by their new affiliation. In fact, the labor federation's biggest problem may not be the negative image generated by the Teamsters but the generally hazy public perception of unions in general, some labor officials say.

``My mother doesn't know whether the Teamsters are in the federation or not,'' says Nick DeMartino, deputy director of the AFL-CIO's television unit, the Labor Institute of Public Affairs. ``The public has this bizarre ambivalence toward unions. On the one hand, they tend to agree that unions have too much power. And at the same time, they think we are ineffectual. You can't have it both ways.''

The Institute is developing the $13 million publicity campaign, which is aimed especially at new workers, some of whom have little or no knowledge of unions. When California bus driver David Lyall tells acquaintances he's a union acitivist, they're often surprised, he says. ``A lot of people don't believe such things exist anymore.''

Some labor officials see a rebound coming in the union image.

``I think the perception of labor was at perhaps its lowest ebb in the early 1980s,'' says Phil Sparks, a spokesman for the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. ``AFSCME's seen it in its own polls.'' By emphasizing issues pertinent to new workers - such as child care - the union is able to organize more workers, he says.

The union's image has a direct political effect as well. In 1984, the AFL-CIO supported Democratic nominee Walter Mondale early on and was promptly labeled a ``special interest'' by Mondale's opponents. The implication: labor bosses were supporting a puppet candidate.

In fact, Mondale enjoyed widespread support in several union polls. Even so, the AFL-CIO has been more mindful of its image this year and taken care to open up the process, making certain that union members are well informed on the candidates. And in Michigan, at least, the negative image of unions appears to be disappearing.

``There's not the perception of the big, bad labor movement,'' says Paul Massaron, executive director of the United Automobile Workers' political arm in Michigan.

From the evidence he's seen, labor's negative ratings peaked in 1984, fell in '86, and now are not a factor, he says. ``As the country is moving away from Reagan and that whole view, the perception of unions will change as well.''

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