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Reform Teamsters Group Sees Chance to Take Over

CALL it perestroika in one of the largest United States unions, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Open squabbling has broken out among Teamster leaders, who for years kept iron-fisted control over the 1.5 million-member union. At the grassroots level, a reform movement has sprouted and, in places, is spreading vigorously. Dissident Teamsters, considered little more than a fringe group less than a year ago, are now talking confidently about winning control.

``We have a chance to take a piece of history in our own hands,'' Ken Paff told delegates here at the 15th annual convention of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) this past weekend. Mr. Paff is the national organizer of the 10,000-member reform group.

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New York independent goes for top job

The group is supporting an independent bid by Ron Carey for Teamster president. He is longtime head of the union's New York Local 804. Since announcing his candidacy in September 1989, Mr. Carey has found growing support for his anticorruption theme. ``My biggest opponent is not the leadership, it's apathy,'' he says. TDU officials say he will need 300,000 votes to win.

The current Teamster leadership has made Carey's job easier by publicly squabbling over their choice for the top union job. Current international president William J. McCarthy announced this month he would not run again and that, instead, Local 391 President R.V. Durham would head a unity slate.

But several other members of the executive board are reportedly eyeing the top post and have criticized Mr. McCarthy's leadership. This kind of open break would have been unthinkable two years ago.

The pressure for change began to escalate in 1988 when the US Justice Department charged that organized crime controlled the union. Under pressure, the Teamsters leadership agreed in March 1989 to allow a federal court to oversee its next elections.

Those elections will be key tests for the reform movement, whose size and support are still unknown. The first set of elections, for delegates to the Teamsters convention next June, are already under way. Mail ballots have been sent to three of the Teamsters more than 600 locals. The first walk-in vote takes place Thursday at a local in Williamsburg, Va. The bulk of the elections will take place in January, February, and March, says Michael Holland, the court-appointed elections officer for the Teamsters.

The delegates at the June convention, in turn, will nominate candidates for Teamster president and the union's international board. Those elections are scheduled for December 1991. All elections will be overseen by court-appointed monitors.

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Reform group picks up steam

Although it is too early to tell how the delegate elections are going, there are signs the reform movement is picking up steam. This spring a slate of TDU members defeated Lamar Mathis to head Local 728 in Atlanta, long controlled by the Mathis family. His father, Weldon Mathis, reportedly may run for the presidency of the international union.

Meanwhile, the Carey campaign is attracting new, sometimes enthusiastic recruits. Steve MacDonald of Local 490 in northern California has gained near legendary status for his tireless campaign efforts, including jumping security fences at night to plaster union trucks with Carey literature.

``What you see here is not [even] the tip of the iceberg,'' says TDU member Aaron Belk, who attended the TDU convention here in Southfield. When he joined the organization in February 1988, his Memphis chapter had 99 members. Today, there are more than 700. ``People are going to be surprised when the tabulations are in for those delegate elections.''

In other Teamster locals, however, the reform movement has not taken root. ``It's not going well at all,'' says TDU member Rollin Lewis of Local 771 near Lancaster, Pa.

TDU itself is growing only slowly, which puzzles some members and concerns Mr. Paff. ``There's nothing automatic,'' he told TDU delegates Friday. ``Look at Eastern Europe. In some countries the old leaders managed to get themselves reelected. In others, they were swept aside like dried-up leaves.''

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