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Will Scandal Set Back Teamsters Reforms?

President's fall raises questions about what path the union will take.

It looked as if the Teamsters were setting an example for organized labor.

The nation's largest union had staunched the loss of members. In August, it won a bruising battle against United Parcel Service. Then, this autumn, the union flexed its muscles to help defeat President Clinton's request for "fast-track" authority for international trade pacts.

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But now the 1.4-million-member union is staggering. The news Nov. 17 that president Ron Carey is disqualified from running against James Hoffa Jr. in a special rerun of their 1996 election because of illegal campaign financing now places the union at a crossroads: Will the Teamsters continue to set an example for organized labor, or will they revert to the bad old days of corruption?

Reformers believe there is no way the union can backpedal - to return to the 1950s when Mr. Hoffa's father ran the union with an iron hand, and when corrupt local bosses took bribes from management and used goons to beat up their own members. The reform-oriented Detroit-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) vows it will continue the reform process. Mr. Carey declared, "Reform has never depended on one man."

One example of the major changes that have taken place within the Teamsters is the way the union goes about organizing. It now counts on the rank and file to recruit new members instead of hiring professional organizers. Members use the Internet to keep prospective union members informed. One of Carey's goals was to get 10,000 volunteers to try to add new members.

"Regardless of who gets elected there's been a change within the union that is not easily going to be reversed," says Michael Belzer, a research scientist at the University of Michigan and a former Teamsters member. For example, Carey allowed the members to have a greater influence in their own affairs. "It will be likely to continue to demand that," Mr. Belzer adds.

Many Teamsters, however, are still rocked by the decision to disqualify Carey. As a reformer, Carey inspired hope in many union members that corruption among Teamsters leaders was a thing of the past. Instead, the court-appointed official charged with monitoring the Teamsters elections, Kenneth Conboy, decided that Carey was aware of an illegal move to use more than $700,000 of union money in his 1996 campaign. It's possible that the government could bring federal charges against Carey; a grand jury is still investigating the matter. Carey maintains his innocence and says he will appeal the decision.

To add to the Teamsters' troubles, Hoffa may also fall under the ethics spotlight - Mr. Conboy is starting an investigation into his fund-raising activities. Still, Hoffa is now considered the favorite in the rerun election, which is scheduled to begin in February and run to March.

Conboy's actions come at a time when the union has been busy reforming itself. Under Carey, the Teamsters reined in more than 70 corrupt locals by having trustees run them. Carey broke ties to organized crime and eliminated the multiple salaries pulled down by Teamsters bigwigs.

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"The importance of Ron Carey can't be overstated," says Hemant Damle, an organizer for the TDU. Adds Belzer, "He certainly has rocked the boat in a way that is extraordinary in the history of American union politics."

IT's less clear what will happen if Hoffa is elected. Carey sought to centralize many union activities - his effort to prevent what he saw as corrupt local chiefs from using the union for their own purposes.

"Hoffa would decentralize," says Harley Shaiken, a labor professor at the University of California, Berkeley. "Under Hoffa, the Teamsters would have a different character ... many of his backers are the same people Carey was moving against."

For example, last August, Carey appointed a trustee to run Chicago Local 714 because a federal monitor said it was corrupt. The head of the local, William Hogan Jr. had been Hoffa's running-mate until the charges surfaced.

Any smell of corruption has an impact on the union movement. "Employers consistently say to the employees, 'Hey, look at these pork choppers [people living high on the hog],' " says the TDU's Mr. Damle. "It makes it a lot tougher to organize."

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