For over 25 years, the Teamsters union has been overseen by a consent decree, part of a 1989 settlement aimed at ending organized crime’s stronghold on the union. A recently-concluded deal between the union and the federal government aims to end that oversight in just five years, reducing the government’s oversight role progressively to ensure that the progress made since the 1989 implementation of the decree is maintained.
The original consent decree was ordered in response to a government racketeering lawsuit that cited years of control and corruption of the Teamsters by organized crime, particularly La Cosa Nostra. Lawyers for the union informed Judge Loretta A. Preska of the Federal District Court in Manhattan last June that they would be seeking to terminate the consent decree. Initially, the government opposed the move. Preet Bharara, US attorney for the Southern District of New York wrote a letter outlining his opposition. Despite noting that the consent decree had led to progress within the Teamsters, Mr. Bharara’s letter stated that “corrupt and undemocratic practices persist at all levels of the union, and the objectives of the decree have not yet been achieved.”
Rather than ending the consent decree abruptly, Bharara’s office instead suggested the progressive scaling back of government oversight. The consent decree’s election rules will remain in effect, with the IBT committed to refrain from making “material” changes to them. These rules include a new rule, requested by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), that will require the union to pay for one direct mailing of campaign materials to all members preceding International Union elections. This is intended to help level the playing field for opponents to International President James P. Hoffa, who has been in office since 1999. Additionally, the 2016 and 2021 elections will proceed with independent supervision to ensure that they are fair and democratic.
Judge Preska approved the agreement at a hearing on February 17, 2015, replacing the consent decree with a final order outlining the five-year phasing out of the government’s involvement in the IBT. The final order makes permanent the consent decree’s provision for direct membership election of international officers and for independent investigation and monitoring of matters involving allegations of corruption. The final order empowers the U.S. Attorney to return to court within the 5-year transition period to request reinstatement of the consent decree if the IBT fails to honor its commitments. In the current final order, nominees for international officers must capture at least five percent of the convention delegate votes. This requirement can be changed after the 2021 election, but the U.S. Attorney remains empowered, indefinitely, to ask the court to disapprove such a change. In a statement, TDU argued that “raising the threshold by any measure could disastrously reduce the number of contested elections and transform full slates into partial slates, leaving them shorn of credibility as serious contenders.” In rejecting the revisions, Judge Preska wrote that the final agreement was the “product of good faith bargaining between the parties” and stated that she did not have the authority to make the proposed changes.
The continued elections oversight for the 2016 elections may be a boon to Teamsters United, a slate formed to challenge incumbent International President James Hoffa. Tim Sylvester, currently president of Local 804 in Queens, NY heads the ticket. His running mate is Fred Zuckerman, president of Local 89 in Louisville, KY. The challengers are backed by TDU, which has supported challengers to Hoffa every five years but has yet to oust the 15+ year incumbent. But according to the Teamsters United website, Tony Jones, President of Local 413 in Columbus, OH says that “Teamster members feel betrayed” by the Hoffa administration. “When we needed leadership, he threw up his hands and threw in the towel–first on our contract, then on organizing and finally on our pensions […] It’s time for change.”