The Other Teamsters Controversy

The focus of yesterday’s Teamster flap —it hasn’t quite reached ’gatehood yet—centered on whether or not Obama wants to reduce federal oversight of the country’s fourth-largest union. Obama said that the union had done a “terrific job cleaning itself in-house” with regard to corruption but denied giving a “blanket commitment” to cutting back oversight. Hillary Clinton, too, has that it’s time to “turn the page” on the consent decree, but her campaign says she’s made “no promises.”

But this whole discussion ignores half the issue.

The consent decree, signed in 1989 to settle a racketeering lawsuit brought by the Justice Department, did two things: It established an independent review board in 1992 to investigate mob connections. And it required that the union hold direct elections overseen by a special election officer.

So far, discussion has focused on the first part, but not the second. Proponents of repealing the decree point out that the IRB brought only eight cases last year, compared with 70 in 1992. With the feds out of the picture, the union would police itself, the logic goes, appointing its own official to investigate mob ties and corruption generally.

But some union members are skeptical that the self-policing would extend to internal elections. Right now, the Teamsters’ 240-page constitution (ginormous PDF here ) has a section allowing a federally appointed officer to supervise elections every five years. But once the consent decree gets scrapped, so does election oversight.

“The Teamster leadership has made it clear that if permitted, they would raise the threshold to make it impossible for another candidate to run against them,” says Ken Paff, director of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reformist group within the Teamsters. “If you have 12 percent, they’ll make it 15. If you have 15, they’ll make it 20.” The last time a reform candidate won an election was 1992, when Ron Carey swept to victory. But he was forced out in the wake of a financial scandal in 1997.

Others argue that the reform hailed by the candidates has been superficial: Edwin Spier, a respected lawyer hired by Teamster President James P. Hoffa to oversee union reform in 1999, quit in 2004. “I haven’t seen anything that the union has done internally that comes close to self-policing,” he told the WSJ .

This whole discussion is largely academic, since the president can’t actually order the Justice Department to repeal the consent decree. The best he or she can do is appoint a U.S. attorney who will prioritize the issue. But if the next president wanted to discuss repealing the decree, keep in mind that mob ties would only be half the story.