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March/April 2000 - By Andrew W. Singer

Teamsters Revving Up For A Non-Stop Ethics Journey

It is a daunting challenge: To bring ethics and accountability to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT)—long viewed as one of the most intractably corrupt labor unions in America.

But in January, the 1.4 million-member union unveiled Project RISE (Respect, Integrity, Strength, Ethics), which calls for the Teamsters to develop a code of conduct, conduct ethics training, establish a permanent ethics office, and complete a study to determine the level of organized crime’s influence on the union—all by year-end 2000.

"When I ran for office, I promised to run a clean union," Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa told a special meeting of the union’s leadership. "I now call on you to be our partners in fulfilling this commitment. The successful return of the Teamsters to the members of this union will require our complete attention. It is one of the most important tasks that lay before us."

The task of making this happen falls in large part upon Edwin Stier, a partner in Stier, Anderson & Malone, a New Jersey law firm, and his project partners: the Ethics Resource Center (Washington, DC) and Jim Kossler & Associates.

To create a new ‘culture’

Stier is no stranger to the Teamsters. He was the court-appointed trustee of Local Union 560 (Union City, NJ), arguably the most corrupt local within the IBT. His work in cleaning up that local drew the attention of Hoffa (son of the legendary labor leader, James R. Hoffa), who subsequently asked Stier to try the same thing on a national scale. The Teamsters union has been under government oversight for more than a decade as a result of its past ties to organized crime.

"We’re doing something fundamentally different from what has ever been attempted before," says Stier in a recent interview. Other unions have been subjected to government oversight. But in those cases, "they brought in people from the outside to act as policemen. We’re trying to create a culture in which the union itself will purge all effects of organized crime."

A four-part plan

The plan has four elements. First, "the union itself will create a well-defined, easy-to-understand code of conduct." It won’t be imposed from the outside. To this end, a 22-member task force has been formed, one that draws on every level of the union, from the general executive board to the rank and file. It includes every region, "every major craft; it is ethnically and politically diverse."

This last element is particularly important in the politically charged Teamsters union. The task force is "not all people who supported incumbents" in the last union election, emphasizes Stier. They have gone to lengths to "make it clear that it is not a political effort to impose standards on those who lost the election."

A ‘participatory process’

Once the task force approves the first draft, the code will be submitted for review by the RISE Committee, the Board of Advisors, interested government agencies, and focus groups of Teamsters leaders and members.

Based on this feedback, a second draft will be written. This draft "will also be the subject of special meetings of all 550 local unions. At the local meetings the leadership will receive feedback from the membership to be transmitted to the drafting team."

The code will be circulated in draft form to the entire International, emphasizes Stier. "It is a participatory process," one intended to develop standards that the membership can live with—and that the membership will be willing to enforce.

A 6-month education process

A broad effort will be undertaken to educate all members, including the leadership, in what the code means—the second phase of the four-part program. This educational process will last six months. At this time the union will also create an ethics office that, among other things, will be able to answer questions from the membership.

"With the approval of the Code and development of training materials, the IBT will conduct an ambitious three-month program to train all local union officers and other persons critical to the IBT enforcement system. Later, all union members will receive ethics training," notes the union.

Training for the rank and file will differ from that which the leadership receives. Members will attend meetings where they will receive materials from the union, but there will be no specific classroom training.

The leadership, by contrast, will undergo intensive, formal training. Thousands will be trained. The union has 550 local unions in North America, notes Stier, and each office has 7 officers. Business agents, national officers, and others will swell the total further.

They will probably have a full day of training, says Stier. The union will not bring in legions of outsiders to conduct the training, either. Rather they will draw on their own resources, e.g., the union’s education and research personnel. The Teamsters has a "wonderful internal staff," says Stier, and those groups have been "deeply involved from the beginning" in the ethics process.

An enforcement system

The third element is an enforcement system "that the union itself is comfortable with," says Stier. This will kick in when the education process is completed since it is important first to put members on notice. Each local office will have a policy and procedures manual, as well as the code and bylaws of the local.

The fourth part of the program involves a crime study that compares conditions in the union today with those when the government took control in 1989. (The government took control under a consent decree, the result of a settled civil racketeering lawsuit in which the Justice Department had accused the union of being part of organized crime.) This will help pinpoint problems when rooting out organizational crime influences. Here the union is working with consulting firm Jim Kossler & Associates. Jim Kossler is a former coordinator of the FBI’s Organized Crime Division in New York. He will be responsible for leading the Organized Crime Study "that will assess the current status of Mafia influence within the Teamsters Union," according to the union.

The crime study is slated to be finished by July 2000. The code of conduct and enforcement mechanism will be in place by August 2000. The education segment should be concluded by December 2000. The new system should be fully operating, then, by January 1, 2001. In mid-January 2001, the teamsters will sponsor a national conference on labor ethics.

Lessons for others?

Stier was asked whether this situation was unique—or whether there were lessons to be learned for others looking to strengthen organizational ethics?

Yes, there are lessons here, Stier contends. In all situations, "It’s absolutely critical to connect ethics to what the organization is really about." If the union’s members, for example, believe that their organization is doing all this as a public relations exercise—so that they can end government oversight—then the effort will fail. On the other hand, if people in the union come to understand that "having an ethical union means having a stronger union," one that will deliver on other things that matter, like better contracts, improved health care plans, and so on, then the ethics effort will be successful.

Second, it’s important to create a process in which the people in the organization themselves contribute in the development of standards. It’s Stier’s belief that "you set standards according to what you’re willing to enforce." It’s important, then, to determine "what are people prepared to live with." An open process is crucial to answering that question. That means wide organizational participation in developing the code of conduct. The union is currently holding focus group sessions across the country.

Third, "You have to be consistent from the top down. Everyone has to be prepared to live by the same standards." Yes, there will be some variation according to management level, but management should not expect to bind the rank and file to values that they are not willing to abide by themselves.

"What we’re trying to create is a sense of community in which standards will be enforced by social pressure rather than have a policeman who will come in and catch people."

Where an organization has to have a policeman, "then there’s something wrong with the culture." He draws an analogy with the substance abuse problem in this country. "Social controls have broken down, so now we depend almost entirely on the criminal justice system" to deal with this social problem. "And it doesn’t work." There just aren’t enough prisons to hold all the drug abusers. What’s required is the sort of peer pressure that makes drug abuse socially unacceptable. "Building this sense of community is really what it’s all about."

Cleaning up Local 560

For 11 years, Stier, a former government prosecutor, was the court-appointed trustee for Teamsters Local 560, "arguably the most corrupt local" in the union. The 4,400 member local had been run by Anthony Provenzano, a captain in the Genovese crime family, which was suspected of murdering Jimmy Hoffa. (James R. Hoffa headed the Teamsters from 1957 to 1971. He disappeared in 1975. His body has never been found and no one has ever been charged with his murder.)

Local 560 became "a laboratory in which we were able to try out a variety of strategies to bring about cultural changes so the union was no longer tolerant of organized crime."

It wasn’t an easy road. Stier went to court to remove several of the corrupt leaders of the local, but the former leadership continued to exert influence. "The former president was still a leader in exile." Stier tried holding new elections, but the old leadership won. Indeed, the former president’s brother was elected. The old patronage system continued to operate. The result was stalemate, says Stier. "I had to figure out how to remove his power."

The former leaders had continually criticized Stier in his running of the local. Now "I gave them the opportunity to run it." The rules were simple. "I was going to be watching them." They had fair warning. If they behaved well, he would argue to remove the union from trusteeship. And if he caught them breaking the rules, like trying to defraud the benefit fund, "I would remove them."

Not surprisingly, he soon found them violating the "simple standards." He took action to remove them. Eventually, new people, outside the old group, assumed leadership roles. Overall, it took several years to bar the former president from any influence.

As the behavior of the leadership changed, the expectations of the membership changed. Members came to believe that no matter who they were, they were equally entitled to representation.

The progress was such that in February 1999 the district court terminated Stier’s role as trustee, although he was kept on as a representative for the pension fund.

By coincidence, when James P. Hoffa came to install the new officers in the local (whose former leadership was suspected of the murder of his own father, notes Stier), they talked. "And he became intrigued, suggesting they try this on a national scale."

Stier says he only took the job when he was convinced by James P. Hoffa that he was serious about rooting out corruption. "I am convinced that Jim Hoffa and the leaders of this union are committed to running a clean union and are determined to remove any vestiges of organized crime," he told the New York Times (July 30, 1999).

"They could have done this more traditionally." They could have hired an "enforcer," someone like himself, from the outside, a former government prosecutor, who would monitor behavior and conduct investigations, like a policeman. But what is the message then? Doesn’t it say that the union and its members are fundamentally untrustworthy?

It’s Stier’s experience that when such a message is propounded, then the membership will "act like people who can’t be trusted"—even if most are honest, hard-working people, which he says they are.

The better tack, in his view, "is to give them the responsibility," i.e., the responsibility "to prevent people from taking over the union who will steal from them."

Andrew W. Singer is publisher and co-editor of ethikos.
Reprinted from the March/April 2000 issue of ethikos.
© 2004 Ethikos, Inc. All rights reserved.

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