WASHINGTON -- Vicki Saporta is as a young, well-dressed, educated career woman, not the sterotype expected of the person tapped to convince non-union workers to join the Teamsters union.
Teamsters President Jackie Presser, who has shaken up the hierarchy of the 1.8 million-member union since taking charge last April, picked the Cornell University graduate in late August to direct his drive to woo white-collar and high-tech workers into the union.
Her demeanor belies the image of the hard-nosed truckers union, the nation's largest, but her rhetoric is loyal, even defensive, when reminded of the array of Teamsters officials who have been convicted of an assortment of major crimes.
Miss Saporta, who turned 31 on Sept. 11, is charged with restoring the international union's organizing department that has been dormant for the past three years.
'To best represent our members, we need to be as large as we possibly can in order to have the kind of clout you want in terms of organizing, in terms of negotiating agreements ... in terms of political action and political streD:th,' she said in an interview.
Most of the organizing -- a union term for getting non-union workers to select the union as its collective bargaining agent -- is done by the 740 Teamsters locals, coordinated by regional conferences.
Her job is to give the effort direction from the national headquarters in WYWORD:ton.
Mss Saporta, born and reared in Rochester, N.Y., received her training at Cornell University, graduating in 1974, along with studies at the London School of Economics. Her first exposure to the Teamsters came between her sophomore and junior years, when she spent the summer in Europe studying retiree programs for the union.
'I was always going to be a lawyer,' she said. 'But by the time I graduated, all I wanted to do was to work for a union.'
Following graduation she joined the Teamsters on the West Coast, and a year later moved up to the international staff, but remained a resident of northern California. There she enjoyed sailing and skiing, following up on an athletic background that included intercollegiate basketball and skiing.
Her job as top organizer for the Teamsters will not be easy since the union has lost more than 400,000 members in recent years from a high of 2.2 million in the late 1970s.
'Since the beginning of the year, we have picked up 65,000 new members,' she said. 'So we are back on the upswing once again, and they have been in our diversified areas of the union: public employees, a lot of industrial workers, some of the airline employees.'
Trying to organize non-union workers to pick the Teamsters in the face of its corruption-filled past is a major obstacle, Miss Saporta acknowledges hesitantly. But in some cases, she said, it can be a plus instead of a minus.
'If they are going to go union, they want the biggest, the toughest, the strongest union that they can get,' she said.
Nevertheless, she bristles when reminded that three of the four past presidents of the Teamsters union -- James Hoffa, Dave Beck and Roy Williams -- have been convicted of serious crimes. Beck and Hoffa served jail terms, and Williams, who resigned earlier this year after his conviction for attempting to bribe a U.S. senator, is awaiting sentencing.
'There are more AFL-CIO union leaders in jail than there are Teamster leaders in jail,' she said.
Asked to name some, she replied, 'I don't have the roll call. I mean there are AFL-CIO people getting indicted the same way our Teamsters people are getting indicted, if that's the way you want to look at it, and they have more than we do.'
'I can't sit here and deny that we have never had our problems,' she adds quickly. 'But I'd like to think our problems are behind us and the union is on a new direction and new track.'
'I've been in places where they (employers) have shown people day-in, day-out pictures of women and kids getting their heads beat in on picket lines, blown-up pictures of kids crouching under cut glass because a bullet went through it, trying to portary us as a violent group. And outside, I'm out there holding a rally with kids and dogs, balloons, 'Go Teamsters' T-shirts, singing labor songs and whatever, and they get a different opinion and a different image of the union than they get inside.'
At the first sign of violence, she said, the union leaves.
'You can't organize anyone by intimidating them,' she said.
'You think I carry an ice-pick around?' she asked sharply. 'It makes no sense for us to engage in any type of activity like this because all it's going to do is kill the campaign.'
She explained that union members can act against corruption if it occurs.
'If you don't like the way your local union leader is dealing with your problems, and you think he's on the take, or you think he's corrupt, you can vote for him or not vote for him every three years,' she said, 'and if you don't think he's doing the job for you, I tell them 'Vote his ass out of office.''
She added, 'Anyone caught stealing members' money belongs in jail.'
Unlike many unions that limit their organizing effort to a single or few industries, the Teamsters is branching out, seeking to pick up workers in diversified trades, large and small.
'We are the ones that will organize the groups of 10, 25, 35, that a lot of unions won't touch because it's not economically feasible for them,' she said.
Once thought of only as a truck drivers union during the heyday of Hoffa and Beck, today Teamsters members covered by the National Master Freight Agreement comprise less than 9 percent of the union.
Others are in warehousing, airline employees, health care, manufacturing plants, and more and more white-collar workers, an area to which Presser has directed major organizing attention.
The Teamsters have about 300,000 women members, and Miss Saporta said women in the union 'are playing an ever increasing role.'
She takes pride in the fact that the Teamsters is the nation's largest union, even to the point of exaggerating its relationship to other unions.
'We're at 1.8 million, which still puts us the largest union in the country by a long shot,' she said. 'There is not even another union that comes close.'
Reminded that the National Education Association, which like the Teamsters is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO, has about 1.7 million members, Miss Saporta replied:
'Oh, NEA! I don't quite consider them a union.'
She said the Teamsters is better than AFL-CIO unions because it has local offices in every areas of the United States and Canada, including the union-weak Deep South.
'We have a network thoughout the country that no other organization can claim,' she said.
Nevertheless, she said all organized labor must work together, and said the Teamsters does engage in joint organizing, bargaining and strike action with some AFL-CIO unions.
But it is :lear that she feels the Teamsters union is the bulwark of organized labor, rather than the AFL-CIO, which is a federation of 96 separate unions.
'Most of the AFL-CIO unions were built on the backs of the Teamsters union,' she said. 'They put up the lines that we didn't cross.'
Among the cooperative moves with the AFL-CIO unions, she said, are 'no raid' agreements, whereby unions agree not to try to organize workers in each other's jurisdictions.
But the Teamsters, with Presser taking a personal role, played a major role in stopping merger plans between two AFL-CIO unions in August, The Newspaper Guild and the International Typographical Union.
A Newspaper Guild convention had given the go-ahead earlier in the summer for a rank-and-file merger vote this fall, when Presser spoke to the ITU in San Francisco, urging that union to scuttle its merger plans with the Guild and instead join the Teamsters.
ITU convention delegates subsequently disapproved the TNG-ITU merger and the merger efforts were scuttled.
'The Teamsters didn't just march into the ITU convention uninvited,' Miss Saporta said. 'The ITU leadership explored the possibility of a merger with the Teamsters. And we think we had a lot more to offer the ITU than The Newspaper Guild.'