In 1976, Frank Fitzsimmons, president of the Teamsters, struck a defiant note in a speech at the union’s convention in Las Vegas. “To those who say it is time to reform this organization, and it’s time officers stopped selling out the members,” he said, “I say to them, ‘Go to hell.’ ”

The next day, Pete Camarata, a rank-and-file Teamster dedicated to reform, rose to say he opposed Mr. Fitzsimmons’s re-election as well as a pay raise for him. He said Mr. Fitzsimmons and his lieutenants had stifled democracy in the union and ignored workers’ concerns. He called for a rule that would automatically expel any Teamster officer who accepted a bribe from an employer.