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A Tale of Two Teamsters: Building a Community-Minded Union in Mid-Century St. Louis

Wednesday, May 11th, 2016

SteveEarlyLong before the birth of Teamsters for a Democratic Union in the mid-1970s, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) was hostile terrain for creating model local unions. In the 1930s, warehouse workers and drivers in Minneapolis revitalized Teamsters Local 574, under the leadership of Farrell Dobbs and other labor radicals. They organized widespread community support for a citywide general strike—now much celebrated by labor historians. After its success, Dobbs and other Teamster militants helped organize over-the-road trucking throughout the mid-west.

What was Local 574’s reward from the IBT? It wasn’t a lot of favorable publicity in the Teamster magazine. Instead, General President Dan Tobin expelled the Minneapolis strikers from the union in 1935. A year later, the membership of 574 was readmitted but under a new local charter. When the politics of Local 544 (its successor) continued to offend Teamster headquarters, the local was put under trusteeship and its elected officers ousted in 1941. Among the Teamster goon squad members dispatched to Minneapolis for that dirty work was Jimmy Hoffa, father of the current IBT president and an admirer of Dobbs’ organizing methods (if not his Trotskyist views).

Labor educator Bob Bussel’s new book, Fighting For Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working Class Citizenship (University of Illinois Press, 2016) describes a lesser-known effort to remake another Midwestern IBT local–without drawing the same kind of fire from Tobin’s successors, including Hoffa himself.

The positive, but less threatening, changes made in St. Louis Local 688 occurred under the leadership of Harold Gibbons. Gibbons developed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Hoffa, during the latter’s rise to power in the 1950s and ‘60s. His closest local collaborator was Ernest Calloway, a leading African-American trade unionist, labor editor, and civil rights activist, who met Gibbons when they were both Depression-era organizers in Chicago.

Like Harvard-educated Powers Hapgood, the industrial union activist profiled in Bussel’s previous biography, Gibbons and Calloway were sympathetic to democratic socialism. (For more on Bussel’s earlier book, see my review for The Nation.) Neither had positive experiences with the Communist Party or the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) affiliates most influenced by CP members. They came from coal mining families in Pennsylvania and Kentucky respectively; Calloway actually worked in the mines and once described himself as a “black hillbilly.”

Their shared union vision was shaped, in part, by youthful “exposure to the UMWA, which had an admirable if imperfect record of attempting to organize across racial and ethnic lines.” Their personal development as working class leaders owed much to labor education—in Gibbons’ case, a summer school stint at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers and in Calloway’s case, attending Brookwood Labor College and, later, Ruskin College in Oxford.

From CIO to IBT

Gibbons aided organizing or strikes among adult educators employed by the Works Progress Administration, Chicago taxi drivers, and, later, textile workers throughout Illinois and Indiana. Calloway became a member of Gibbons’ AFT-affiliated teachers union and then plunged into CIO organizing of African-American “red caps” who assisted railway passengers with their baggage. In 1940, he bravely risked imprisonment as “one of the first African-Americans to seek conscientious objector status solely on the basis of racial discrimination”—a stance not popular with red cap union officials, particularly after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

During the war, Gibbons moved to St. Louis. There, he took over a warehouse workers local affiliated with the CIO, engineered its rebranding as an independent union and, then in 1949, “stirred disbelief and anger in both local and national labor circles” by merging with the IBT. Calloway was among those he recruited to help implement “his vision of socially engaged unionism,” amid the larger “unabashed pragmatism” of the Teamsters.

In the heyday of Local 688 during the 1950s, “total person unionism” is not a term that either Gibbons or Calloway would have employed. But their conception of how a good local should function—with members strongly connected to the union and the union playing an influential role in the community—remains quite relevant today. One of organized labor’s under-utilized resources is rank-and-file connections to community institutions, whether churches, neighborhood associations, ethnic and fraternal organizations, political clubs, or other civic groups.

Gibbons and Calloway built their local into a social and political force in St. Louis by encouraging what Bussel calls “working class citizenship”–rank-and-file activism in the community and local politics, as well as on the job. Local 688 formalized this approach with an actual “community stewards” program, training hundreds of members and then deploying them in electoral campaigns and local political struggles for racial justice, better public services, and a healthy urban environment. Bussel lauds these efforts to turn an “occupationally and racially diverse union of 10,000 members” into “a model of labor progressivism that gained national and even international attention.”

In a 1946 speech—that could serve as a rebuke to certain “organizing unions” and workers centers today—Gibbons “articulated the profound psychological dimension that lay at the core of his philosophy of unionism.” In his view, union building was not the job of “college professors, smart lawyers, or high salaried executives.” But rather, it was a task for “the men and women of the shops,” where “far too many of us fail to realize our powers, our abilities, our potentialities.”

Left cover for Hoffa?

Local 688 was, in short, not the kind of mobbed-up, big city Teamster local more typical of Jimmy Hoffa’s emerging power base in the 1950s. But, as Bussel notes, “an ally of Gibbons’ caliber and reputation” was useful to Hoffa’s plan to succeed Dave Beck as Teamsters president during a period when Teamster racketeering and corruption tainted all of organized labor and led to the IBT’s 1957 expulsion from the AFL-CIO.

According to Bussel, Gibbons hitched his wagon to Hoffa in the hopes that the latter’s  “mastery of power relations might be harnessed in the support of a more ambitious social agenda.” In the early 1960s, Gibbons even left St. Louis to serve as Hoffa’s executive assistant at Teamster headquarters. In that capacity, he persuaded his boss to make a $25,000 donation to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But then “Hoffa rejected Gibbons’ suggestion that he speak at King’s 1963 March on Washington and also refused to seek strong anti-discrimination language in trucking contracts.”

Bussel reports that Gibbons “experienced continual frustration in his efforts to enlarge Hoffa’s perspective on racial justice” and “remained an isolated voice on the issue that he regarded as essential to restoring the trade union movement’s moral legitimacy.” Hoffa, for his part, kept his sidekick from St. Louis on “a short leash.” Hoff was “fiercely ascetic in his personal life” and, thus, disapproved of Gibbon’s “womanizing” and “hanging out in nightspots and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities,” a bon vivant lifestyle supported by his IBT expense account. (As longtime Chicago labor activist Sid Lens once noted, Harold was “a man of many contradictions.”)

After Hoffa was jailed in 1967 for jury tampering, attempted bribery, and fraud, he left Frank Fitzsimmons in charge of the IBT. Gibbons did not fare well under Fitz, as he was known. To Gibbons’ credit, he was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War and played a key role in Labor for Peace, hosting its founding conference in St. Louis. He even joined a trade union delegation to Hanoi during the war, met with top North Vietnamese officials, and conducted Washington briefings on his trip when he returned.

Enemy of Tricky Dick and Fitz

Such activities landed him on the famous “enemies list” maintained by Republican President Richard Nixon. Closer to home, Gibbons bucked Fitzsimmons by casting the only Teamster executive board vote against endorsing Nixon for re-election over Democrat George McGovern in 1972. Fitzsimmons remained Nixon’s leading labor ally until the latter’s forced resignation, in disgrace, during the Watergate scandal two years later.

In the meantime, Fitzsimmons retaliated against Gibbons by replacing him as Teamsters Central Conference chairman and warehouse division director. A few months afterwards, Gibbons was even forced to resign from his elected positions at Teamsters Joint Council 13 and Local 688. In Bussel’s description, that purge signaled the end of a “twenty year quest for total person unionism that Gibbons and Calloway had pursued in St. Louis.” Gibbons retreated to a life of retirement luxury in Palm Springs, CA. “closer to the celebrity culture that had long captivated him.” Shortly before he died in 1982, the one-time syndicalist firebrand was reduced to begging the Reagan Administration (unsuccessfully) for a job as director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Unlike Gibbons, Calloway remained politically engaged at the grassroots level in St. Louis. When their joint vision of an activist, community-minded union was no longer achievable in Local 688, Calloway became a neighborhood organization leader. He was also a locally influential writer and teacher of urban studies, civil rights leader, and mentor to community activists. When he died in 1989, The St. Louis Post Dispatch hailed him as a man who “labored for the underdog,” declaring that “St. Louis is a better place for his efforts.” Calloway’s union career may have been overshadowed, in his lifetime, by that of his high-flying Teamster co-worker. But, now thanks to Bussel’s dual biography treatment, this “rugged fighter for social justice” will get the broader recognition he deserves.

Fighting for Total Person Unionism should not be relegated to the labor history bookshelf; too much of its content will seem eerily familiar to anyone active in U.S. unions over the last 35 years. The management resistance and labor movement dysfunction that Gibbons and Calloway struggled to overcome, while building worker organizations of a better sort, have definitely not disappeared. And within the union officialdom, there is still no shortage of the same personal and political contradictions that Harold Gibbons displayed, during his rise and fall as a singular Teamster.

This blog originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on May 10, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Steve Early worked for 27 years as an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of America. He is the author of a new book from Monthly Review Press titled, Save Our Unions: Dispatches from a Movement in Distress. He is working on a book about political change and public policy innovation in Richmond, California. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com.

Why California Is a Pro-Union State (Sort Of)

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Ask Los Angeles Times reporter Alana Semuels why union membership in California rose by 100,000 in 2012, and she’ll give you a simple answer:

“Latino workers.”

To explain the contrast between the trend in California and the United States as a whole—where union membership dropped last year by 400,000—Semuels turned to some credible sources, including Steve Smith of the state labor federation who cited “an appetite among these low-wage workers to try to get a collective voice to give themselves opportunity and a middle-class lifestyle.”

Quoting Smith and others, Semuels finds that, “After working hard to get here, many Latino immigrants demand respect in the workplace and are more willing to join unions in a tough economic environment, organizers say.”

True enough: Immigrant workers have been particularly important for unions in California and Latino organizing has helped reignite the state’s labor movement.  But that’s only part of the story.

Many California unions, allied with progressive groups up and down the state, have dedicated enormous resources to community and economic organizing. This has influenced California’s political culture. Union-friendly city councils, boards, commissions, a democratic legislature and statewide office holders produce a relatively pro-worker political and economic atmosphere.

Though employer resistance to unions can be as fierce in California as in other states, there is also a growing sense that a cooperative relationship with labor can be good business (note the expedited permitting for the construction of downtown L.A.’s Farmers Field).

California unions were ahead of the curve in recognizing the power of Latino workers and voters and then led other states in building diverse constituencies around progressive economic development strategies. The number of “living wage” districts around the state testifies to that.

There is no pro-union state in the United States. But California (with 18.4 percent of the workforce unionized) may be pointed in that direction.

Despite its failure to offer context, the Los Angeles Times piece draws the same conclusion.

“Labor’s more optimistic proponents say that California could serve as a blueprint for unions across the country as they seek to stem membership declines,” writes Semuels. “The trend comes amid forecasts that the Latino population in the United States is likely to double in two decades.”

This post originally appeared on LaborLou.com and was also reprinted on AFL-CIO NOW.

About the Author: Labor Lou – Laborlou.com began in 2009 as commentary on the Obama Presidency and then became more open-ended.  This past year Labor Lou posted several autobiographical narratives.

Pesticide Threat Looms Large Over Farmworker Families

Monday, October 22nd, 2012

No matter how good your next meal tastes, it’s likely it made society ill.

A new analysis by the Pesticide Action Network North America (PAN) draws a disturbing connection between pesticides in our food system and serious health problems among women and children. The report reviews empirical research linking agricultural chemicals to birth defects, neurological disorders, childhood cancers and reproductive problems.

Some of these chemicals make their way into the foods we eat, but they are more acutely concentrated in the environments surrounding farmlands. Children in or near farming areas can be exposed through myriad channels, from contaminated soil to the air in playgrounds.

But children in farmworker communities are especially at risk. While the report confirms the growing public concerns about health risks permeating our food chain, it also shows how socioeconomic inequalities can shovel many of the worst effects onto exploited, impoverished workers.

There’s been much public debate over the importance of organic produce, sustainable farming and regulating genetically modified foods–usually spurred by concerns over consumer health or animal rights. We hear less about the safety concerns that affect the workers who handle our fruits and vegetables before anyone else. For many Latino migrant workers, there’s no equivalent of a comprehensive safety label–no option to avoid the ubiquitous poisons in the field. Many worry that to complain about working conditions would mean being fired. Others simply–and quite reasonably–have little faith in the anemic government regulatory systems.

PAN cites research showing that pesticide injuries are prevalent among agricultural workers. Various studies cited in the report also suggest an epidemic of chemical “drift” from fields into nearby homes and neighborhoods. According to a 2009 report by the advocacy groups Earth Justice and Farmworker Justice (FWJ), “a growing number of epidemiological studies link pesticide drift to specific adverse health effects in humans, including autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia.”

While the problem is politically invisible, the effects are all too apparent. The PAN report describes the experience of Ana Duncan Pardo, a community health activist in North Carolina, who had a jarring encounter with farmworker families:

Within five minutes I had noted multiple cleft palates and several children with apparent Down Syndrome…. It was shocking and disturbing to walk into a room with a group of parents and children that easily represented three to four times the national average for birth defects.

The effect is likely compounded by the widespread use of child labor in agriculture–children barely in their teens can legally work on farms. That puts kids in daily contact with toxins that could irreparably harm their brains and bodies.

A FWJ briefing paper points to a history of vast dissonance between the federal regulation of harmful pesticides for heavily exposed workers, and parallel standards for the general public. The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act establishes public health-based safety protections, for example, but environmental advocates point out that farmworker families’ health vulnerabilities are neglected and essentially ignored in regulatory assessments of the social costs of industrial pesticide use.

Children of farmworker families are left with far weaker protections despite their special vulnerability. Despite some restrictions on child workers handling pesticides, according to FWJ, “Children under 16 can still handle Category III or IV pesticides even though the chronic hazards associated with these chemicals include ‘potential neurotoxicity, reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and carcinogenic effects.’”

Even if they don’t work in the fields, the children of farmworkers are not necessarily safe in their own homes. Virginia Ruiz, FWJ’s director of Occupational & Environmental Health, explains that farmworkers working with pesticides carry “take-home residues” on their clothes and skin. While safety warnings recommend avoiding physical contact with contaminated workers, Ruiz says, “It’s sort of unrealistic expectation of people to refrain from hugging their children and other family members as soon as they get home.”

The PAN analysis urges consumers and parents to take action for stronger safety protections. These could include mandates to phase harmful pesticides out of the market, and promoting pesticide-free school lunches and playgrounds.

Nonetheless, the battle against the pesticide threats on farms can’t be limited to the consumer end of the food chain. Farmworkers need to be engaged as stakeholders in pursuing just solutions to the unique risks posed to their communities. Farmworkers have played a leading role pushing for tighter EPA regulations as well as grassroots efforts to mobilize communities against pesticide drift. For example, a community-driven campaign in California’s Central Valley led to the creation of buffer zones to keep pesticide contamination away from sensitive locations like schools, farmworker camps and residential areas.

Kristin Schafer, coauthor of PAN’s report, tells Working In These Times, “Farmworker families were essential to the success of these efforts–some working behind the scenes, others speaking out to demand protections for their families.” She adds that environmental monitoring projects in other farmworker communities have provided opportunities for laborers “to document pesticide drift from neighboring fields, and use [this] as scientific evidence to advance these protections.” Community activists are now pressing California’s regulatory authorities to transition farms away from pesticides and toward greener alternatives.

Still, in every policy debate, farmworker families will face tremendous barriers of race, language ability, political disenfranchisement and poverty. Those aren’t chemical threats, but they constitute the climate of oppression that blankets the nation’s farms, and that corrosive cloud is now drifting into all our communities.

This post originally appeared in Working In These Times on October 20, 2012.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen@inthesetimes.com.

Louisiana Worshippers Offer Prayers for Avondale Workers

Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

Image: Mike HallWhen a member of a congregation falls on hard times, it’s not unusual for church members to offer up their prayers. But it is unusual for 120 congregations spanning denominations to send prayers for recovery to a shipyard and the 5,000 people its closure is putting out of work.

That’s what happened this past weekend across southern Louisiana during the Pray for Avondale Weekend organized by the Save Our Shipyard campaign, Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and, before they returned to school earlier this month, the New Orleans AFL-CIO Union Summer team.

Last year, Northrop Grumman announced it was closing the shipyard and began laying off its 5,000-member skilled workforce. In March, it spun off the shipyard to its newly created company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, and now the workforce is down to 3,000 who are building the final ship on the yard’s order book.

The Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans and the IWJ coordinator there, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that one of the values of prayer is that it draws people together.

It draws them into a texture of attitudinal change. And that’s as valuable on earth as the words we lift up. And if the words we lift up do make contact with that mysterious entity that none of us understands, and we’re blessed as a result, then that blessing is certainly valued.

On Oct. 1, the Save Our Shipyard coalition will hold a march and rally in New Orleans urging state and federal officials to work with them to keep the yard open and enable the thousands of skilled workers to remain on the job. Joining them will be Percy Pyne, CEO of American Feeder Lines, who wants to build commercial vessels at the Avondale yard.

This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO Now on September 13, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Hall is a former West Virginia newspaper reporter, staff writer for the United Mine Workers Journal and managing editor of the Seafarers Log. He came to the AFL-CIO in 1989 and has written for several federation publications, focusing on legislation and politics, especially grassroots mobilization and workplace safety. He carried union cards from the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, American Flint Glass Workers and Teamsters for jobs in a chemical plant, a mining equipment manufacturing plant and a warehouse. He’s also worked as roadie for a small-time country-rock band, sold blood plasma, and played an occasional game of poker to help pay the rent. You may have seen him at one of several hundred Grateful Dead shows. He was the one with longhair and the tie-dye. Still has the shirts, lost the hair.

Tech’s New Frontier

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerFlash mob. I was faintly aware of the concept. Mostly it had to do with pillow fights and Michael Jackson tributes. Then on Saturday I stumbled upon one. It left me remarkably hopefully. Really. And there is even a business point here, but first more on the mob.

My daughter Frankie and I were walking across the Seattle Center grounds. We suddenly noticed that there were hundreds of people milling about. You just got the sense that something was in the air. So we wandered over. The energy was palpable.

There seemed to be a focal point, at one end of the park. We decided to check it out. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gymnast started doing cartwheels and forward rolls across the field. It was incredibly dramatic.

Then approximately thirty dancers started dancing to the song “Don’t Stop Believing.” Clearly there were two star-crossed lovers. When the woman leaped into the man’s arms the crowd exploded in joy.

Now is when the really freaky part starts. Hundreds of people started dancing to the music. It felt like every aerobics class that I’ve ever seen, that everyone else was privy to dance routines and that I hadn’t gotten the memo.

Remember, I had no idea what was going on. It was like a Broadway show suddenly burst upon us. Amazing, intoxicating, but most of all very fun.

Later I learned that this was called Flash Mob Seattle. That there were videos online that taught the dance moves and that the core group of dancers that started off the festivities had gone to a rehearsal. But that didn’t diminish the remarkable energy from the young kids, old people and everyone in between.

What does this have to do with work? I saw the power of our technology not to isolate people, but to bring them together. In a remarkable way.

Tools are tools. But I felt a sense of community in that gathering that I’ve hardly ever felt in my life.

Here is a link to another gathering that happened on the same day. Unfortunately you miss the initial gymnast, but you’ll get the rest of the performance (there is an ad at the beginning of it, but it’s for the local paper not me). http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/flatpages/video/mediacenterbc3.html?bctid=77243206001

Community, the amazing thing, once you get a taste of it you just want more and more. At least I do. It got me thinking about all the ways that people have to communicate, to collaborate and to create community. Here’s to an amazing new set of possibilities.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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