Long 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 strikeânow 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 574âs reward from the IBT? It wasnât 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 Dobbsâ organizing methods (if not his Trotskyist views).
Labor educator Bob Busselâs new book,Â FightingÂ ForÂ TotalÂ PersonÂ Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working Class CitizenshipÂ (University of Illinois Press, 2016) describes a lesser-known effort to remake another Midwestern IBT local–without drawing the same kind of fire from Tobinâs 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 latterâs rise to power in the 1950s and â60s.Â 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 Busselâs previous biography, Gibbons and Calloway were sympathetic to democratic socialism. (For more on Busselâs earlier book, seeÂ my review forÂ 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 âblack hillbilly.â
Their shared union vision was shaped, in part, by youthful âexposure to the UMWA, which had an admirable if imperfect record of attempting to organize across racial and ethnic lines.â Their personal development as working class leaders owed much to labor educationâin Gibbonsâ case, a summer school stint at the University of Wisconsinâs School for Workers and in Callowayâs 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 Gibbonsâ AFT-affiliated teachers union and then plunged into CIO organizing of African-American âred capsâ who assisted railway passengers with their baggage. In 1940, he bravely risked imprisonment as âone of the first African-Americans to seek conscientious objector status solely on the basis of racial discriminationâ—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, âstirred disbelief and anger in both local and national labor circlesâ by merging with the IBT. Calloway was among those he recruited to help implement âhis vision of socially engaged unionism,â amid the larger âunabashed pragmatismâ of the Teamsters.
In the heyday of Local 688 during the 1950s, âtotalÂ personÂ unionismâ is not a term that either Gibbons or Calloway would have employed. But their conception of how a good local should functionâwith members strongly connected to the union and the union playing an influential role in the communityâremains quite relevant today. One of organized laborâs 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 âworking class citizenshipâ–rank-and-file activism in the community and local politics, as well as on the job. Local 688 formalized this approach with an actual âcommunity stewardsâ 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.Â Bussel lauds these efforts to turn an âoccupationally and racially diverse union of 10,000 membersâ into âa model of labor progressivism that gained national and even international attention.â
In a 1946 speechâthat could serve as a rebuke to certain âorganizing unionsâ and workers centers todayâGibbons âarticulated the profound psychological dimension that lay at the core of his philosophy of unionism.â In his view, union building was not the job of âcollege professors, smart lawyers, or high salaried executives.â But rather, it was a task for âthe men and women of the shops,â where âfar too many of us fail to realize our powers, our abilities, our potentialities.â
Left cover for Hoffa?
Local 688 was, in short, not the kind of mobbed-up, big city Teamster local more typical of Jimmy Hoffaâs emerging power base in the 1950s. But, as Bussel notes, âan ally of Gibbonsâ caliber and reputationâ was useful to Hoffaâs 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 IBTâs 1957 expulsion from the AFL-CIO.
According to Bussel, Gibbons hitched his wagon to Hoffa in the hopes that the latterâsÂ Â âmastery of power relations might be harnessed in the support of a more ambitious social agenda.â In the early 1960s, Gibbons even left St. Louis to serve as Hoffaâs executive assistant at Teamster headquarters. In that capacity, he persuaded his boss to make a $25,000 donation to Dr. Martin Luther Kingâs Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But then âHoffa rejected Gibbonsâ suggestion that he speak at Kingâs 1963 March on Washington and also refused to seek strong anti-discrimination language in trucking contracts.â
Bussel reports that Gibbons âexperienced continual frustration in his efforts to enlarge Hoffaâs perspective on racial justiceâ and âremained an isolated voice on the issue that he regarded as essential to restoring the trade union movementâs moral legitimacy.â Hoffa, for his part, kept his sidekick from St. Louis on âa short leash.â Hoff was âfiercely ascetic in his personal lifeâ and, thus, disapproved of Gibbonâs âwomanizingâ and âhanging out in nightspots and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities,â a bon vivant lifestyle supported by his IBT expense account. (As longtime Chicago labor activist Sid Lens once noted, Harold was âa man of many contradictions.â)
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 âenemies listâ 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 Nixonâs leading labor ally until the latterâs forced resignation, in disgrace, during the Watergate scandalÂ 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.Â In Busselâs description, that purge signaled the end of a âtwenty year quest forÂ totalÂ personÂ unionism that Gibbons andÂ Calloway had pursued in St. Louis.â Gibbons retreated to a life of retirement luxury in Palm Springs, CA. âcloser to the celebrity culture that had long captivated him.â 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,Â The St. Louis Post DispatchÂ hailed him as a man who âlabored for the underdog,â declaring that âSt. Louis is a better place for his efforts.â Callowayâs union career may have been overshadowed, in his lifetime, by that of his high-flying Teamster co-worker. But, now thanks to Busselâs dual biography treatment, this ârugged fighter for social justiceâ will get the broader recognition he deserves.
FightingÂ forÂ TotalÂ PersonÂ UnionismÂ 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.