Friends of organized labor have found it a disappointing year since Judge F. Dickson Letts appointed monitors to supervise the activities of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in preparation for elections which were to be held during the following year. The IBT's success in organizing a group of employees at Cape Canaveral missile test center last week was not a catastrophic setback for the opponents of Jimmy Hoffa and Frank Brewster, but an appropriate final touch in the Teamsters' exhibition of the complete impotence of the reforming forces of organized labor.
With the record of corruption the teamsters had built up, Judge Letts's appointment of monitors was virtually the only practical solution to the suit for invalidation of the election which John Cunningham, New York teamster leader, brought against the union. But neither monitors nor disciplinary expulsion by the AFL-CIO has diminished the union's strength or reformed tendencies toward corruption.
In the last two months the Teamsters have showed real evidence of renewed vigor in two major unionizing thrusts: one to take over Metropolitan police forces, the other to take control of workers in missiles and allied fields. Hoffa has backed away from his original stand that he would force unionization in every police force in the nation, but while his original position further damaged the unhappy reputation of the teamsters, within the union, Hoffa seems to have suffered little.
The history of the teamsters, however, is not one to encourage the hope of reform from within. Since the founding of the International Brotherhood in 1905, teamster history has revealed two common denominators: violence, and intense local independence: both have played a role in creating the present situation.
The issue of local independence has played a very large part in creating the present corruption and lack of popular control. From its very first days, the locals of the union have fought every effort of the central leadership to consolidate control under one governing body.
The result has been that even when Dave Beck made what appears to have been a genuine effort to clean things up when he came in, he ran into such opposition from the locals that, by 1954, he had to abandon the attempt at reform and winning employer's respect through controlling an honest union. But he succeeded, nevertheless in gaining a sort of grudging admiration even from those employers with whom he drove the hardest bargain, admiration which has been increased along the same lines by Hoffa. Admitting that his contracts are so favorable to the unions as to be piratical to the owners, they nevertheless grant, "When Jimmy Hoffa says something, you know he means it. If he says his boys won't strike, they won't. Look at the auto unions if you don't think this means anything."
Hoffa's tremendous understanding of the problems of the trucking industry, though autocratically applied, has enabled him to work towards eliminating competition, standardizing working conditions, and relating the union demands to employer's abilities to pay in a way which has strengthened the industry as well as the union, just as Daniel Tobin's policies twenty-five years ago helped to pull the industry out of the depression.
Today there are some signs that the court-appointed monitors, despite the odds they find themselves working against, may succeed in cleaning up the union. A few scattered unions have voted in "reform" officials to replace the former supporters of Hoffa. But at the same time, the New York organizer of the Teamsters, long famed for his honesty, has been replaced by a known stooge of Hoffa who was installed by the Executive Committee of the international. Every step forward seems to involve another backward.
The hopes of Judge Letts that an election could be held a year after his appointment of monitors had vanished by last December when he told the Brotherhood not to hold its convention in January, and that it would have to get permission from the court before scheduling an election. Prospects for the future seem to depend on some form of more active federal intervention, not only in the International, but in the Conferences and the locals as well.
George Meany, President of the AFL-CIO, said last week that the affiliation would not support the current Kennedy-Erwin bill without its attached amendments to the Taft-Hartley act, an indication of organized labor's general support for moves to control locals and give the government an opportunity to clean up individual cases of corruption. But in making his statement, Meany made one statement which reflects a great deal of labor's present attitude. Wherever there is corruption in the unions, he said, there will be some other corruption, either in management or in the police.
Because of the long standing of shakedowns and violence in the teamsters, the members are not as much surprised as annoyed. They have tended to line up behind the leaders who brought them through the depression and crises of organization, and the employers who have found the teamsters a solid if difficult union with which to do business have not moved for a revolution which might bring in the unpredictable. The little businessmen who have been hit by the thuggery and extortion which comes so easily into a craft union like the teamsters are almost powerless to do anything.
The desperate need for national union regulation is almost universally accepted; the fate of current legislation may well determine the government's ability to do anything to control the one and a half million man Teamsters--far more important, it may be the last chance to do something about corruption within organized labor before the conservative advocates of strong legislation convince the nation that what is needed is vigorous legislation to control the entire labor movement. Whether is follows the lead of the administration or that of Senator Kennedy, labor faces more than a challenge: it has a chance to avert a crisis which will become progressively more serious unless remedial action is taken.