Obituary: Dave Beck
Wednesday 29 December 1993
DAVE BECK's death prompts two linked thoughts. First, he was a survivor: no United States union leader has ever lived so long. The second and more interesting point is that, although it is easy to despise him, he was significant because he personified as late as the 1950s the philosophy of 'business unionism' which Samuel Gompers, first president of the American Federation of Labour, had imposed on the AFL when Beck was still a boy.
Business unionism meant uncritical acceptance of the realities of US industrial relations. Labour had to be organised as capital was. Union leaders were in the business of selling their members' labour at a price the market could bear. Everything else was propaganda. And as Beck showed as early as the 1919 Seattle general strike, the worst propaganda of all was that of unions which aimed at using the power of the working class to overthrow American capitalism.
The Teamsters Union, as their name implies, had been founded by men who drove teams of horses which delivered all goods not delivered by steamship or train. As such, the union's potential power was plain. Teamsters could cost employers dear for, with local monopoly of labour, short strikes made perishable goods - food, fruit, newspapers - a total loss by delaying delivery. When trucks and lorries replaced teams of horses their drivers remained Teamsters. So after 1918, while the AFL declined the Teamsters prospered. Dan Tobin, Beck's predecessor as Teamster president, was a powerful AFL leader by the end of the 1920s, and remained so for a generation.
When Beck succeeded Tobin in 1952 the Teamsters were still powerful, but were also the most notoriously corrupt of all US unions. Why were the Teamsters so prone to routine racketeering? Racketeering was a chronic, deeply rooted problem not just in trucking but in many industries. Coalmining, construction, dockyards, textiles and services of all kinds were marked by fierce economic competition, lack of security, minimal legal regulation and control - all the things which, men like Beck believed, had made the United States great. Additionally, racketeers who bootlegged illegal alcohol during Prohibition after 1920 had to use road transport and thus Teamster drivers.
Prohibition ended in 1933, but the Teamsters' organic links with crime remained, and leaders like Tobin, Beck, and Jimmy Hoffa did nothing to dissolve them. True, as late as the 1950s ruthless employers (and there were many) routinely hired hoodlums to beat or murder unionists and unionists had to defend themselves. Yet what brought Beck down was not this, nor his increasing collusion with employers via kickbacks, sweetheart contracts, and secret deals which benefited Beck personally, not his members. Corruption, like poverty, was always with them, and if Beck delivered at contract time Teamster members would not complain if he feathered his own nest too.
So on a world tour in 1953 Beck was hailed by the Daily Express as the kind of union leader Britain needed, because he worked well with employers. Abroad, at least, he could briefly pose as a labour statesman. But his power was crumbling. Other business unionists like George Meany were not just contemptuous of Beck for the way he broke rival unions, but embarrassed by US Senate investigations, where a young lawyer named Robert F. Kennedy made his name obtaining evidence which ruined Beck and Hoffa.
Even Teamsters were angered to learn their union had lent millions from union pension funds to anti- union employers like Fruehauf. Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959 to break labour leaders like Beck and Hoffa, and both went to Federal prison, only to be given pardons by Presidents Nixon and Ford, whose Republican Party election campaigns they had loyally backed. When Hoffa, 20 years younger than Beck, tried a comeback in 1975, he was murdered by mobsters. Beck was wiser. He retired quietly and enjoyed obscure, serene old age.
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