How St. Louis Teamsters Built A Community-Minded Union

Labor journalist Steve Early reviews a new book on the unique history of Teamsters Local 688 in St. Louis. 

book_cover.jpgReview of Robert Bussel, Fighting For Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working Class Citizenship (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016) pp. 244.

Long before the birth of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) in the mid-1970s, the Teamsters Union was a difficult terrain for creating model local unions.

In the 1930s, for example, Teamsters in Minneapolis, under the leadership of rank and file labor radicals, revitalized Local 574. They organized widespread community support for a citywide general strike—now much celebrated by Teamster historians--and, after its success, they helped organize over-the-road trucking throughout the mid-west. The Teamsters Union grew by hundreds of thousands of drivers and warehousemen in just a few years.

What was Local 574’s reward from the IBT for this organizing? 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 and militancy of Local 544 (its successor) continued to offend Teamster headquarters, the local was put under trusteeship and its elected officers ousted in the early 1940s. 

Labor historian Bob Bussel’s new book, Fighting for Total Person Unionism describes a 20-year effort to remake another Midwestern local--without drawing the same kind of fire from the IBT leaders, including Jimmy Hoffa. The changes made in St Louis Local 688 occurred under the leadership of Harold Gibbons. Gibbons was an organizer from outside the Teamsters who developed a long and mutually beneficial relationship with Hoffa, during Hoffa’s rise to power in the 1950s and ‘60s. Gibbon’s partner in local union reform was Ernest Calloway, a leading African-American trade unionist and civil rights activist, whose impressive career is also chronicled in Bussel’s book

Robert Bussel will discuss this Teamster history in a workshop presentation at the TDU Convention, which will be held Sept 30 – Oct 2 in Chicago. Register for the convention, or contact TDU for further info.

“Total person unionism” is not a term that Gibbons or Calloway used in the heyday of Local 688. 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—is still relevant today. One of organized labor’s often under-utilized resources is the connections that workers have to community institutions, whether churches, neighborhood associations, ethnic and fraternal organizations, political clubs, and other civic groups.

Gibbons and Calloway built Local 688 into a 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 a “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 details 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.”

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 in 1958, at a time when Teamster corruption and racketeering tarnished the IBT’s public reputation.

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.” Gibbons even left St. Louis to serve as Hoffa’s executive assistant in the Marble Palace in the early 1960s. In that capacity, he persuaded his boss to make a $25,000 donation to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. But “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.”

According to Bussel, Harold “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 Gibbons on “a short leash.” “Fiercely ascetic in his personal life,” he disapproved of his assistant’s “unabashed womanizing” and “hanging out in nightspots and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities.

After Hoffa was jailed in 1967 and left the union in the hands of Frank Fitzsimmons, Gibbons did not fare well under Fitz. Gibbons was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, which landed him on President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” Fitzsimmons was a leading labor ally of the Republican President before his forced resignation over the Watergate scandal. In 1972, Gibbons cast the only General Executive Board vote against endorsing Nixon’s re-election.

In retaliation, Fitzsimmons removed Gibbons as Teamsters Central Conference chairman and warehouse division director. A few months later, he was forced to resign his jobs at Joint Council 13 and Local 688.  Gibbons retreated to a life of retirement luxury in Palm Springs, CA. “closer to the celebrity culture that had long captivated him,” as Bussel notes. “The twenty year quest for total person unionism that he and Ernest Calloway had pursued in St. Louis was over.”

Unlike his old colleague, Calloway remained very engaged at the grassroots level in St. Louis. When their vision of an activist, community minded union was no longer achievable in Local 688, Calloway became a neighborhood organization leader. He also remained influential locally as an urban studies teacher and writer, 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, thanks to Bussel, this “rugged fighter for social justice” now gets the broader recognition he deserves.

(Steve Early has been a supporter of the Teamster reform movement since 1977. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress.)

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