Teamsters Local 174 in Seattle: A Slideshow

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 5/11/2005
  • Essay 7314

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the average teamster worked 10-12 hour days, seven days a week, for $2.00 a day. In 1901, the Team Drivers International Union was formed, but some of the 1,700 members soon broke off to form Teamsters National Union, a rival organization.

With guidance from American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers (shown here), the two unions rejoined in 1903 to create the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In 1907, Dan Tobin was elected General President, and would guide the fledgling organization for the next 45 years.

In the 1910s, Seattle was experiencing rapid growth. A quarter-century earlier, most goods were transported on water, but now a network of roads and streets laced the hillsides. Horse-drawn carts carried goods to and from the waterfront, and from businesses to homes, which were being built in all directions from downtown.

The men who drove wagons still felt that they’d be stronger in solidarity and reorganized. Teamsters Local 174 in Seattle was chartered on February 19, 1909. Total membership was 400 and grew quickly. The Teamsters' early organizing efforts were successful due to the changing nature of transportation. The auto age had begun, and motor truck drivers were brought into the fold.

While labor organizers expanded their roles, businesses fought for an "open shop" (non-union) town. On June 14, 1913, Local 174 struck Globe Transfer, and when the Team Owners Association refused to bargain, the strike spread to other truckers and industries. Armed deputies and Pinkertons battled strikers, which initially aroused sympathy from other unions and the public, including Mayor Cotterill. But when the strike started affecting services, the tide turned against the union. The walkout ended in April 1914, and although the team owners declared victory, other employers, including the Bon Marche, were forced to unionize. Two years later, the Team Owners Association quietly signed a contract with the Teamsters.

By 1916, Local 174 had unionized most of the trucking industry in Seattle. Specialized locals, such as milk truck drivers and laundry truck drivers, were spun off once they had sufficient membership. By 1920, total membership in the Seattle Teamsters had reached 4,000 -- 10 times what it was a decade earlier.

By this time, Joint Council 28 had formed as provided in the by-laws of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which allowed for a collective unit of three or more locals. It was also during this period that a young teamster by the name of Dave Beck began rising through the ranks.

In 1917, Dave Beck joined the Teamsters at the age of 24 as a laundry driver. He left to join the service, but after World War I, he returned and became active in union politics at a time when most other unions were looked upon in disdain.

On February 6, 1919, more than 65,000 Seattle laborers walked off their jobs in the nation’s first true general strike. The purpose was to support shipyard workers, who had struck over federal wage caps remaining from World War I. Teamsters, whose leadership opposed the strike, joined the weeklong citywide walkout and helped to maintain vital services such as milk delivery as part of labor-directed strike committee. Although it was a powerful demonstration of worker solidarity, the Seattle General Strike provided a pretext for business and government to purge “radical” unionists and to restrict labor rights. During the following decade, many unions declined, but the Teamsters grew under the leadership Dave Beck and others who quietly but forcefully organized the local and long-haul trucking industry one employee and one employer at a time.

Beck’s organizational skills were unparalleled, and in 1924 he was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Laundry Drivers. The following year he was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the Joint Council. From there he was appointed as the Teamster organizer for the Northwest, and later, the entire West Coast.

In 1920, Local 174 elected Frank Brewster as its Recording Secretary, and he became its business representative in 1921. Brewster’s rise to power paralleled Beck’s, to the point where Brewster became Beck’s right-hand man.

Both men won important battles in the 1920s. In 1925, Local 174 almost went to strike against the Truck Owner’s Association, but was able to renew their contract through arbitration after the Truck Owner's Association refused to negotiate. The next year, Beck forged a three-year union shop agreement with the Laundry Owner’s Association, which was notorious for demanding an open shop.

Teamster rolls were up to 5,000 by 1929, but dropped back to 3,500 after the stock market crash. Nevertheless, Beck and Brewster continued their efforts to expand Teamster influence. In 1931 the Teamsters built Union Hall on Denny Way.

When Prohibition was abolished in 1932, the Brewery Workers Union was revived, but soon found itself battling the Teamsters, who claimed jurisdiction over beer truck drivers. At one point, Brewster was arrested after four Brewery drivers were beaten senseless with lead pipes.

The Brewery Worker' Union hired John Dore as its counsel. Dore had just returned to private practice after serving a term as Seattle’s mayor. Dore argued that Beck and Brewster were setting up a beer monopoly.

But when Dore was again elected mayor in 1936, he had a major "change of heart." His first official act was to appoint Brewster as head of the Civil Service Commission (overseer of the Police Department). The next month Dore gave a talk at a labor convention, where he credited Beck and Brewster for his election win, stating, "I am going to pay back my debt to Dave Beck and the Teamsters in the next two years regardless of what happens."

The only major setback that Beck and his Teamsters suffered in the 1930s came during the 1934 waterfront strike, one of the longest and nastiest union battles in Seattle history. For five months, ports were shut down all along the West Coast, but the Teamsters and other unions voted down a general strike, which would have shut down all of Seattle’s union workforce. Beck urged Seattle longshoremen to break ranks and negotiate "their own best deal" with Seattle shippers, but the local ILA maintained its coastal solidarity, solidifying ILWU leader Harry Bridges' control of the waterfronts. The strike was a major impetus for passage of the 1936 “Wagner Act,” which established the National Labor Relations Board and legalized collective bargaining.

The Teamsters bounced back in 1936 by helping the fledgling American Newspaper Guild win their strike against the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It was one of the first successful strikes by white-collar workers in the United States. After Beck threw the weight of the Teamsters behind the Guild, he was attacked by the press. Beck sued The Seattle Times, the P-I, and two radio stations for libel, and won. For the next 20 years, neither paper published any criticism of the powerful labor leader.

Beck was instrumental in the creation of the Western Conference of Teamsters which was chartered in 1937. He was now in a unique position to control an entire region, and after organizing Teamsters in Los Angeles – a notoriously anti-labor city -- International Brotherhood of Teamsters head Dan Tobin appointed Beck as International Vice-President in 1940.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, local Teamsters became active in all aspects of the World War II homefront effort, from delivering supplies to gathering up newspapers and metal during scrap drives. They continued to organize. In 1941, office workers in all Seattle furniture stores joined Local 174. After the war, work began on an expansion of the union hall on Denny Way.

In 1948, the Aeronautical Machinists Union, IAM District Lodge 751, held a long and bitter strike against the Boeing Company. The strike ran from April to September, and was complicated by the interference of the Teamsters, which actively collaborated with Boeing and attempted to recruit IAM members. The machinists won a contract victory, but soundly defeated the Teamsters in the subsequent federally supervised election to determine which union had jurisdiction over Boeing machinists and allied workers.

In 1952, Dave Beck was elected general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Frank Brewster took over as Western Conference chairman the next year.

In 1953, Seattle Teamsters assisted in “Operation Orthopedic,” an all-volunteer operation to move Children’s Orthopedic Hospital from Queen Anne Hill to a new facility in Laurelhurst in just one day. Thirty-nine transfer companies offered free moving service for all the furniture, equipment, and other items. Patients were moved by taxi.

In 1954, a second building was erected on the north end of the block from the union hall, to house the Western Conference of Teamsters, and later the Joint Council and the locals. The eastern half of the building was completed first, and the western half was finished in 1957.

But 1957 was not a good year for Seattle Teamsters. Dave Beck was found guilty of grand larceny and for aiding and abetting the filing of a fraudulent income tax return (not income tax evasion as is frequently reported) and sentenced to five years in prison on McNeil Island in Puget Sound. The AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters that same year.

The shake-up in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also caused a rift in Local 174. At the Miami Beach convention to choose a new general president, Frank Brewster supported William Lee from Chicago. George Cavano -- who succeeded Brewster as Local 174’s secretary-treasurer when Brewster became Western Conference Chairman -- backed Jimmy Hoffa. Almost all the delegates in the Joint Council followed Brewster, but Hoffa won. Brewster was purged as an international vice-president, and lost the Western Conference chair in 1958. Brewster and Cavano remained bitter enemies until Brewster stepped down from the Joint Council in 1963.

Local 174 was in disarray. In 1958, it went into receivership when bookkeeping came under question and it was also determined that Cavano and Vice-President Russel Anderson were still holding office even though their terms had expired. The court ordered a new election and a full audit. Thus began the slow process of fixing Local 174, the “backbone” of Seattle’s Teamsters.

To keep members abreast of news, changes, and topics of importance, Local 174 began publishing its own newspaper -- The Teamster Record -- on October 20, 1959. One of the first major stories involved the upcoming election. George Cavano headed a “Progress Ticket” which touted a 14-point plan that included health and welfare benefits and low cost drugs for members. Cavano and his team won.

The courts okayed the election, as well as the books, and Local 174 was back on track. Cavano held true to his promises, and in 1964 a members’ pharmacy opened in the union hall. Retirement benefits were bolstered, earning Cavano the title of “Father of the Western Conference Pension Plan.” At the national level, charges of corruption and ties with organized crime led to Jimmy Hoffa’s imprisonment in 1967 and passage of the Landrum-Griffin Act for federal monitoring of internal union affairs.

In the 1960s, Local 174 battled Seattle over garbage disposal. The city was leaning towards “privatizing” collection services, but the Teamsters fought to “put the city into the garbage business,” by providing pick-up service and long-haul service to landfills. In 1965, Local 174 won that battle with contracts to protect Teamster jobs in the industry.

Other battles were lost causes. In 1968, the Teamsters opposed water fluoridation, but voters approved it. The Teamsters also fought against rapid transit, and in 1975 against the conversion of Sand Point into a park, making the odd claim that parks attracted the “cesspool of humanity.” Clearly it was time for another change. Nationally, Teamsters gained national repute as the conservative wing of the labor movement for its support of the war in Vietnam and of President Richard Nixon, who pardoned Hoffa in 1971.

In the 1970s, Local 174 member Gary Ewing rankled employers and union leaders alike by refusing to shave his beard. Seattle’s “Hippy Teamster” made headlines while fighting for democratic reforms in the local. After the election of Bob Cooper as Secretary-Treasurer, Local 174 hired Ewing as a business agent -- sans beard. Nationally, the Teamsters faced “hairier” issues with deregulation of interstate trucking under President Jimmy Carter and the anti-labor policies of his successor, Ronald Reagan.

During the first half of 1981, Local 174 was locked in a bitter strike with Premium Distributors (partly owned by former Governor Albert D. Rosellini), which hired non-union beer truck drivers and refused to negotiate. After months of fruitless picketing, 174 spent $1,000 on interior bus ads targeting Premium’s primary client, Olympia Brewing, which had just launched a multi-million-dollar campaign with the theme that Olympia was made by invisible “artesians.” The union’s “I seen ‘em: Scabs delivering Olympia” slogan horrified the brewery, which forced Premium to settle the strike in June 1981, just weeks after the union’s ads appeared.

President Ronald Reagan’s mass firing of striking PATCO air traffic controllers in August 1981 was the opening shot in a conservative attack on the rights of labor. Coordinated “union busting” first appeared locally among greater Seattle’s beer distributors. Guided by Secretary-Treasurer Bob Cooper and aide Gary Ewing, Local 174 used satirical, consumer-oriented advertising to target non-union distributors of Rainier and Henry Weinhard’s. It also intensified its promotion of a national boycott of Coors, the national “poster child” of union busting. Not every campaign succeeded, but Local 174’s use of modern advertising techniques and media was a major innovation in the mid-1980s.

At the national level, president Frank Fitzsimmons died in 1981 while under federal investigation, and the next year his successor, Roy Williams, was convicted of bribery. New president Jackie Presser followed him to prison in 1985 amid a growing rank-and-file movement for democratic reforms. William McCarthy became president and negotiated settlements with the federal government and the Teamsters’ 1988 return to the AFL-CIO. Three years later McCarthy was succeeded by Ron Carey as the first president directly elected by the members in federally supervised elections. He was forced out of office over alleged campaign violations and replaced by James P. Hoffa, (Jimmy Hoffa’s son) in 1998.

In 1991, Bob Hasegawa came in as an insurgent candidate and was elected Local 174’s secretary-treasurer, a post he held for more than a decade. Local 174 is known for having a vigorous rank-and-file membership and many elections are hotly contested.

For years, the largest employer in Local 174 has been United Parcel Service, founded in Seattle in 1907. In 1997, UPS workers went on strike nationwide for the first time in their history. More than 185,000 UPS workers represented by the Teamsters Union walked off their jobs for 15 days over part-time workers and pension funds. UPS capitulated and agreed to pay increases and continued control of pension funds by the Teamsters.

Teamsters Local 174 joined with other unions, environmentalists, and human rights advocates to protest globalization during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. While the vandalism of a few young radicals and their clashes with police made international headlines, the image of “Teamsters and Turtles” marching together established a new and powerful icon for progressive solidarity around the world. Teamsters also respected the picket lines of newspaper workers during the 2000-2001 strikes against The Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

In recent years, some members of Local 174 have gone on to bigger and better things. In 2004, former secretary-treasure Bob Hasegawa was elected as State Representative from south Seattle’s 11th District. Steve Williamson advanced to the top post of the King County Labor Council, and Peter Coates became executive secretary of the Seattle-King County Building and Construction Trades Council. Both played major roles in the successful “Transportation Partnership” campaign that won passage of an $8.5 billion highway and transit package in the 2005 Legislature. Thus Teamsters 174 remains a source of leadership and inspiration within and beyond the labor movement.

Dockworkers had organized in Seattle in 1886, and by 1900, nearly 40 trade unions -- including Tanners, Lathers, Cigar Makers, and Brewers -- were holding regular monthly meetings in the city. The General Teamsters formed in 1899, but their activities were so weak they soon disbanded.

Since it was chartered in 1909, Local 174 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has grown to become one of greater Seattle’s most important and influential unions. Its first members truly did drive teams of horses to deliver goods for local employers such as Frederick & Nelson’s department store. These teamsters quickly made the transition to motor trucks.

The local was a major force in the area’s dramatic rise in unionization prior to World War I and it gained strength through the 1920s and Great Depression under the leadership of Dave Beck and Frank Brewster.

After World War II, 174 Secretary-Treasurer George Cavano achieved national respect as an honest and creative unionist. The local weathered the “union-busting” assaults of the 1980s to emerge as a progressive force in the regional labor movement, and it joined forces with environmentalists and human rights advocates to challenge the rush to globalization during the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle.

Today, Teamsters Local 174 is respected by friend and foe alike as a proud, militant, and creative democratic organization dedicated to serving the best interests not only of its membership but of the entire community.

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