AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Sensitive to the public’s image of organized labor and encouraged by congressional investigators, the AFL-CIO expelled the Teamsters Union, which, under the leadership of Jimmy Hoffa, came to symbolize union corruption.

Summary of Event

The 1955 merger that created the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) healed a serious rift in the American labor movement, but a number of critical problems haunted AFL-CIO leadership during the next fifteen years. The nation’s political mood, following passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—and state “right to work” laws that ensued—continued generally to be hostile toward organized labor. Much of this hostility was rooted in public perceptions that many unions were dominated by or infiltrated by communists or, equally menacing to the public welfare, that they were run by corrupt officials and elements of organized crime. AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] Teamsters Union Labor unions;Teamsters Labor unions;AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] [kw]AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union (Dec. 5, 1957)[AFL CIO Expels the Teamsters Union] [kw]Teamsters Union, AFL-CIO Expels the (Dec. 5, 1957)[Teamsters Union, AFL CIO Expels the] [kw]Union, AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters (Dec. 5, 1957)[Union, AFL CIO Expels the Teamsters] AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] Teamsters Union Labor unions;Teamsters Labor unions;AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] [g]North America;Dec. 5, 1957: AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union[05680] [g]United States;Dec. 5, 1957: AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union[05680] [c]Organizations and institutions;Dec. 5, 1957: AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union[05680] [c]Business and labor;Dec. 5, 1957: AFL-CIO Expels the Teamsters Union[05680] Meany, George McClellan, John L. Hoffa, Jimmy Kennedy, Robert F. [p]Kennedy, Robert F.;and organized labor[organized labor] Reuther, Walter P. Mollenhoff, Clark R.

The U.S. secretary of labor, reflecting the conservative views of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Eisenhower, Dwight D. [p]Eisenhower, Dwight D.;and organized labor[organized labor] administration, announced to the 1957 AFL-CIO convention that the president would soon propose legislation to protect union members from “crooks and racketeers.” That prediction anticipated passage of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (1959)[Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act] (Landrum-Griffin Act Landrum-Griffin Act (1959)[Landrum Griffin Act] ) two years later. AFL-CIO officials were discomfited further in 1956 by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations , led by Democratic senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas and its chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy. That subcommittee, the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (often called the McClellan Committee McClellan Committee[Macclellan Committee] ), shifted its focus toward union corruption and racketeering. Within months, committee revelations concerning corruption among unions of operating engineers, plumbers, and retail clerks became national news. Labor relations reporter Clark R. Mollenhoff presented evidence about corruption within the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Aware that the country’s image of organized labor had become badly tarnished, labor leaders had battled to cleanse unions Labor unions;communist purges of communist influences as well as to disencumber their members from dishonest union officials and mobsters. Beginning in the mid-1940’s, union leaders such as James Carey of the electrical workers, Michael J. Quill of the transport workers, and Joseph Curran of the National Maritime Union conducted purges of communist influences in their ranks. A similar fight had been waged successfully by Walter P. Reuther among his United Auto Workers. Subsequently, as president of the CIO, Reuther premised his organization’s merger with the AFL upon ridding the AFL of corrupt and criminal union leaders.

After the merger, the burden of these efforts fell upon the AFL-CIO’s first president, George Meany. A New York City plumber by trade and a respected organizer and union leader, the straightforward Meany more than compensated for a modest formal education with his experience and strength of character. Meany needed no prompting to set labor’s house in order. As a veteran labor lobbyist, he was keenly sensitive to the price labor paid politically because of union corruption and criminality. He deplored labor’s loss of public respect. A blunt and moral man, he detested union officers who perverted their authority to steal from their rank and file.

In his capacity as the McClellan Committee’s chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy personally presented Meany with damning evidence against the AFL-CIO’s largest constituent union, the Teamsters. The Kennedy-Mollenhoff materials specifically alleged corruption involving, among others, Teamster president Dave Beck Beck, Dave . Beck, an AFL-CIO vice president and executive committee member, testified in 1957 before the McClellan Committee about his purported theft of $300,000 of union funds as well as his acceptance of money from employers. Meany was outraged that Beck invoked the Fifth Amendment ninety times.

Further angered by Beck’s blustering, insubstantial replies to him in an interview later that year, Meany swiftly stripped Beck of his AFL-CIO offices and his Teamsters presidency. Meany planned to present the Teamsters’ 1957 convention with details of Beck’s corruption. Unanimously supported by AFL-CIO officialdom, Meany demanded that the Teamsters promptly report what steps they intended to take to reform their organization. In the meantime, Meany attempted to force Beck’s likely successor, Jimmy Hoffa, as well as other Teamsters officials to testify before the AFL-CIO’s ethical practices committee. Hoffa and others refused to appear.

A crude, intelligent, and dynamic leader who had mastered the intricacies of Teamsters business and enjoyed great popularity among the Teamsters’ rank and file, Hoffa met with Meany (in their only meeting) during the late summer of 1957. Hoffa threatened the AFL-CIO president with legalities and with Teamsters power. Meany remained obdurate, notifying Hoffa that expulsion awaited him and his union unless they honored the AFL-CIO constitution. Meany’s only concession to the shaken Hoffa was a willingness to await the outcome of the Teamsters’ 1957 convention in Miami.

Hoffa dominated the convention. Presentation of the AFL-CIO report on Teamsters corruption was jeered and expunged from the record. A resolution of the AFL-CIO executive committee was ignored. By overwhelming vote, Hoffa was elected the Teamsters’ president. The new president and convention delegates awarded Beck a $50,000 annual pension. While claiming to value the Teamsters’ AFL-CIO affiliation, Hoffa declared his union ready to “tell the AFL-CIO to go to hell.” Meany remained intractable.

When Meany led the AFL-CIO at its full convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in December, 1957, Hoffa was standing trial in New York for wiretapping the telephones of Teamsters who were to appear before the McClellan Committee. During the previous weeks, Hoffa had persistently evaded meetings with Meany, although he repeatedly promised them. Exasperated and convinced of the rectitude of his actions, Meany, in a remarkably forthright speech that identified his target as dishonest Teamsters officials rather than honest rank and file, called upon the AFL-CIO to expel the Teamsters. The federation’s response on December 5 was overwhelmingly supportive: 2,266,497 members opposed the Teamsters’ expulsion while 10,548,598 favored it.

Significance

Hoffa presided over the Teamsters from 1957 effectively until 1967, the year in which appeals from his 1964 conviction on separate charges of jury tampering, fraud, and conspiracy were exhausted and he began serving the remainder of a thirteen-year sentence in federal prison. In 1971, with his sentence commuted by President Richard M. Nixon, Hoffa retired from all Teamsters offices with his union’s award of $1.7 million, or about a dollar per member. In 1975, the Teamsters’ leader disappeared, presumably having been murdered.

Hoffa provided many services to the Teamsters, but his goal was personal power. His misuses of his power and position were extensive. The Teamsters’ huge Central States Pension Fund Central States Pension Fund , worth $200 million in 1965, became an unmonitored Hoffa slush fund that was allocated, by his decision, to more than a dozen major organized crime figures for their varied enterprises as well as to politicians, judges, attorneys, family members, and even employers. The McClellan Committee, which concentrated on Hoffa’s empire generally, to the exclusion of interconnected corruptions of management, was able nevertheless to bring eighty-two charges against Hoffa alone.

Hoffa’s sins against his fellow Teamsters and the general public were not singular: He presided over a thoroughly corrupt union, many of whose officials and organizers resorted to intimidation and violence to silence dissidence, to win recruits, or to coerce employers. By 1967, the U.S. attorney general had brought two hundred individual indictments against Teamsters and their allies, more than half of which were sustained by individual convictions in the courts.

The efforts of George Meany and the AFL-CIO to purge the federation of corrupt officials was epitomized and sensationalized by the expulsion of the Teamsters. The Teamsters’ expulsion represented only one aspect of the AFL-CIO’s attempt to clean house and to redeem organized labor’s respectability. Almost simultaneously with Meany’s opening battles with Hoffa and his crowd, other sweeps were being conducted against what Meany described as “the gangsters, racketeers, and thugs” of the International Longshoremen’s Association International Longshoremen’s Association[International Longshoremens Association] (ILA).

Expelled from the AFL just prior to the AFL-CIO merger in 1955, the ILA was readmitted to the new federation in 1959 only after seventy-five of its members had been barred from office for criminal acts or for accepting employers’ money for “sweetheart contracts” and other favors. Similarly, James Cross’s Cross, James bakers’ union was ejected from the AFL-CIO in 1957 after refusing to reform and oust corrupt officers. By 1962, Cross and other officials had been convicted of embezzling union funds, and the AFL-CIO had chartered a “clean” bakers’ union. Meany and AFL-CIO officials forced the resignation of two leaders of the United Textile Workers and brought pressure for resignations and reform in the laundry workers’ union.

Meany’s struggles to refurbish labor’s name produced significant changes in the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO constitution denounced union corruption and criminality; it did not, however, prescribe procedures for doing so. Meany and his aides and committees variously expelled errant officials or unions, placed them on probation or under monitors, or gave them dated ultimatums to produce reforms. In initiating these actions, Meany challenged the historic autonomy that many unions, particularly those of the old AFL, had cherished as their right. Although Meany largely abandoned his drive against union corruption and criminality by 1963, throwing the burden on the U.S. attorney general and Senate investigators, one momentous consequence of his reformism was a substantial centralization of authority in the hands of AFL-CIO leaders. Managements found themselves dealing less with a federation of unions than with the world’s largest labor organization.

Critics from within the labor movement were quick to observe that a more centralized AFL-CIO was also a more conservative and complacent one. Some critics attributed a relative decline in nationwide union strength to this complacency. Although no observers lamented the convictions of expelled Teamsters officials, least of all Beck and Hoffa, most noted that the Teamsters offered many workers one of few alternatives to the giant federation after the Teamsters’ return to political favor during the Nixon administration. AFL-CIO[AFL CIO] Teamsters Union Labor unions;Teamsters Labor unions;AFL-CIO[AFL CIO]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brill, Steven. The Teamsters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978. Based on interviews that present varied perspectives on the Teamsters. Clear, substantive reporting. No notes or bibliography, but a valuable index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Thomas R. Toil and Trouble: A History of American Labor. 2d ed. New York: Delacorte Press, 1971. A colorful, informative prolabor book. Chapters 17 and 18 deal with expulsions of communists, crooked officials, and racketeers. No notes or bibliography. Good index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goulden, Joseph C. Meany. New York: Atheneum Press, 1972. Excellent biography of an honest and formidable character who gave shape to the young AFL-CIO. Brief chapter notes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Archie. George Meany and His Times: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. Based on interviews with Meany. An unusually good authorized biography. Photos, chapter notes, brief bibliography, good index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sheridan, Walter. The Fall and Rise of Jimmy Hoffa. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972. Excellent reporting by a member of the McClellan Committee. Clear, informative, and detailed. No notes or bibliography. Invaluable on Hoffa and politicians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sloane, Arthur A. Hoffa. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991. A balanced, multidimensional portrait that acknowledges Hoffa’s crimes and flaws but indicates the sources of his immense popularity and restores his humanity. Bibliography, chapter notes, and excellent index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Witwer, David. Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. The bulk of this history of the Teamsters is devoted to Hoffa and the era of corruption that he came both to preside over and to symbolize.

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