Trotting out the Teamster rank and file
Rank and File Rebellion.
Reviewed by Gwydion M. Williams
It is heartening to hear that the ordinary members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters are at last taking steps to clean up their own notoriously corrupt union. Still, I found the book messy and confusing. As originally published in America, the mass of details about particular local struggles might have been very useful to any reforming Teamster or other Trade Unionist who needed to know more about what is going on. But to publish it in the same form in this country seems fairly pointless.
There is a very interesting tale to be told, and bits of it can be picked out of the mass of highly specific details in this book. You understand how someone like Jimmy Hoffa could flourish when you hear about the ordinary union member who’s attitude used to be “Ah, so what if he stole five bucks from me, he got me fifteen, so am I going to complain?” (Page 71). A lot of the big corruption seems to have come in during prohibition, because bootleggers needed trucks and found the union an easy way of getting control of them. And in forming an alliance with gangsters, people like Hoffa were only following the example of the bosses who had hired gangsters as strikebreakers, and who often had had union leaders murdered. The book is worth reading for many such insights.
Still, I think that Verso have not done justice to union militant Dan La Botz’s book. A proper introduction, explaining American unionism to a British audience, would have been welcome. And about half of the book could have been edited out without losing anything that a British reader would need to know.
There’s also the politics. I know very little about the history of American Trade Unionism, and it could be that the reason the American Communist Party is not in the index, and in fact does not seem to be mentioned at all in the book, is simply that they were not relevant to Teamster politics. But I wonder. The wider left is briefly mentioned on pages 182 and 183, but only to exult the role of Trotskyists within it.
Still, the book has its merits. Jimmy Hoffa’s merits as a union organiser are mentioned, as well as his much better known faults. He had been trained by radicals, and the fact that he went over to ‘business unionism’ is only one example of the wider malaise. The lack of a major socialist party in America must have contributed to the process – there is ancient corruption in the American Democratic Party, as indeed there was in the British Liberals, who thoroughly deserved the collapse into small-party politics that they suffered in the 1920s. The Teamsters in fact became supporters of the Republican Party under Eisenhower, and were the only major union to consistently support the Republicans at national level. But when you consider that union radicals like Dobbs and the Minneapolis Teamsters accepted Trotskyist advice and opposed America’s involvement in the war against Hitler (p 115), you can understand why people like Hoffa got fed up with radicalism.
Any trade unionist feeling depressed with the state of the movement over here should get this book just in order to cheer themselves up – things could be a whole lot worse. And even in America, even among the Teamsters, there are signs of progress.
[Sadly, there was a general decline in Trade Union power. And the workers in the USA have remained stuck on the incomes they had in the 1970s, with all of the new wealth going to a more-than-millionaire elite.]
This article appeared in November 1990, in Issue 20 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs. You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.
 Rank and File Rebellion. By Dan La Botz. Verso 336 pp.