1924, the activist laundry driver Dave Beck was elected to the
Joint Council of Teamsters' Executive Board.
it became clear he was going places. One reason why was Becks
talent as an orator. This was a familiar quantity to his Laundry
and Dye Worker colleagues, as one famous anecdote (told by biographer
John D. McCallum), explains:
December 1918, Beck was home from the war. For clothing, he
still had only his Navy uniform. Yet, on the very evening
he returned to town, Beck was invited to address Local 566.
The subject was a looming General Strike in Seattle. Beck,
however, derided the idea in ringing tones - and the firebrand
in his sailor suit won a standing ovation. His union, following
Beck's oration, did not endorse the strike...Local 566 was
the only Teamster union which voted against it."
event was an early indicator. It showed not merely Becks
native flair for drama, but also something of the strategies
he would forge. For
Beck became a prototypical 1920s "business unionist."
As a member of the Joint Council of Teamsters Executive Board,
he often criticized both radicalism and sympathy strikes.
As the historian Jonathan Dembo notes:
did not believe that organized labor should try to reform
society. According to Beck, the only commodity that working
people had to sell was their labor. The role of the union
was to get for them the best possible price for the least
amount of work. He was militant only in the sense that he
would go to virtually any lengths to secure this end."
also believed in the right and the necessity of employers
to earn a profit. He made speeches and wrote articles extolling
the virtues of free enterprise, profits, and private property.
His position helped assuage employers fears of unions,
and it helped build up support for organized labor among the
the same token, Becks pro-business propaganda helped
establish a close alliance between himself and President William
Short of the Washington State Federation of Labor. Impressed,
Short adopted Beck as a sort of protégé."
that other first-generation American, John C. Hagen, Beck
who had come from the slums would enter society
But Hagen joined the Broadmoor Golf Club, the Washington Athletic
Club. Beck, in contrast, established a national presence,
wielded a national influence and then, for two and-a-half
years, served time in prison. All
the more strange, however, that each man helped shape the
had vivid memories of his mother slaving away at the Palace
laundry - a plant Hagen had bought up on November 23, 1914.
The union leader also spent his own weary hours as an inside
worker and, later, a driver.
He understood firsthand, as Jonathan Dembo notes, that:
laundry truck drivers had been company employees; they received
a basic minimum wage plus a commission on the business they
brought to the laundry. After the war, however, expanding
businesses and increased competition caused companies to seek
ways of reducing expenses. In firms that employed truck drivers
laundries, bakeries, milk and beer distributors, construction
firms, and drayage or highway trucking companies the
biggest expense was labor."
In order to meet the competition, employers reduced maintenance
on their trucks, they went without insurance, they neglected
safety practices, and they and their employees worked dangerously
long hours. But these steps were insufficient. To survive,
small businessmen needed even stronger controls on their labor
costs. The owner-operator system, by which the employers eliminated
wages altogether, forced drivers to become virtual subcontractors.
As owner-operators, they worked on a straight commission basis
and had to buy their own trucks."
arrangement, as Beck knew, left drivers with the lions
share of risks and costs. They were forced to become virtual
owner-operators; something he saw as yet another inequity
of the industry.
But, as Beck later revealed, his decisions were political:
was perhaps one of the two or three highest-paid drivers in
the city, based on my ability to go out and earn on the commission
system. I knew that I either had to go in and become an investment
part of the laundry industry and get away from labor completely
- or else I had to get over into the labor movement, because
I had reached the saturation point of earnings in the laundry
knew he had talents and abilities; but he did not want them
business agent for Local 566, a regular part of Becks
duties took him inside every laundry. At the Broadway Empire
Laundry, as at almost all the others, he realized working
conditions were really little improved since 1917. So, Beck
launched a vigorous organizing drive.
he set out to negotiate directly with owners.