Conditions in Seattle laundries would be a battlefield on which Dave Beck's career as a unionist was made.

But his chief antagonist not only owned Seattle Empire. He also owned the Palace Laundry, where the organizer's mother slaved when her children were young.

    The rise of the laundry driver
In 1924, the activist laundry driver Dave Beck was elected to the Joint Council of Teamsters' Executive Board. Rapidly, it became clear he was going places. One reason why was Beck’s 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:

"In 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."

This event was an early indicator. It showed not merely Beck’s native flair for drama, but also something of the strategies he would forge. For Beck became a prototypical 1920’s "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:

"He 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."

"He 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 middle class."

"By the same token, Beck’s 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."

Like that other first-generation American, John C. Hagen, Beck — who had come from the slums — would enter society via business.

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 other's future.

Beck 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:

"Formerly, 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."

This arrangement, as Beck knew, left drivers with the lion’s 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:

"I 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 industry."

Beck knew he had talents and abilities; but he did not want them limited. As business agent for Local 566, a regular part of Beck’s 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.

Then he set out to negotiate directly with owners.

on to The vision of the laundry owners    

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