AFL-CIO Expels Key Unions

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AFL-CIO Expels Key Unions

United States 1957


The American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) unified in 1955, a time when labor leaders were determined that labor would enjoy a good reputation. There were rampant stories of thuggery, corruption, and financial misdeeds in local and national unions throughout the United States. Around that time, two key events changed how unions operated, how government affected union activity, and, ultimately, how the public perceived unions. First, the AFL-CIO altered its constitution to address ethical issues and stem corruption. Second, the federal government created its own body to investigate charges of corruption in unions. Three large unions fell into the crosshairs of both organizations: The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America (Teamsters); The Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union; and Laundry Workers Union. All were expelled from the AFL-CIO in 1957.


  • 1937: Josef Stalin uses carefully staged show trials in Moscow to eliminate all rivals for leadership. These party purges, however, are only a small part of the death toll now being exacted in a country undergoing forced industrialization, much of it by means of slave labor.
  • 1942: By executive order of the U.S. president, some 120,000 Japanese Americans are placed in West Coast internment camps.
  • 1947: Great Britain's Labour government nationalizes coalmines.
  • 1950: North Korean troops pour into South Korea, starting the Korean War. Initially the communists make impressive gains, but in September the U.S. Marines land at Inchon and liberate Seoul. China responds by sending in its troops.
  • 1954: The French military outpost at Dien Bien Phu falls to the communist Vietminh. France withdraws after decades of trying to suppress revolt; meanwhile, the United States pledges its support for the noncommunist government in the South.
  • 1957: High schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, are integrated with the aid of federal troops.
  • 1957: Soviets launch Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. This spawns a space race between the two superpowers.
  • 1957: European Economic Community is formed.
  • 1960: When an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Francis Gary Powers is shot down over Soviet skies, an end comes to a short period of warming relations between the two superpowers. By the end of the year, Soviet leader Khrushchev makes a scene at the United Nations, banging his shoe on a desk. As for Powers, he will be freed in a 1962 prisoner exchange.
  • 1962: As the Soviets begin a missile buildup in Cuba, for a few tense days in October it appears that World War III is imminent. U.S. president Kennedy calls for a Cuban blockade, forcing the Soviets to back down and ultimately diffusing the crisis.
  • 1965: In the Soviet Union, the reformer Khrushchev is ousted in favor of the hard-liner Leonid Brezhnev.
  • 1970: Nixon sends U.S. troops into Cambodia on 30 April. Four days later, National Guardsmen open fire on antiwar protesters at Kent State University in Ohio. By 24 June antiwar sentiment is so strong that the Senate repeals the Gulf of Tonkin resolution. On 29 June, Nixon orders troops back out of Cambodia.

Event and Its Context

Corruption in Labor Unions

Labor corruption was not new in the 1950s, when the ethics of unions came into question. "As early as the 1920s, for example, government reports documented a widespread pattern of corruption and racketeering among construction trade unions in New York City," wrote Carl F. Horowitz. He observed that the building trades were traditionally most prone to corrupt practices. During the 1950s union corruption became overt, particularly in the Teamsters. "They all came together in the 1950s: the Teamsters, the mob, the politicians, Las Vegas, the greed," observed author Allen Friedman. "Everyone was a user. Everyone had a scam. And the only ones who would eventually prove to be the losers were the rank and file, though not in the way most people imagined."

With the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955, labor leaders were determined to make a favorable impression as "good partners in the American economy." George Meany was president of the AFL-CIO. The union constitution allowed any affiliate union to be suspended by a two-thirds vote. The AFL-CIO Executive Council created its Ethical Practices Committee in 1956 to provide further guidelines for union officials and to prevent corruption. One of the six guidelines prohibited union leaders from pleading the Fifth Amendment while testifying before public bodies investigating racketeering. Those who took the Fifth were barred from office. "The adoption of the codes represented a departure in the practices of the general labor movement," wrote Philip Taft. "Heretofore, the affiliated national and international unions jealously guarded their autonomy and would not permit the federation to place any limitation upon their freedom." He noted that the creation of these ethics codes, although seen as necessary, was ultimately ineffective.

The United States Senate laid the foundation for the unions' expulsion with its probe into union activities beginning in January 1957. Senator Joseph McCarthy, best known for his probes of communism in the United States, proposed the creation of a select committee to investigate labor racketeering. Union members viewed the Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field as not entirely dissimilar from the McCarthy-led House Un-American Activities Committee. Senator John McClellan, an Arkansas Democrat, served as the head of this committee. McCarthy was scheduled to serve on this committee as well, but he died soon after his appointment.

This committee, commonly known as the McClellan committee, opened hearings with the intent of examining charges against union officials. These included dipping into union coffers for personal gain and accepting bribes from employers. Among the notable senators on the committee were Sam Ervin, Barry Goldwater, and John F. Kennedy. Counsel for the committee was Robert F. Kennedy. These hearings were televised live until their conclusion. Since these crimes were typically perpetrated against the rank and file, union members originally supported the hearings, thinking that the government would protect them and their unions. The AFL-CIO, however, took senators to task for using committee proceedings as a means "to harass clean and honest unions and to aid anti-labor employers."

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America, more popularly known as the Teamsters, was created in 1903 when the Team Drivers International Union and the Teamsters National Union banded together. The majority of its members were truck drivers. Daniel J. Tobin, a Boston Teamster, was president from 1907 until 1952. The Teamsters attracted the most attention during the hearings. Starting on 26 March 1957, the union's president, Dave Beck, appeared before the committee to answer questions about the misappropriation of union funds. He took the Fifth Amendment throughout his appearance before the committee—purportedly a staggering 117 times in a single session. Beck maintained that he had taken an interest-free loan from the union. Other questions arose regarding the sale of his Seattle home to the union, in which Beck was permitted to live rent-free. Jimmy Hoffa, who was union vice president, also testified. His first appearance before the committee was on 20 August 1957. At the September Teamsters convention, and in the wake of his congressional committee appearance, Beck announced that he would not run for reelection. Hoffa succeeded him as president.

At the conclusion of 270 days of hearings, there were more than 50 volumes of testimony and numerous supplementary reports. The Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union, among the oldest of the unions, had its own problems. The union's president, James G. Cross, and vice president robbed a local that had been placed under trusteeship. They were also given frequent kickbacks. "The debauching of one of the finer labor organizations is a sordid episode in American labor history," proclaimed Taft.

AFL-CIO Takes Anticorruption Stand

When the AFL-CIO convened in late 1957, one of the first orders of business was to hear from James P. Mitchell, United States labor secretary. He presented the proposed 1958 federal labor legislation, much of it designed to deter corruption, such as making it a felony to accept a union-related bribe. The presidents of the 135 member unions were skeptical but voted unanimously to endorse the legislation in order to protect member unions and their membership. The union leadership noted that they would forcefully contest any legislation that was disguised as protective but would weaken the unions and protections for their members.

The most notable action at this meeting was taken against unions tainted by corruption. The Teamsters, the Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union, and the Laundry Workers Union were all expelled from the AFL-CIO on 12 December 1957. With this, the AFL-CIO lost about 1.6 million members. The Teamsters alone had an estimated 1.4 million members; the Bakery union, 140,000; and the Laundry Workers, 70,000. It was estimated that the expulsion would cost the AFL-CIO $1 million in lost dues. Meany said in 1957 that the unification of the two unions enabled them to purge the corrupt unions. "AFL-CIO still will be plenty strong. And we can go ahead with organizing the millions of workers still outside unions." In place of the expelled bakers' union, the AFL-CIO chartered a new union that same day. The American Bakery and Confectionery Workers International Union was established with only 95 of the 298 old locals and 50,000 members. Daniel E. Conway was appointed as its president.

These were not the only unions being scrutinized, however. The International Longshoremen's Association was expelled. The United Textile Workers Union had been suspended, but the AFL-CIO lifted its suspension at this same convention after the leadership agreed to clean up its operations. The Distillery Workers were still under a probationary watch, but they later agreed to accept a monitor, as did the Allied Industrial Workers. The president of the Waste Materials Handlers Union was expelled on misconduct charges. The McClellan committee continued to investigate other unions, including the Carpenters, Sheet Metal Workers, and Hod Carriers.

In the wake of government exploration of union activities, legislation was passed to prevent further abuses and corruption. Key among these was the Landrum-Griffin Act, which passed by a vote of 95-2 in the Senate, and 352-52 in the House; it was enacted in April 1959. This strengthened the Taft-Hartley Act and included provisions unfavorable to labor, such as restrictions on picketing and government supervision over the election of union officers. Despite the investigations and expulsion, Hoffa's power catapulted him to mythical proportions. He was often taken to task for his associations with organized crime and reportedly invested union pension funds in businesses with ties to organized crime. Hoffa was later arrested on charges of bribery (involving of one of the McClellan committee attorneys) and obstruction.

"By 1958, the corruption in the Teamsters Union was so obvious," writes Friedman, "that the general public was equally divided in their attitude toward the organization. Those who were not eligible to join primarily saw the union as little more than an organized crime group. Those who were eligible often were thrilled by the tough guy image." This image persisted well past Hoffa's tenure. Despite Meany's pledge to police union corruption, the last recorded meeting of the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Committee was sometime in December 1959.

Robert F. Kennedy, writing in The Enemy Within (his perspective of the committee findings), concluded that union corruption was the exception rather than the rule. "With few exceptions, the men who run our great labor unions in this country are honest, dedicated men."

Key Players

Beck, Dave (1894-1993): Beck was a Teamster throughout his life and is credited both with building the union and for introducing corruption into it. He joined the union in Seattle as a teenaged laundry truck driver. He ascended through the ranks and was elected national president in 1952. He was later AFL-CIO vice president. With the Code of Ethical Practices enacted, the union expelled him in May 1957. He was later convicted of misusing union funds and federal tax evasion. He has the distinction of being the first of five Teamsters presidents to have had severe legal problems. He was one of three who served prison time; a fourth was indicted. Beck was later pardoned, both by the state governor and by President Gerald R. Ford.

Byers, Sam: The president of the Laundry Workers International Union at the time of its expulsion from the AFL-CIO, Byers was reportedly a convicted murderer who had been charged with embezzlement of union funds. He resigned.

Cross, James G.: Cross was head of the Bakery and Confectionery Workers of America at the time of its expulsion from the AFL-CIO. One of the charges against Cross was for doctoring expense accounts, including charging the union for the rental of a hotel room where union executives could play poker.

Hoffa, James Riddle (1913-?): Born in Brazil, Indiana, Hoffa started his union career as a warehouseman in 1932. He was a leader within the Teamsters, first as international vice president. He succeeded Dave Beck as president in 1957. Although he inherited many of Beck's problems, Hoffa created many of his own legal problems for impropriety during his tenure as head of the union. He was the second Teamster head to serve a prison term. Ironically, in 1958 Newsweek posed the question "What would make Hoffa vanish?" He disappeared in 1975 and is assumed to have been murdered.

Kennedy, Robert Francis (1925-1968): Chief counsel and staff director for the Senate subcommittee on investigations, Kennedy started his legal career in the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Kennedy was appointed chief counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (McClellan committee) in 1957. He is best known in this regard for his investigation of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, but he also conducted other investigations of labor and management abuses.

McClellan, John Little (1896-1977): Democratic senator from Arkansas, McClellan served as the head of the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field. These investigations led to the imprisonment of both Dave Beck and Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters Union. He served 35 years as a U.S. senator.

Meany, George (1894-1980): Born in New York City, Meany began his union career as an apprentice plumber in his teens. He was a leader in the New York State Federation of Labor and American Federation of labor. When the AFL merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955, he was the first AFL-CIO president. From the start of his union presidency, Meany shouldered the responsibility for rooting out union corruption. He held the post until his retirement in 1979.

See also: AFL, CIO Merge; International Brotherhood of Teamsters; Landrum-Griffin Act; Taft-Hartley Act.



Friedman, Allen, and Ted Schwarz. Power and Greed: Inside the Teamsters Empire of Corruption. New York: Watts, 1989.

Murray, R. Emmett. The Lexicon of Labor. New York: New Press, 1998.

Sloane, Arthur A. Hoffa. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

Taft, Philip. Organized Labor in American History. New York: Harper, 1964.

Tompkins, Vincent. American Decades: 1950-1959. Detroit:Gale Research, 2001.


Belzer, Michael H., and Richard Hurd. "Government Oversight, Union Democracy, and Labor Racketeering: Lessons from the Teamsters Experience." Journal of Labor Research 20, no. 3 (15 July 1999): 343-365.

Hill, Herbert. "Mob Rule: Thieves in the House of Labor."The Nation, 27 June 1981.

Additional Resources

Dobbs, Farrell. "Threat to the Independence of the Unions,"The Labor Standard. 1967 (cited 23 January 2003). <>.

Horowitz, Carl F. "Union Corruption: Why It Happens, How to Combat It." The National Institute for Labor Relations Research. 1999 (cited 23 January 2003). <>.

Rieder, Ross. "Beck, Dave (1894-1993)." History Link. 14February 2001 (cited 23 January 2003). <>.

—Linda Dailey Paulson