Beck, David

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Beck, David

(b. 16 June 1894 in Stockton, California; d. 26 December 1993 in Seattle, Washington), labor leader who served as president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1952 to 1957.

Beck was one of two children of Lemuel Beck, a carpet cleaner and part-time auctioneer, and Mary Tierney, a laundress. At the age of four Beck moved with his family to Seattle, which was to be his permanent home. Beck attended public schools only until the ninth grade, when grinding financial poverty forced him to seek full-time employment. Beck always valued education and remained a voracious reader throughout his life. He first worked a series of odd jobs and then found steady employment driving a laundry truck.

Employment as a driver led Beck to the unions, and in 1914 he began a forty-three-year career in the labor movement. He joined the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and quickly became active in union affairs. Beck volunteered for service in World War I in April 1918 and served as a machinist in the navy in Killingholme, England. While on leave in 1918, Beck married Dorothy Leschander; they had one child.

After being discharged from the navy in August 1919, Beck returned to Seattle and to his laundry route, but his primary focus soon became union activity. Throughout his career he remained consistent to a set of principles that emphasized business unionism. He was fond of saying that running a union was like running Boeing or Safeway. He was dedicated to the capitalist economic system and believed that unions should work with businessmen to rationalize competition. He wanted business to earn the highest possible profit, because he believed that workers would then earn higher wages. Beck thought that unions had no place in politics, and he was consistently and thoroughly antiradical. He used strikes only as a last resort and was a lifelong critic of unions that put politics or radical ideas ahead of bread-and-butter gains for the rank and file.

During the 1920s Beck was a fast-rising leader within the Seattle Teamsters Local 566. He served as secretary-treasurer and then president of his local and of the Seattle Teamsters Joint Council in 1925. As the decade closed, Beck was a major force within the Pacific Northwest labor movement. He was an indefatigable organizer and a powerful orator, and his successes began to attract the attention of IBT leadership. This interest culminated when the IBT held its 1925 convention in Seattle. The Teamsters’ president, Dan Tobin, was especially impressed by Beck. To-bin’s chance to support Beck came quickly. Two Seattle businessmen who worked with Beck to rationalize competition in the laundry industry invited him to be a partner in their business. Rather than lose a promising leader, Tobin named Beck the West Coast organizer for the IBT.

With a broader official capacity, Beck used the Seattle Joint Council to establish statewide control in Washington State. He always defined Teamster jurisdiction broadly and used a top-down organizing strategy to unionize not only drivers but also freight handlers and warehouse workers. Once control was established in Washington, Beck led successful major organizing drives in British Columbia, Canada, and Oregon. Beck next turned his attention to California, where only the San Francisco Bay Area was well organized. Beck determined that the key to organizing California was to establish a strong Teamsters presence in the most notorious open shop city in the nation, Los Angeles. Throughout 1937 Beck used two innovative strategies to organize Los Angeles: he first organized over-the-road (long distance) drivers for the first time and then used this foundation to establish a withering secondary boycott that shut down almost all handling and transportation of freight in and out of Los Angeles. Capitulation by major businesses came quickly.

The California victory made Beck the unquestioned leader of organized labor on the West Coast. He solidified his power by setting up the West Coast Conference of Teamsters with himself as president. Through his Seattle offices, Beck now controlled Teamster locals in eleven western states. At first, IBT officers resisted this development, but they later warmed to the innovation because it provided much greater control over the locals and helped rationalize competition and regulate wages. Beck used his power in the 1940s to become a major community figure in Seattle, well known in business and civic organizations. In 1938 he was named to the University of Washington Board of Regents and served one term as president.

Beck’s continued success on the West Coast led to his appointment as international vice president in 1940 and as executive vice president in 1947. The West Coast Conference became the model for the geographic IBT structure. His greater role within the IBT prepared him to be Tobin’s successor. In 1952, when Tobin finally stepped down, Beck was elected president and remained in office until 1957. He was arguably the most powerful labor leader in America. Teamster membership had grown from 420,000 in 1939 to 1,100,000 in 1952 and to 1,600,000 when Beck left office. It was the largest and most successful union in the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO). Beck was also named to the executive council of the AFL and vice president in 1953; in 1955 he became vice president of the AFL-CIO.

Teamster success, however, brought problems. Beck’s ascension to the presidency coincided with the beginnings of labor union investigations conducted by Senator John McClellan’s Select Committee on Improper Activities. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who investigated Beck and other Teamster officers doggedly, staffed the committee. Kennedy learned that throughout his career Beck had become very wealthy through personal real estate investments, sometimes made with union funds. To procure property, Beck frequently borrowed large sums from the union and from companies with whom Beck negotiated contracts. Refusing to testify, Beck claimed Fifth Amendment privileges 117 times in three days. One outcome of this strategy was that Beck was removed from the AFL-CIO executive board. He was indicted on federal charges of income tax evasion and on state charges of grand larceny. These allegations, combined with the failing health of his wife, persuaded Beck to resign from the IBT presidency in 1957. Jimmy Hoffa replaced him.

Beck was convicted on both counts of the indictment and sentenced to five years in prison for each of the convictions. His wife died in 1961, and in June 1962 he began his prison term, which ended two and a half years later. In 1965 the governor of Washington pardoned him, and in 1975 President Gerald Ford did the same. Beck never returned to union activities, choosing instead to manage his finances very successfully and to address civic organizations. In 1967 he married his second wife, Helen, who died in 1977. Beck died in a Seattle hospital at the age of ninety-nine. He is buried in Seattle.

Beck dedicated his life to building a powerful union based on business principles. His strategies and organizational concepts redefined the IBT and played a major role in helping establish the Teamsters as the most powerful union in the United States. Partnership with business and a tight focus on wages and benefits guided his actions.

Beck has attracted little scholarly attention, principally because there is no central repository of his papers. John Dennis Mc-Callum, Dave Beck (1978), is essentially a long interview. Donald Garnel, The Rise of Teamster Power in the West (1972), measures Beck’s influence in the Pacific Northwest, and Charles Waite’s published dissertation, The Business of Unionism: Race, Politics, Capitalism and the West Coast Teamster, 1940–1952 (1996), explores the shortcomings of Beck’s business union strategy. There is an obituary in the New York Times (28 Dec. 1993).

R. David Myers

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