June 20, 2017
A couple of weeks ago, Local 174 received a phone call from a man claiming to be one of the few remaining retirees from Teamsters Local 741. He said that he had some 741 memorabilia, and wondered if we wanted it. The answer to that was an enthusiastic “hell yes!”
Teamsters Local 741 was chartered in 1955 after splitting off from Local 174, which had grown too large for its own good. But after the deregulation of the Freight industry, 741 began to shrink and eventually merged back into Local 174 in 2002. Because of this, Local 741’s history is our history too, despite the years of separation. And so the man on the phone, whose name turned out to be Larry Stephen, made arrangements to come down to the Local 174 Union hall to hand over the memorabilia and attend the Local 174 Retirees Luncheon.
What ended up happening that day was a trip down memory lane into Teamster history that I wasn’t even alive for – a time when nobody wore seatbelts, there was no such thing as a Commercial Driver’s License, driving a freight truck was like riding an angry dinosaur, and being a Teamster was a very different experience than it is today.
Larry Stephen’s story began when he first started driving at 17 years old back in 1962. Before long, he found himself behind the wheel of a tanker truck. “One load of gas was my training load,” he said. “Then I was on my own. I think I hauled every dangerous chemical that exists. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I was hauling.”
Nowadays, of course, due to the extremely dangerous nature of the tankhaul business, tankhaul drivers are some of the most skilled, experienced, and credentialed drivers on the road. They not only need a Commercial Driver’s License, but a HAZMAT endorsement that requires passing a rigorous written exam and a full TSA background check. But back when Larry first started, they’d let just about anyone behind the wheel of a truck with what was essentially a bomb strapped to the back of it.
Eventually, lured by the smell of money, Larry took a withdrawal from the Teamsters and began hauling pipe to Alaska in his own rig for pipeline construction. “Back then,” he said, “if you were willing to go all the way to Pipeline 1 [the farthest north section of the pipeline], they’d give you an extra hundred dollars. So I went all the way to Pipeline 1.” I’ve never driven a truck through a blizzard, but I’ve watched enough “Ice Road Truckers” to know that it would take a lot more than $100 to convince me to do it. Then again, I guess $100 was a lot in the 1970’s.
After twenty years of this, Larry finally decided enough was enough and came back to the Teamsters, working out of the Local 741 Hiring Hall. He wound up getting a job at Arrow Transport without so much as an interview or skills test, simply because he knew how to operate a truck with a ‘brownie’ transmission. “They hired me on the spot,” he said. “They needed anyone who could drive a brownie.”
At this point in the narrative, I stopped taking notes and sat up looking perplexed. Local 174 Senior Business Agent Roger Pardo leaned over and explained to me that freight trucks back in the old days had not one but two stick shifts – one for the lower gears and one for the higher gears. They were extremely difficult to operate and required incredible driver skill to crawl through the gears correctly without grinding them or giving yourself a case of whiplash.
Trucks back then also lacked many of the other features that today’s truck drivers take for granted: power steering, heating and air conditioning, air suspension, and air ride seats, just to name a few. In fact, the lack of air suspension and air ride seats on the trucks that Larry Stephen spent his career driving came back to bite him in 2003, when at the age of 58 he was medically forced to retire because of all the damage years of nonstop hard bumps had done to his spine.
“I went to the doctor, and they took one look at my X-ray and told me they didn’t even want me driving a car, much less a truck,” Larry said. And so he retired to enjoy his Teamster pension and regular breakfasts with the rest of the retirees from Local 741.
There are other ‘survivors’ from the old Local 741 here on the staff at Local 174, including Senior Business Agent Carl Gasca, and Senior Business Agent Roger Pardo, who was the President of Local 741 at the time of the merger with 174 and was on the merger transition team. Combined, they have nearly 75 years of Teamster driving under their belts.
Teamster culture was different back in the Local 741 days as well. Gasca and Pardo, along with Local 174 President Ted Bunstine, laughed as they remembered the old Union hall on John Street in downtown Seattle.
“You guys had the nice office,” Gasca said to Bunstine, who was on staff at Local 174 at the time. “And you put us down in the basement.”
“Where you belonged,” Bunstine responded with a smile.
They also laughed at how different an experience it was to attend a General Membership Meeting. Nowadays, Membership Meetings are opportunities for the members to find out what has been going on in their Local Union while getting some face time with their elected Union leadership and Business Agents. The meetings are brief, informative, and professional.
Back then? “They had to weld the chairs together so we wouldn’t throw ‘em at each other,” Bunstine said, and the others shook their heads in agreement. I assumed they were joking, but they insisted that no, the chairs really were welded together, and the reason really was to prevent them from becoming projectile weapons.
Meanwhile, we admired the Local 741 memorabilia that Larry Stephen had brought along, which included the IBT Department for Retiree Affairs Affiliation Charter for Local 741. “Look who signed it,” Bunstine said. “Jackie Presser.”
“Jackie Presser. Was he in jail when he signed it?” Gasca joked. Jackie Presser was General President of the Teamsters from 1983 until his death in 1988, and was closely connected to organized crime – another bit of Teamster culture that has thankfully gone by the wayside.
Next, Roger Pardo brought Larry Stephen into his office, where he had plenty of other Local 741 memorabilia left over from his time as President of that Local prior to the merger. Among other things, Pardo brought out the gavel that he had used to try and control the membership during General Membership Meetings. Larry immediately recognized it.
“It’s broken, though,” Pardo said. “I banged it too hard trying to get Mary Stuart to shut up, and it broke.” Mary Stuart also survived the merger of the Locals, and is now a Local 174 member working at Matson. She and Pardo are still great friends, broken gavel notwithstanding.
A lot has changed in the years since Larry Stephen first started driving a truck. The Teamsters Union is now an organization of professionals – true professionals who set the standard for how the job should be done. Our drivers are trained experts who make safety their number one priority, and our Membership Meetings are polite affairs where everyone is given a chance to speak. The Teamster/Mafia connection is long gone.
It can be fun to wax nostalgic about the Teamsters Union of the past. But you know what? I think the Teamsters of today are even better. We are stronger, more organized, more militant, and infinitely more professional.
Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer Rick Hicks agrees. “Our job is to protect our members and fight against the actual enemies of working people, not each other,” he said, “and we fight that fight a lot more effectively when we aren’t screaming and throwing chairs at each other.”
When asked if it ever made him nervous that the chairs in the Union hall aren’t welded together anymore, he laughed. “Our members trust and believe in us. They know we got their backs!”
Plus, we aren’t as young as we used to be…and chairs are heavy.