Beck, Dave (1894-1993)

  • By Ross Rieder
  • Posted 2/14/2001
  • Essay 2972
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Dave Beck was a key leader of the Teamster's Union on the West Coast for some 40 years, from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. He moved to Seattle at age 4 and began his career as a child delivering newspapers and later driving a laundry truck. In the 1920s, he became a full-time organizer for the Teamsters in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia and by the 1930s led the region's Teamsters. His support of the Newspaper Guild strike of 1936 (against the Hearst-owned Seattle Post-Intelligencer and other papers) was a major cause of its victory. As president of the Teamsters, Beck held to a business-union philosophy, opposed radicals and union democracy, and was thus favored by conservative elements in the community such as the Chambers of Commerce. He ended his career in a corruption scandal (concerning the use of union funds) for which he served a two-year (1962-1964) sentence on McNeil Island. After prison he retired to private (and a moderate public) life.

Early Life

Dave Beck was born on June 16, 1894, in Stockton, California. His family moved to Seattle in 1898 when he was four. He never hid the fact that he was raised in a ramshackle house in Seattle's old Belltown near the south end of Lake Union. "We were poor as hell," he said. He helped out by selling newspapers, catching and selling fish, selling fir trees at Christmas, even shooting wharf rats to turn in to the Health Department. He got $5.00 for each dead rat that showed signs of bubonic plague.

His father ran a not-so-successful carpet laying business. His mother worked at a Seattle laundry to help keep the family fed and together. From the age of 12 through his first year in high school, Beck had a large Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper route (350 customers). He also delivered The Seattle Times. Before his entry into World War I, Beck worked at the Central Laundry. When he returned from the service, the laundry had been sold and he took a job at Mutual Laundry, driving an old Ford truck in a University District route. After a few months, he got his old job back at Central Laundry, where he worked until 1924.

Public Union Power

Beck became Secretary Treasurer of the Laundry Drivers Union on December 1, 1924. In 1926, he was appointed part-time general organizer for the Teamsters, and the next year was appointed as full-time organizer for the Teamsters with responsibilities for the whole Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. Because of his successes in the Northwest, Beck was later made responsible for Teamster organizing for the entire West Coast. He determined that the answer to union organizing success was, among other things, a regional organization. He organized the Western Conference of Teamsters over the objections, at first, of then Teamster General President Dan Tobin.

By 1933, when the NRA was signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt with its Section 7-a, which stated that "employees shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing," Beck had pretty much rounded up everything on wheels in Seattle. His technique was to organize the boss by convincing him that he could make more profit by paying higher wages and thereby creating stability. His efforts were so successful and his public stature so great that, despite some disputes with the powers over the years, Beck was offered the position of Secretary of Labor by Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. He declined all three offers to remain part of the labor movement.

In 1940, he was elected as an International vice president, and appointed to the Teamsters International Executive Board. In the 1940s, his popularity in Seattle rose dramatically. He was on the State Parole Board, the Seattle Civil Service Commission, and the University of Washington Board of Regents. Ten years after he sued The Seattle Times for defamation, that paper could say, "Many are wishing that there could be more Dave Becks in the national labor picture."

A Business Unionist's View of Labor

Beck abhorred strikes and stood for free enterprise with a capital E. He believed the Wobblies (IWW, short for Industrial Workers of the World) to be crackpots. At his first union meeting after returning from World War I, dressed in his navy blues, he argued the laundry workers out of supporting the Seattle General Strike. "All I want for our members is a fair share of the profits; no more, no less," were his words. The only thing he didn't like about capitalism was its untidiness. Competition meant that the price structure was inconsistent and therefore the wage structure was unpredictable.

He could speak militantly, but he followed the U.S. corporate style of leadership by not believing the rank and file capable of decision making involvement. His own predilection in labor-employer affairs could be deduced from his statement: "I'm paid $25,000 a year to run this outfit ... Why should truck drivers and bottle washers be allowed to make decisions affecting policy? No corporation would allow it."

The Chamber of Commerce held him to be the very model of a labor leader, and Beck, who never finished high school, became a regent and later president of the board of regents of the University of Washington.

Behind Beck's kind words for the bosses was the real economic power of teamsters to refuse to deliver supplies to any business that fought Beck. It became unhealthy to drive anything for pay if you didn't wear a Teamster button. The apocryphal Teamster slogan was "Vote no and go to the hospital."

The 1936 Newspaper Guild strike

The Teamsters were strong but it took William Randolph Hearst and Harry Bridges to make them respectable. That took place in 1936. During the late summer through early December of 1936, the fledgling Newspaper Guild at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was on strike. It was not understood by publisher William Randolph Hearst just how much his anti-FDR positions and other anti-worker writings had offended the working community of Seattle. When the fewer than 30 Guild workers formed their first picket line around the Post-Intelligencer building in downtown Seattle, wharfside workers from Seattle's busy waterfront dropped their hooks and joined the line — creating a crowd that completely circled the building. The drivers delivering newsprint, represented by the Teamsters, also joined the picket lines under Beck's instructions. In the days before the Internet, newspapers required newsprint, not to mention the delivery of the physical printed newspaper. When Teamsters refused to cross the picket lines, it was difficult to print, much less deliver the newspaper. So, Hearst's attitude towards workers brought respect and affection to Beck.

Beck and Bridges: Different Strokes

Harry Bridges helped raise Beck's respectability level when Seattle's corporate establishment compared the two. Beck understood the desire to accumulate money, whereas Bridges never seemed to give a damn about a dollar. Beck told a reporter, "We recognize that labor cannot receive a fair wage unless business receives a just profit on its investment." Bridges, answering a question after a speech at a University of Washington luncheon club, said, "We take the stand that we as workers have nothing in common with the employers. We are in a class struggle, and we subscribe to the belief that if the employer is not in business his products will still be necessary and we still will be providing them when there is no employing class. We frankly believe that day is coming." Little wonder that Beck received the Chamber of Commerce nod of respect.

A Few Matters of Ethics

When Bobby Kennedy, as a young staff attorney for the U.S. Senate Labor Committee (also known as the McClellan Committee, named for Senator John McClellan, committee chair), began looking into corruption in the Teamster's union he was actually surprised that he found some of what he termed corruption by Dave Beck. The trouble started on August 1, 1956, with a Look magazine reporter's interview with young Kennedy – at a lull in committee activities. Not even sure of his jurisdiction, Kennedy began an investigation that tarnished the reputations of at least two people: Dave Beck and Robert Kennedy.

Part of the controversy concerned Beck's home on Lake Shore Drive in Sheridan Park, a Seattle suburb. A standard, if questionable, tradition in the Teamsters, at least at that time, was that the national office allowed the national president to work out of his home city. It bought Beck's home from him, for considerably less than it later sold for, and allowed Beck to live in it rent-free. Beck had owned the house long before he was elected general president of the Teamsters.

When he was finally brought before the McClellan Committee hearing on March 26, 1957, to answer questions about an interest free loan of between $300,000 and $400,000 (or a misappropriation of more $320,000 of union funds according to the committee chair), Beck took the 5th Amendment 65 times. Another scandal was a loan of $200,000 from the Fruehauf Trailer Company of Detroit. Beck claimed he had repaid the loan in full.

In May 1957, Beck had a hearing before the AFL/CIO Ethical Practices Committee. Since AFL/CIO President George Meany could not guarantee him that if he answered questions he wouldn't be subpoenaed by the Senate Labor Committee, Beck refused also to answer questions in that venue. Beck's membership on the AFL/CIO Executive Council was withdrawn and the Teamsters were expelled from that peak labor body.

A Time of Trial

In March 1957, Beck faced indictments charging him with (1) assisting with the filing of a fraudulent 1950 tax return for the Joint Council 28 Building Association (Teamsters headquarters in Seattle at Denny and Taylor), and 2) allegedly selling a 1952 Cadillac belonging to the Teamsters and pocketing the $1,900. The Federal Government also tried to get a conviction involving $240,000 in back income taxes for the years 1950-1953, but the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and Judge George H. Boldt in Federal District Court in Tacoma, in separate hearings, ruled in favor of Beck and dismissed the government's claims.

Beck argued that, in the case of the Cadillac, it was a matter of misunderstanding and clerical error, which had been corrected. He was convicted, however, of grand larceny. Superior Court Judge George H. Revelle and Prosecutor Charles O. Carroll both recommended that Beck serve three years of a possible 15. The Building Association indictment also stuck, Judge Boldt finding Beck guilty. To his death, Beck claimed never to have even seen the report, much less signed it. He was sentenced to five years. Both the Federal and Washington State Parole Boards agreed to let Beck serve his two sentences at McNeil Island concurrently. A minimum term of two years was set.

Beck began his McNeil Island prison term on June 20, 1962. To reporters waiting with him in Tacoma for the ferry to the island, Beck said, "What was it General MacArthur said at Corregidor? 'I'll be back.' Well, that goes for me, too. You don't have to fall down just because you've been knocked down. What matters is, do you get up again?" He returned to private and modest public life on December 11, 1964.

An anecdote from Beck's biographer, John McCallum, tells of two truck drivers he met in a barbershop in the late 1970s. The barber introduced him, telling the two men that McCallum was writing a book about Dave Beck: "The old Teamsters boss?" one asked. "Best damned president we ever had," said the others. "Yes, I've been a Teamsters for 37 years and say what you want about Beck, he did more for the union than anyone we ever had."

Showing himself to be a man of many contradictions, he said the following to membership in the mid-1950s: "We have always been a fighting union. We must never lose our alertness or go soft in the gut or we won't be worth a damn." and "We're proud of being well off, but remember that we're not going to get fat and lazy." His own summation of his life was: "Looking back on my career, I have made many close friends, inside as well as outside of labor. Despite all the fighting that was directed against me by Seattle's business community and the State of Washington, I don't think there's a single person, right now [1978] who has any more friends in Seattle business than Dave Beck. That has to say something about me."

Beck lived out his last years in a comfortable flat on Seattle's First Hill. He died in 1993.


McCallum, John, Dave Beck (Mercer Island: Writing Works, 1978); Murray Morgan, Skid Road (New York: Viking Press, 1951); Harvey O'Connor, Revolution in Seattle (New York: Monthly Review Press, ca. 1964), 226-7.

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