The 1970 Los Angeles-Cleveland Teamster Wildcat Strike

Dan LaBotz’ nice obituary for Steve Kindred here talked about Steve’s days in Los Angeles organizing strike support in 1970 and beyond. As a participant in those days and those organizations and struggles, I want to add a little to Dan’s recounting.

Kent_State_massacre

The key precipitating event in my part of this story was the killings of 4 students at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, on May 4, 1970, by National Guardsmen. Probably everyone knows something about this, but just as probably many don’t know that these killings caused a wholesale shut-down of American universities in the wake of spontaneous battles between students and cops all over the country in a completely unplanned and therefore even scarier insurrectionary impulse from America’s youth. And I do mean battles. My good friends Eric Flint and Richard Roach and hundreds if not thousands of others fought a running battle with LA and UC cops that ranged all over the campus and lasted for hours. They  were graduate students hanging out on campus and thus well placed to join the fight. This was exactly the kind of confrontational shit we had dreamed about and hoped for as the Vietnam War ground on but I had rejected graduate school when I came to understand the kind of writing English professors had to crank out (a decision that 11 months administering life insurance policies at Occidental Life had caused me to regret) so I languished at my insurance company desk waiting for 5 o’clock and then had to endure multiple recountings of the day’s adventures when we got together that night, as we did most nights. I finally understood Othello.

In California Ronald Reagan announced the closure of all the University of California campuses. But way back in the day of Mario Savio activists, students, teachers, community people and lots of others had established that the University of California belonged to the people and was an open public space. So while Reagan could administratively close down the campuses they remained open spaces available for whatever an energized youth might decide.

I hightailed it over to UCLA the following day looking for trouble. The meant skipping work, where I was already on thin ice for various attendance-related issues. There I found something even better than fighting cops, if that is possible.

The campus was astounding. The Student Union Building had been ransacked by enraged kids and the gigantic central dining room transformed, overnight, into an organizing center. By that I mean an entire floor of a very large building was ringed around its perimeter with tables staffed by people advocating and organizing a dizzying multitude of things. There were tables that did nothing but organize the feeding of people at other tables. There were myriads of just plain folks, many of them with no campus credentials or experience, there to address issues they found pressing. Housing. Racism. Sexism. The War. There were radical nuns. No sororities or fraternities. Whatever. These people had just sensed that things were seriously opened up and so they congregated and talked and organized.

I was hanging around one of these tables when a pudgy guy walked up. His name was Steve, and he was a clerk at a trucking firm and hence a member of Teamsters Local 208. He explained to us that his union had gone on strike, but because it was a wildcat strike, the companies had succeeded in getting an injunction against Local 208 members walking a picket line in front of the gates at the various truck barns. He wondered if we would be able to help them by walking the picket lines in their place.

A little back story here. In 1970 the IBT was about to achieve a long-standing goal, viz., a national contract that would expire everywhere at the same time. This would immesurably enhance their bargaining power because it would put the spectre of a national truck strike on the table. Clearly, a plus. On the other side, certain locals that had already gotten super-good contracts for their members in the past were asked to accept a less-than-stellar (from their point of view) contract and take the hit for the team. Local 208 in Los Angeles, which organized local delivery and pickup of common freight and had thousands of members, demurred, and was on the verge (some say had already crossed the verge and had voted) of voting down the contract offer but were gaveled out of order by the meeting’s chair. So the vote to strike was either taken and passed, or not taken and not passed and you could find people on both sides of this question. The “No” voters called a wildcat strike which was remarkably effective. Essentially the same thing, the details of which I do not know, happened in Cleveland in Local 408 (Wow! What synapse fired to make me remember the number of that local! Hope it’s right!).

But the companies went to the judge and got an injunction. So Steve the pudgy Teamster came, on his own, and made his pitch to us around the table at the supremely graffiti-defaced Student Union Dining Room. I am embarrassed that I cannot remember the last name of this guy, who was a genuine working class hero who just had a flat-out good idea and carried though with it.

We were electrified. We said, yeah, hell yeah, we can get some kids to come down and picket for you. Where do you want us and when? So a few of us started making phone calls. I roped in my friends immediately, and so did a lot of other people. In this free-for-all atmosphere it was pretty much duck soup to get a couple of hundred kids from UCLA to caravan down the the City of Industry each morning and go wherever the Teamsters sent us. A couple of days in, when it was clear we weren’t going to get tired of this, the cops started showing up with gigantic buses to arrest and haul us away but part of the fun was that there was actually a very large number of individual firms engaged in this business so the Teamsters could direct us to a different place to avoid the police at least for a little while. Or, as it happened, they might have us go picket in one locale while they went to another locale to commit some act  of minor terrorism like burning trucks, setting fire to the barns, or whatnot. So it was a real-world fight, a genuine class battle with real stakes and we were the spearpoint of the student-worker alliance while it lasted. I would go home after a day of whatever at UCLA (I had gotten fired from the insurance company job I but at this time barely noticed that) and make my twenty or so phone calls to mobilize the kids for tomorrow’s action. This was by far the most fun I had ever had in my life and the jolt kept me going for a couple of decades of progressively less fun activities.

Well, wildcat strikes are generally short-lived and so it was with this one. But the little group that had come together to organize these early morning ventures into the heart of the LA working class didn’t want to give it up. By this time we were organized as the Student-Workers Action Committee and had decided that in the wake of the Teamster strike we would just go out and find more strikes to support. Somewhere along about this time Steve Kindred showed up. As Dan LaBotz wrote, the IS had determined to make its way into industrial jobs and our little grouping was prime for plucking, since we were, after all, the kids doing the student-worker thing in LA just by reason of history, good luck and chutzpah.

There were after-effects of the wildcat. While it was happening, a couple of guys got arrested for going up into the San Bernardino mountains and taking potshots at what they considered scab trucks. Nobody was hurt but when firearms get involved suddenly you have a different level of seriousness attached to the proceedings.

At this point the Student-Worker Action Committee’s monthly paper, The Picket Line (the paper Dan LaBotz mentions in his Kindred obit) decided to follow the case of the union brothers accused of shooting up the scab trucks. This was probably under Kindred’s leadership but I honestly don’t remember. I do know that he was the editor of the paper and loved it beyond all loving. So we attended the trial and wrote it up for The Picket Line from the point of view of the wildcatters and our efforts were wildly appreciated by the militant rank and file of Local 208 who had, in all honestly, never seen anything like us before. We became “their” kids and they took a decidedly avuncular approach to us, which was not at all inappropriate, considering. The guys on trial were convicted and had to serve some minor sentences, months not years, and were rewarded with a gigantic party when they got out, to which we were invited as honored amanuenses.

SWAC moved on to support other strikes. There a lot going on in labor that year, a big-three auto contract, some fights in garment, and other stuff. We got used to getting up at 4 in the morning and driving out to Pico Rivera Ford plant or the Bethlehem Steel Foundry in the City of Industry to distribute our little paper to workers driving into the parking lots. It cost a dime.

SWAC was a genuine community organization with lots of different types of folks in it who liked the idea of helping strikers. We had Catholics, formers nuns, all manner of working class do-gooders, would-be radicals like me and my friends, Robert Brenner, and of course pretty quick we had every radical tendency in the book knocking at the door. We had a visitation from a supremely bug-eyed guy named Jeff from the Spartacist League and Les Evenchick from the Workers League selling the Bulletin every week to us, but we also had Kindred from the IS, who just jumped in, started doing the work, and was a continuously positive force who genuinely participated to the point that his membership in the IS was not the point of why he was there, but just something about him that became more and more intriguing as time went on.

As it turned out, the IS was the tendency that did the best in this little strike support group. It recruited a number of people, approaching ten, who went on to have long revolutionary careers.

This is the back story to what LaBotz recounts about Steve’s early Teamster days. Because of the help we had given the Teamsters in the Wildcat they let us in on things, and one day someone suggested we might want to check on a group called 500 at 50.

So we did. 500 at 50 encapsulated the idea that Teamsters deserved to have a pension of $500 at age 50 and proposed this as a demand to the international union. Someone told us about an organizing meeting they were having so Kindred and I went. Turns out it was in the garage of a guy named Ron in a far south-eat suburb of LA. Now, this is a meeting of people concerned about pensions, so you might wonder what they thought a couple of kids obviously in their mid-twenties, who had clearly never driven trucks, were doing there. But when we explained out strike-support credentials they welcomes us and thus we met
Grover E. “Curly” Best and got involved in national Teamster politics.

Whatever happened in Cleveland happened and resulted in a call for a national meeting of dissident Teamsters in Toledo, Ohio. We decided to intervene, so Steve and I occupied his ex-girlfriend’s pretty fast car and drove non-stop to Toledo with a hot Gestetner mimeo machine in the back seat, in case there were opportunities for mass agitation. The Toledo meeting founded Teamster United Rand and File. At this point I think Dan’s obit carries the story forward so I will will let it rest with a big wink to Steve, now hopefully at peace.

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22 Responses to The 1970 Los Angeles-Cleveland Teamster Wildcat Strike

  1. Molly Hite says:

    David, this is a terrific and fascinating piece of history. You ought to write a lot more of it. Your life is in so many respects an angle on larger labor, antiwar and civil rights movements. –Molly

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  8. Laura says:

    My dad was a Teamster in that wildcat strike of 1970. He worked for System 99. He was one of the men who had to leave California in order to work again. We moved to New Mexico & he worked for Navajo which became ABF. He was able to retire at age 59 with a wonderful union pension. He’s now 81. I”m married to a Teamster who worked for Yellow, but is now the President of Teamster Local 492 in New Mexico.

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    • Laura,

      Sorry it has taken so long to get back to you. I am very interested in your comment. If possible, I would like to chat with your dad (electronically) about those days. There is much in my memory that is infirm and a chance to talk to a participant would be very welcome. Thank you for posting!

      David

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  9. Therese says:

    So excited to come across this blog! The wildcat strike of 1970 and its genuine historical value seems to be buried and forgotten. I am the daughter of one of the first 10 men to walk out of Yellow Freight in Pico Rivera in the 1970 Wildcat strike. I remember our home in the days of the strike, full of weary and hungry strikers taking refuge if even for a quick meal and a short nap on the floor. The strikers came in and out all hours of the day and night. My brothers and I would assemble picket signs while our mothers would gather together and feed the men. Of course there were the tears and genuine fear when the men would go back out. Someome was always needing to be bailed out of jail, patched up or help with food for their family. Currently, I am working with my Dad to record and archive memories and momentos of this hard fought battle. My father went on to finish this fight and many more in his union career. He retired but still bleeds Union and the days you speak of are some of his best and proudest moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Molly Patricia Hite says:

      This is a wonderful response.

      Sent from my iPad

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    • Hi Therese,

      Thanks for the kind words. If you have read the comments on this article you know that there has been another daughter of another striker active in helping her dad get stuff, memories and so on together. Her family had to relocate to Arizona for him to get work so perhaps the two of them know each other and could get re-acquainted. He worked for System 99. If her email does not appear when you look let me know and I will share it with you (I am not sure what I can see versus what you can see in the comments.)

      I spent a lot of time at the Yellow Freight terminal in Pico Rivera in the years after the strike because (and others of my stripe) got commercial drivers licenses because we wanted to be Teamsters and make the revolution starting in local 208, which as far as we could tell was full of firebrands. I never got hired on there (or anywhere else in Local 208 but I spent a couple of years doing casual work from the hiring hall. I have a hilarious but slightly off-putting story to tell you, if we become acquainted, about my first day working as a casual at Yellow that I am sure will amuse your father.

      I hope we can become internet-acquainted. I agree with your assessment of the 1970 strike’s significance and think it would be wonderful for info about it to be gathered together somehow.

      Steve Kindred, who dies just last year, was tghe editor of alittle strike-support paper that me friends and I put out called “The Picket Line”. I have not attempted seriously to track it down but I would imagine that Steve’s estate probably has a full set because it was his baby. Ken Paff from Teamsters for a Democratic Union would be a good contact point for that. I probably know more people connected with that strike as outside supporters than anyone else alive now. The Picket Line as the only friendly newspaper in the world that covered the trial of the Teamsters who went up into the San Bernardino mountains to take potshots at scab trucks. We made a lot of friends.

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  10. Darrell Chavez says:

    My father John (ED) Chavez was P I E local 208 shop steward in the seventies and eighties in Los Angeles California! And also a trustee for local 208 I remember the president of local 208 Alex Maharis Archie Marietta

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    • Hi Darrell,

      Thanks for the comment. I would love to hear from your father. To date, at least three sons and daughters of participants in this strike have commented on my piece and I would love to get to know them a little over the internet if possible.

      Thanks!

      David McDonald

      Like

  11. ples clark says:

    I was in volved deepley in the wild cat 1970 I ran 4 business agent along with the greek and we made a large impression on the truck owners and the cta. I hear things r not like that any more — 2 bad —the greek was the best thing 2 come along 4 the union in many years

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  12. ples clark says:

    alex maharis nick name is the greek

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  13. ples clark says:

    all of us business agents had nick names

    Like

  14. ples clark says:

    archie was a good pres. — his nick name was the pope

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