In my lifetime, the Labor Union movement in the United States has been led by three titans.

Before Trump invented fake news, Life Magazine published it.












The first ( and in many ways the most significant) titan was/is the late Jimmy Hoffa. His genius in creating a universal contract that included even independent drivers has created a center of strength in the Teamsters Union. The result is that in a country where so many of us believe that milk comes from a grocery carton, it is Teamsters Union and not farmers who ensure we receive the food we eat.

Jimmy Hoffa’s son now leads this powerful union which negotiates for its members a living wage. In this time of Trump’s failure to work for anyone but fat cats, it is the Union movement that is keeping the American dream alive.


George Meany made and broke Presidents. George Meany made it possible for President Jimmy Carter to serve in the White House.














The second titan was/is George Meany. As head of the AFL-CIO, George Meany alone and in concert (smoking cigars at his annual meetings in Florida and from AFL-CIO headquarters in DC ( a stones throw away from the White House) gave our country so many of the social programs and advances in equal rights it is impossible to enumerate Crusty George’s benevolence. Without George Meany would there be the landmark Civil Act of 1964? Without George Meany there would be no Medicare, no Medicaid, Social Security for the disabled and elderly too poor or infirm to contribute to the Social Security Trust Fund.

Without George Meany workers would not be protected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, pensioners would not receive protection against gonnifs, fair labor standards would not be protected, union elections would not take place fairly, the rights of minorities and women….


Without Walter Reuther, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would not have delivered his I have a dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Here is Walter Reuther at the March on Washington. I was there.

The third titan was/ is Walter Reuther. Of the three I cherish his memory the most. I understand my love for Jimmy Hoffa and George Meany, but with Walter Reuther I cannot resist it. Without George Meany Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Would not have delivered his mountaintop speech 54 years ago in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Without Walter Reuther,  there probably would not have been a university at Anne Arbor or decent public school, college, and university education for the daughters and sons of automobile workers. Reuters’ prescience protected the children of workers from the reality he foresaw of an automobile industry gone global, become increasingly automated, require fewer workers on the assembly line.



The best love is loving a lover who loves unions

The best love is loving a lover who loves unions.

When I was 28, I had a passionate affair with Laura. I remember distinctly meeting her mother and incredible brothers in a fashionable French restaurant in Georgetown. Brent and Josh took over the small restaurant serenading us with “I Dreamt I saw Joe Hill Last Night”.

This is a strong dream.


My grandmother (my Bubbie Celia) did uplifting work protected by David Dubinsky’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU)

As with so many of us, I was truly raised by my grandmother who loved me so. Celia often repented what she regarded as the folly of her youth. At 16, she went to a silent movie theater and fell in love with Salvatore Pellicia, who played the clarinet and whom she claimed dazzled her with his uniform.

They ran away. Her Jewish father jailed my grandfather. After Salvatore’s third time in jail, Bubbie’s father gave up and mourned his daughter for dead for having married outside the faith. My grandfather took up the saxophone–the sexiest instrument in the musical repertoire at the time. My mother was born while Salavatore was on a gig in Lexington, Kentucky.

David Dubinsky with Robert Kennedy

The twin evils of talking pictures and the Great Depression put my grandfather out of work. Severe sickness set in. He was hospitalized at a Veteran’s facility in Staten Island where he died shortly before my birth.

Bubbie was surrounded by poverty and despair. Hat in hand, she returned to her Jewish family which raised my mother. Her brother Abe did not speak to her for 10 years. Even so, Abe was an accountant and he found work for Bubbie in the fashion district doing piecework, sewing bras and girdles. Work she later described, cigarette in hand as “uplifting.”

It was hard work. Often, I visited her at he shop where she worked for decades under union contract. At night she played Beethoven and Chopin deliberately hiring a demanding teacher and often complaining that her hands were too small to scan the scales. She was frugal, fed pigeons and cats, and saved her money which everyone in the family borrowed including my father. The union-made her strong. It especially made me strong. Solidarity forever.


Cesar Chavez, Walter Reuther, and the Teamsters Union

When I was 28, I was in small hotel in California close to the mountain headquarters at tehachapi (of Maltese Falcon fame) where Cesar Chavez had his headquarters. His staff had been donated by Walter Reuther’s UAW.


On March 10th, 1968, Cesar Chavez breaks his 25-day fast by accepting bread from Senator Robert Kennedy, Delano, California. In June of the same year, Senator Kennedy was shot and killed on the same day he won the California Presidential Democratic Primary
Left to right: Helen Chavez, Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez


On the morning before my interview with Cesar Chavez, later published on the front cover of The New Republic, I took a shower. There I discovered a lump under my right arm which was later diagnosed as Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system which a generation earlier had been universally fatal within two years of diagnosis.

Delaying cancer surgery, to the discomfiture of my oncologist, I waited until finishing my article on Cesar Chavez whom I had idolized for years.

My managing editor David Sanford, patiently waited as I produced thousands of words not touching them but simply sending them back until I got it right. What I got right, to my consternation, was the clear conclusion that while a great figure, Chavez did a rotten job of administering his union. Unlike Chavez, the Teamsters organizers in the area were superb knowing details of the contracts that Chavez glossed over because he was seeking political support for urban constituents outside the grape fields. After publication and after painful surgery, my publisher Martin Peretz and, of course, David were please by Chavez’s empty threat to sue the New Republic and me for libel. Still in the hospital, my sadly late friend Patric Mullen, lobbyist for the National Sharecroppers Fund ferried over to my hospital bed angry letters from nuns.



Certainly that bothered. However, I knew the Teamsters were doing the job and Cesar wasn’t.  From my days at Scanlan’s Monthly, I spent much time with Teamsters officials who had been harassed by Robert Kennedy (who daily I regret he did not become President) in the days when Kennedy was attorney general, young and ruthless, not yet repenting the error of his ways after reading Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphophis.”


Samuel Gompers: “We do want more.”


“We stand on the shoulders of giants.”

  1. International Brotherhood of Teamsters.





3. UAW



–Brother Joel

Copyright © 2017 by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.

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