Dave Beck: Seattle's great up-from-under saga

A driven, brilliant man, Beck came up on the Skid Road side of Seattle and for a while almost ran the town. Here's the story of his rise to head the Teamsters, his fall, and the curiously moving years after he got out of prison.

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Dave Beck and Dan Tobin

A driven, brilliant man, Beck came up on the Skid Road side of Seattle and for a while almost ran the town. Here's the story of his rise to head the Teamsters, his fall, and the curiously moving years after he got out of prison.

The biggest story in 1962 Seattle was, of course, the World's Fair, which began on April 21, the first day of spring on the Puget Sound calendar. But a second story was crowding onto the front page that year, the continuing demise of Dave Beck, the local union leader who rose to the leadership of the International Teamsters Union in 1952. It was 10 years later, in 1962, that he would take the least popular ferry ride in Washington state — the one to the McNeil Island Penitentiary — where he would serve two concurrent five-year sentences for tax fraud and grand larceny. 

If we think at all today of Dave Beck, we remember him dimly as a corrupt labor leader. But there is so much more to him than the crime he committed. He is, without question, one of the great up-from-under stories we have.

He came from the Dickensian world of 1898 Puget Sound — the stink of the great fire nearly gone, the gold rush just under way, the well-dressed salesmen, loggers, and shingle weavers with eight fingers side-by-side at the many bars and whorehouses in the newly rebuilt town, the old name, Skid Road, making way for the new, Pioneer Square. The sawmills were still visible from the new downtown, but now were joined by the hiss of the gas lamps and the new electric trolleys displacing the horse-drawn. But thousands of horses still trod the streets, their urine and feces splattering against the ground, creating then about half the volume of solid waste Seattle disposes today.

Moving here from Stockton at age 4, Beck lived on the margins of the city. His father was a carpet cleaner and his mother worked in a laundry, but soon enough Beck was supporting her — first delivering 350 newspapers a day, then running errands for the whores in Pioneer Square and delivering narcotics for their second strata of customers — tincture of laudanum and opium, products gained in trade.

He worked in the same central laundry as his mother but soon began driving laundry delivery trucks. He became a Teamster in 1915. He was in the North Atlantic in World War I and came back to more responsibility in his union, soon running the laundry workers union and then the milk truck drivers.

He built the foundation of his community involvement by establishing a reputation as perhaps the best Elk Club member in the history of the local chapter, showing a knack for special events that led to remarkable ticket sales and proceeds to the Boys Club, Children’s Hospital, and other favorite local charities. At a very young age he became its Exalted Ruler, a position that is a bit like an elder, a kind of senior adviser. He loved the Elks, and he loved the respect the people gave him even though they knew he was a high school dropout.

His time supporting his mother and sister never allowed for much education, something he regretted because he yearned to be a lawyer. But when you can cause lots of other people to give money to local institutions, when you buy 40 season tickets to the Husky Football games, when you have the franchise to control nearly every business venture that depends on a rubber wheel rolling on asphalt, it is not unusual to be asked to serve the community where others with less influence but more education usually serve. The governor appointed him a Regent at the University of Washington and he became Chair of the Board of Regents. The governor thought he'd be an asset on the Parole Board and the Mayor wanted him for the Civil Service Commission.

Beck became a West Coast organizer for the Teamsters and soon after would do something that more than a couple of generations of newspaper reporters would never forget. He threw the support of the Teamsters behind reporters at the Post-Intelligencer trying to organize their own union. That effort by the reporters was not going well. A handful of union members were walking the picket lines, outnumbered by the security placed there by William Randolph Hearst, the paper's owner. After Beck weighed in, over a thousand people walked with the reporters, the 1930s version of "Shock and Awe."

The Seattle Times, the arch-enemy of Hearst, found common ground in its hatred of Beck. C.B. Blethen, leader of the family ownership of The Times Co., started saying some awful things about Dave Beck. In a front page editorial, Blethen wrote:

"Seattle is now the plaything of a dictator. The suspension [Beck’s pickets had shut down the paper] of The Post-Intelligencer is more likely than not to mark the place where Seattle lies — dead. How do you like the look of Dave Beck's gun?”

Beck ended up suing The Times for libel — and succeeded! Beck took home $25,000, and his calculation paid off with the lasting respect of most Seattle print reporters. Beck never struggled with bad press while he was a local leader, even at The Times, which would follow the P-I as a union shop.

One of the reporters who remembered Beck sending his cavalry over to the P-I was reporter Emmett Watson who wrote this way about Beck on his 97th birthday:

"He was Seattle — all Seattle — the original rain-soaked kid. As a young boy, he shot rats for bounty near the University Bridge to bring home money to his mother.

"He would get his dinner in the free-lunch saloons because a kindly cop let him do it. He ran errands for the whores in the old Skid Road district (now Pioneer Square) and it was only later that he found out (to his mother's horror) that he was running dope for the hookers.

"When he became International Teamsters president in the 1950s, he had to spend a lot of time in Washington, DC. The Washington sophisticates were appalled, then amused, because Dave proudly showed off his Elks pin at formal dinners."

They could not figure him out when he said, "I'd rather lean against a lamppost in Seattle than own this whole goddamned city." 
Labor politics in the western United States during the 1930s was frequently radical. Perhaps the best example was the creation of the International Longshore and Warehousemen’s Union in 1934. Its leader, Harry Bridges, was an Australian transplant to the US who defined the interests of his members in terms of the class struggle. Beck, on the other hand, believed that business was a good thing for his members, as long as they received a fair share. As Colliers Magazine put it:

"It is with respect to philosophies, however, that the two leaders are in sharpest conflict. Bridges stands frankly for the socialization of business, and insists 'workers have nothing in common with the employers.' ... Dave Beck, on the other hand, has no larger concern than wages, hours, and working conditions. In the same breath that he charges Bridges with being a Communist, working to overthrow America's democratic institutions, he affirms his own faith in the capitalistic system."

One of Beck’s friends had a perceptive view of Dave Beck and how he worked: "Dave doesn’t organize workers. Dave organizes employers."

The Longshoreman and the Teamsters had a natural antipathy for one another. The nature of their businesses created a constant stream of conflicts as they jostled alongside one another on West Coast docks. Beck was out-hustling them, organizing something called the Western Conference of Teamsters. Beck started a regional concept to consolidate control of many small, disparate unions. It would be duplicated by an organizer named James Hoffa who was organizing in the Midwest from his base in Detroit. In 1932 the Teamsters had just 82,000 members in relatively small locals across the country. By 1940, there were 530,000 Teamster members in the United States. Twenty years later, Hoffa would sign the first national contract in 1964. In 1971, 1.5 million American workers were Teamsters. 

This effort completely outflanked Bridges and his Longshoreman. The Teamster organization had organized nearly every trucking company and many other jobs working the docks, down to vending machines, and pinned the longshoremen inside a narrow strip dockside. Twenty years later, as shipping technology changed from break-bulk cargo to containers, the relationships and strategies Beck established with the trucking companies, copied by Hoffa and others, positioned the Teamsters to take over the loading of cargo into ships by stuffing containers off the docks, away from ILWU jurisdiction. 

Beck’s pro-business views were good news to Seattle businessmen and he was amply rewarded with recognition and supplication. When people wanted a union voice, they most often chose the one belonging to Dave Beck. When people needed something, Beck was an early ask.

In 1930, banks in the area were working against the constant flow of bad news on the economy. They selected 40 worthies from all walks of life in greater Seattle, put them in a full page ad in the Seattle Times with the headline "Builders of Greater Seattle." Of course, Dave Beck was among the 40.

In 1940, Beck was named a Vice President of the Teamsters and became a member of its national board. Dan Tobin, who had been the International President of the Teamsters since 1907, was ready to retire after the war, and in 1952 stepped down, naming Beck as the leader. Beck named Hoffa as the first Vice President as part of the overall deal.  

Testimony in 1957 before the McClellan Committee — The Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management — showed that the first national perception of Beck after he took over the union was that he was a reformer. He made some early personnel moves that got the attention of people who were concerned by corruption and mob activity in the labor movement.
The reformist bloom faded quickly. Hoffa was not as well positioned as Beck when Tobin retired and never truly contended for the top job before 1952. However, as soon as it was Beck’s, Hoffa began working to tip him over and used his network of mobsters, reporters, politicians, and government insiders to that goal. Also, the IRS was kicking the tires on Beck’s tenure in Seattle and was finding a good deal of revenue that arguably should have gone to Uncle Sam.
A third factor was Beck himself. He was not a careful record keeper and enjoyed the fact that his position attracted many supplicants bringing gifts. Beck hardly drank and did not gamble or chase women. He did, however, like nice stuff.   

The IRS had noticed a pattern going back to 1934 in which reimbursements had been made to Beck even though Beck had not incurred an expense. These early indicators brought on greater scrutiny. 

In January, 1954, IRS agents met with Beck at his Seattle Office on Denny Way. They asked for his personal and his union records going back to 1943 so that they could check them against his tax returns. Beck said he would make them available. 

In early February, there was a flurry of activity at the Denny Way office. All of the financial records going back from 1953 were placed in cardboard boxes and taken to a combination storeroom and vault in the basement. A bit later, other records collected from other Teamster entities were placed in the vault. Then, union officials called the building custodian in and instructed him to "clean out the storage room."

The custodian called Seattle Sanitary Service, the garbage company, who sent Joseph Romedo by with a truck. With the help of two Teamster officials, they loaded the truck and drove to Interbay, the valley between Seattle’s Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods which was then the city dump. A car followed the garbage truck onto the site and the two men in it monitored the incineration of the records for 30 minutes. After several other IRS requests for the records over the next six months, the Teamsters declared that the records had been inadvertently destroyed. 

Over the years, Beck had received many payments from several different Teamster unions — expenses, fees, various reimbursements — which were frequently placed in his personal account, even though others may have paid the original expense. Beck also had the use of automobiles for business and personal use. These benefits added up to a tidy sum — $370,000 over ten years between 1943 and 1953. 

Confronted with these facts by the IRS, Beck and the Teamsters came up with the explanation that these monies were, in fact, loans to Beck from the Teamsters. On the stand, Beck was asked about them and responded this way: 

Q. And what authority did you have to borrow money from them? 

A. Well, I was in charge of the organization, I think I had that authority, though I had no specific authority secured by paper or anything of that kind. 

Q. Now; how did you go about borrowing this money from the Joint Council Building Association? 

A. That was all handled through Fred Verschueren who was the fellow that handled all the financial transactions of every kind for me in and around the building and generally when I was traveling in the United States and Europe. 

Q. And what promissory notes did you sign?

A. I signed no promissory notes. 

Q. And what were the terms of repayment? 

A. There was no terms set forth. 

Q. And what was the interest rate?

A. There was no interest rate. It was all moneys that was in commercial banks, no interest to any of them, of the various organizations. 

Financial statements from this time were filed by Beck at banks and insurance companies did not mention any of the loans allegedly given Beck by the union. 

Beck loved real estate. The Teamsters were heavily invested in the Denny Regrade and along Denny Way going down to the area we now call South Lake Union. He had as many as 40 properties there, either personal or controlled by him through the Teamsters. He also enjoyed development. In the 1940s, he and ten other Seattle Teamsters began buying land and building homes at Sheridan Beach, a lovely area along Lake Washington, north of the city. 

Beck’s home was furnished with the help of a Chicago Sears Roebuck executive, Nathan Shefferman, who found Sears items on discount and delivered them to friends at the Teamsters. Between 1949 and 1953, the Beck residence nearly doubled in size, perhaps the most notable addition a "small home theater for entertaining business associates." The theater seated 60 people and would show Hollywood features. Beck contended that it was built by "a grateful Hollywood mogul for whom Beck had intervened with President Roosevelt." 

Soon, Beck was in front of the McClellan Committee, in 1957, testifying before a national television and radio audience. It was a catastrophe. Estimates as to how many times he asserted his constitutional rights against self-incrimination vary wildly, from as little as 116 to as high as 200. His inquisitor was committee counsel Robert F. Kennedy whom Beck hated.

Fundamentally distracted by the IRS, Hoffa, the Mob, and a growing exposure to prosecution, Beck left his national position in 1957 and the Teamsters belonged to Hoffa. 

When Beck became president of the union in 1952, it purchased his house for $163,000 and Beck lived there rent free until just before he went to jail in 1962. The union was also paying Beck a pension of $50,000 a year. His son, mother, and sister lived in it while he was in jail, paying $400/month rent. His wife, Dorothy, had died in November. The union sold it for $75,000 in 1965. 

Beck was convicted on two counts, one federal and one state. The prosecution had much to choose from, but focused on the charges that it felt would be ironclad against the repetitive appeals they knew Beck would mount. The state charge was the sale of a union car for $1,800, the proceeds of which went into Beck's personal account. The second charge was a tax return for one of the Teamster entities under Beck’s control. Beck didn’t sign the return, but it was clear the return’s accuracy was Beck’s responsibility. 

Beck would market the charges and convictions as mere 'technicalities' but it is clear that many other charges could have stuck if the prosecution wanted to spend the time and money necessary to convict and tough out the appeals process. It’s not pretty and it leaves many ambiguities, but there is some justice in a minimal strategy that closes the case and allows people to move on.
Beck took the boat to McNeil Island on June 20, 1962. That morning, the World’s Fair promotions people were putting together a fact sheet for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Day, the 1962 World’s Fair nod to Seattle’s first World’s Fair, in 1909. They had a great fact for how successful the fair was becoming. In June 22, 1909, the AYP had attracted 10,000 patrons. Fair management estimated that the same day, 1962 would bring 10,000 people through the gates of Century 21 in the first hour. But the Beck surrender story topped the fair, once again.

Beck’s lawyer, who was with him at the ferry dock, told him to keep his mouth shut and let the statement, which the lawyers had mostly drafted, do the talking. For the first few minutes, Beck was silent. And then begin speaking from the heart: "Dammit, why should anyone think I would try to cheat? I’m wealthy. I don’t need that kind of money. I’m not that kind of man. My word is respected among business leaders all over the country."As his lawyer’s winced, Beck then revealed that he had a net worth of $2 million and would overcome the business difficulties in front of him. 

Beck stayed at McNeil for 26 months. His job was canning vegetables from the prison garden. He also worked out constantly and steered clear of the high-starch prison diet. When he was on the return ferry on December 11, 1964, he had dropped from 204 pounds to 171. Beck died at 99 years and attributed his health and longevity to his time at McNeil Island. 

The death of his wife Dorothy triggered more tax inquiries during the probate of her will. He would learn his tax bill was in the neighborhood of $1-1.2 million. By the end of 1975 he had paid $600,000 and entered into an agreement in 1977 to pay the full amount by 1982. He did. 

Beck was pardoned of the state felony charge, the sale of a car that he did not own, in 1965 by Gov. Albert Rosellini, and also of the federal charge, the false Teamster tax return, by President Ford in 1975. 

Beck spent the rest of his life working in real estate, managing his properties so he could pay the tax bill and, remarkably, speaking throughout his community. He was hugely popular as a speaker. He spoke frequently at schools. I talked to a law student who was at a law school lecture where Beck spoke about labor law. The class broke into applause when he was done. For all that he took at the top of his career and for whatever complexity of reasons, he ended his life simply and spent his time sharing his considerable experience and energy right to the end. The felon had paid his taxes and turned into an elder. 

I stumbled on the tax case, Re: Dorothy E. Beck, while getting ready to interview Dave Beck more than 30 years ago. I read it again a week before starting this article. It made me disgusted then and now to read about Beck's remarkable inattention to the use of his members' money.  

But today, I am more forgiving. I had no way of knowing then that he would ultimately pay his tax bill. You could see, however, that he was not going to hide and saw himself as a full, paid up member of his town. He was completely available to reporters and historians.  He might have been a reformer at one time, but the Teamsters culture and Beck's problems at home made that impossible. He was trying to drive a very big and complicated truck and all he could do was drive it home to Seattle.

When we talked back then, Beck was like a big, fierce, flightless bird, wearing an almost-baby blue blazer, cream colored pants, off-white shirt, and a yellow tie with almost-baby blue stripes. I remember nothing about what was said through Beck's acrobatic mouth — though the topic may have been his pardon by President Ford. I do remember very clearly the setting, with Beck in the middle of his living room in the condo just across the street from the Teamster's office on Denny Way, the room a cream-colored monotone — rug, walls, and furniture all cream. Beck was the only color in the room and his neck and cheeks soon added bright red to the display. 

I don't think I saw Emmett Watson's rain-soaked kid in that room, but it was as good a show as anything I ever saw at the World's Fair. 


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