Saturday, September 05, 2009

Book Report: "I Am a Teamster," by Terry Spencer Hesser

In recognition of Labor Day, highwayscribery presents this review of "I Am a Teamster: A Short, Fiery Story of Regina V. Polk, Her Hats, Her Pets, Sweet Love, and the Modern-Day Labor Movement."

If departed Teamster leader Regina Polk had been a book, a thorough read would have been required before any judgment was rendered.

Terry Spencer Hesser's newly released "I Am a Teamster" details the too-short life of a woman who forged striking personal contradictions into a hybrid hellion of unique force.

The union organizer's story puts the lie to Republican detractors who can't see "real Americans" in the country's progressive ranks.

It is a story with roots in a hardscrabble western existence begun in Prescott, Arizona. Her father was a farmer who roamed from spread to spread in search of that ever-elusive American dream.

The family ultimately settled in the Sierra Nevada town of Paradise, California where the credo was, "Less Government, More Responsibility, and -- with God's help -- a Better World."

But raising a child takes a village and, in the 1960s, the village was undergoing a transformation of the kind that permitted teenaged Regina to access the sexually-charged "Kinsey Report."

At her mother's urging, Polk applied to the rich girls' school of Mills College where she was caught up in the chaos that was nearby, 1960s Berkeley.

She was permanently affected by the crosscurrents of civil rights, feminism and anti-war activism that characterized the time and place.

Freed by cheap gas at the height of automobile era, the searching Polk wound up at University of Chicago where she enrolled in a masters program for labor relations, but it was her real job where she got the true schooling.

To pay bills she found work as a receptionist at the inappropriately named Red Star Inn. Hesser writes that Regina was a "knockout by anybody's standards," and enjoyed the concomitant privileges extended by management.

But the employer's treatment of lesser types -- dishwashers, busboys, waitresses and kitchen help -- stuck in Polk's politicized craw and she contacted Bob Simpson, organizing director of Teamsters Union Local 743.

In the book, Simpson recounts that Polk struck him, "as a hippie. The way she dressed and looked. She was for all kinds of rights. Worker rights. Civil rights. Women's lib."

Simpson, who had little interest in expending precious resources on organizing the Red Star, became one of many who learned that Regina Polk did not take "no" for an answer.

She set out to organize the restaurant's workers and, when management got wind of the effort, was fired. The union filed a grievance, the restaurant paid money to get rid of Polk, and Simpson hired her as a part-time organizer.

The rest, as they say, is herstory.

By 1975, American capital's move out of the manufacturing business was in full swing and the Teamsters' saw their primary source of dues-paying members evaporate. In search of greener pastures, union researchers identified a surging class of white, middle-class, moderately educated workers.

"To organize white-collar women," Hesser writes, "the Teamsters needed a different kind of organizer to lead them out of the mire of scandal and suspicion that surrounded them on a national level."

Enter Regina Polk.

She was a college-educated, floppy-hat-wearing fashion plate with a philosophical crush on Jimmy Hoffa. Polk possessed a cosmopolite's travel lust and a farm girl’s ear for country western. A serial savior of imperiled animals, she carried an ice pick for slashing tires in the old-time Teamster way.

A culinary epicurean, she walked into one of Southside Chicago's roughest neighborhoods so that her maid Johnnie Scott didn't go without a paycheck.

"I lived on Justine on the South Side," Scott remembers in the book. "At the time, it wasn't a suitable neighborhood. It was bad. And I remember lookin' out the window and here comes Regina walking by herself. Bringing me my paycheck. She wasn't afraid of nobody. 'Have a nice vacation,' she told me, 'it's better with pay.' That's the way she phrased it: It's better with pay.'"

The anecdote is indicative of Polk's approach to both organizing and contract enforcement, which focused on individuals. None of whom were too insignificant to benefit from her assistance.

"She defended ferociously her members when managers attempted to abuse them, believing that the union should do more than just guarantee a wage, that it should also see to it that its members were treated respectfully," Gary Mamlin, a University of Chicago shop steward, told the author.

In her under-appreciated "The Other Women's Movement," Dorothy Sue Cobble posited that in between the first wave of suffragette feminists, and the second-wave feminists spawned by the Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan five decades later, thrived a special breed of "labor feminists."

These women took root and cover in their unions during the 1930s when labor syndicates enjoyed a heyday in the United States.

Polk's religious dedication to union values, and fearless confrontations with the old boys in labor and management alike, suggest she was a unique mix of the latter two waves.

As such, she neither demeaned the value of domestic work nor avoided it.

"If she was coming home late or not at all," Scott remembered, "she would cook for Tom [her husband] a beautiful plate of lamb chops and peas and wrap his dishes before she left, leaving me instructions or telling him to eat it cold."

Classified by the famed political scientist C. Wright Mills as "weak insiders," unions typically groan under the weight of servicing the least fortunate with a dearth of resources.

And so, the Teamsters promptly put Polk to work helping organize clerical workers at Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Chicago. She later reported to union bosses on the difficulty of getting "status-conscious" and "image conscious" women to join a "truck drivers union."

Nonetheless the Teamsters prevailed. The extent of Polk's contribution to the victory might be read in the 28-year old’s subsequent assignment to organize workers at the University of Chicago.

Faced with a recalcitrant university president who had successfully dislodged the union at Yale, Polk's campaign was conducted largely "underground" or secretively so as to protect those with the courage or need to join the Teamsters' drive.

The campaign prevailed, too.

"The university was stunned," writes Hesser. "It had failed to realize that over the previous twenty years the people who worked on campus were no longer faculty wives but bread-winners who needed the money. They were mothers, many of them single, whose paltry paychecks started looking worse and worse."

"I Am a Teamster," is no syrupy-sweet story about the virtues of organized labor. Hesser makes it clear that Polk had her detractors within the union.

"I think it was because she was so aggressive," said Simpson, "but I can remember specifically one guy saying to me, 'I didn't like her from fuckin' day one!' And that was exactly his words and this guy was a board member."

Regina also grew disillusioned with the union’s lackluster support of its members.

Nor is “I Am a Teamster,” the tale of perpetual triumph, because Polk's campaigns did not always prevail.

After one defeat, she came across her opposite numbers from a union-busting law firm at a local bar. One of the "bastards with briefcases," as she referred to such consultants, approached to share a conciliatory, post-battle drink. Instead, she took the one she was nursing and threw it in his face.

All of Polk’s fire was extinguished in a plane crash at the age of 32. Some years later, when her wrongful death suit was at trial, one of the jurors recognized Regina as the person who had donated the very clothes she was wearing.

Hesser's slim volume, 147-pages long, renders a large life with efficiency. The author commits the biographer’s forgivable sin of falling in love with her subject. She starts off unevenly, accumulating too many posthumous summations, inappropriate for a chapter on childhood, while applying enthusiastic adjectives to someone whose larger-than-life actions speak for themselves.

But as Polk's career takes form, so does the narrative, which is delivered in a no-frills reportorial form that leans properly on numerous interviews of people who were there at the time.

"I Am a Teamster," celebrates the difference one person, empowered and guided by the simple principal of solidarity, can have upon the lives of others through brute effort, consideration, compassion, and even joy.

One of her Teamster mentors, Ray Hamilton, eulogized Polk by saying, "She lived as she believed and felt that it was more important to actually help one person than to talk about saving the world."

Although she inspired fellow Teamsters, the union was never going to make a template of Polk from which a generation of like labor leaders could be modeled.

She was too unique and too individual. A real American if you will.


Anonymous said...

What a thorough and beautiful review. It was a joy to experience this book through your eyes. Thanks!

highwayscribery said...

Thanks for your comments, Sharon W. They are not always so positive.