I don’t think many of my Sun-Times colleagues realized what a great job I had covering labor unions. They probably considered the beat to be boring. So did I, before I was offered it and discovered what a mother lode of stories flowed from unions and their clashes with both managements and each other. Think of contract talks as you might think of negotiations between opposing armies. And think of a strike or lockout as economic warfare. Does that whet your interest? My job was to keep score and explain what was happening. Never was I more challenged than during the 85-day trucking strike and lockout of 1970.
The country then was in the clutch of surging inflation. The consumer price index rose 4 and 5 percent year after year—rates unseen since World War II. Of course, as prices rose, your money bought fewer and fewer goods and services. So when a contract came up for renewal in that era, unions pounced on employers like hungry jaguars would a rabbit in an open field. Believe me, the Teamsters in Chicago knew how to do this.
Your image of the Teamsters may reflect memories of its infamous national president, Jimmy Hoffa, or some of its more corrupt affiliates in many of the big cities. Chicago Teamsters had their bad apples, like Salerno-born Joey Glimco, whose mob-affiliated Local 777 represented the city’s taxi drivers. (I never met the man because he never returned my phone calls.) But Chicago also harbored some honest Teamsters, including the savviest negotiator I ever met.
Louis Peick in 1970 was 57 years old and held the innocuous title of secretary-treasurer of Local 705, which bargained for 40,000 local truck deliverymen from Waukegan near the Wisconsin border to Gary in Indiana. Job title aside, he was the key player. If Local 705 had a president, the position was honorific.
How big was Peick’s ambition that year? I’ll tell you. Drivers then earned between $3.74 and $4.15 an hour an wages, depending upon the size of the truck. Peick, in league with Ed Fenner, head of a much smaller independent trucker’s union, started with a demand for $3 an hour in wage hikes over three years—equivalent to about three-fourths the existing pay scale—plus increased fringe benefits costing another $2 an hour.
Peick, a slightly overweight, cigarette-smoking fellow with thinning hair, possessed a flair for the dramatic. He was apt to burst through the closed doors of a negotiating session minutes after it began, to denounce the inadequacies of the employers’ offer, whatever it might be at the time. Yes, he loved microphones, and he at least tolerated reporters who didn’t ask him stupid questions. Early on, I had his private phone number, which I dialed frequently.
Talks went on past the March 31, 1970, deadline. By then the wage demand had been whittled to $1.70 an hour over three years, roughly a 40 percent raise. Complicating everything was that, concurrent with the local negotiations, the Teamsters’ national leaders were negotiating a new contract for over-the-road drivers. When a national settlement was reached April 2 that provided $1.10 an hour in raises over three years, that became the floor on which Peick sought to build his achievement. Louie’s opinion that $1.10 was too little was quickly affirmed when the national agreement fell apart.
Peick was smart enough to know his members needed public sympathy if they were to strike for weeks or months and greatly inconvenience people. Local 705 began its war on April 7 by striking only a few employers, warning grocery chains that they could be next if they didn’t sign on to the $1.70-an-hour demand. Rather than watch employers be picked off one by one, 750 trucking companies declared a general lockout of workers on April 9. Advantage Teamsters. Maybe it didn’t mean a lot in the end, but in a way Peick had gone from being the bad guy threatening a strike to the good guy whose people were locked out of their jobs. If nothing else, it helped the morale of his members.
As days became weeks and weeks became months, where was I? In the middle of it. I was my newspaper’s go-to guy, there at every nip and tuck. I can find 44 bylines over this 12-week period. Many more stories didn’t bear my name. I’d visit Louie at his office on the West Side, and the chief negotiator for the truckers north of the Loop, careful to be sure I didn’t step over any line into advocacy.
Here’s what that experience did for me: Make me confident that I could tackle any subject, if I gave enough of myself to learning its intricacies. When you’re 26 years old and under this kind of competitive stress, with editors hounding you for copy and fearing what Jim Strong of the Tribune might be learning that you are not, you grow up quickly. I loved every minute of it. A great deal of my satisfaction came from being able to discern the tactics employed by both sides in this economic struggle and explaining it in plain language to readers of the newspaper.
All wars end, eventually. This conflict became a war of attrition. Six weeks into it, I wrote that thousands of idled Teamsters had applied for food stamps. But it was the employers who finally ran up the white flag. On June 2, the two sides agreed upon a $1.65-an-hour settlement spread across three years, a nickel less than what the Teamsters had sought when the fireworks started. So great was the influence of this settlement that the Teamsters’ national leadership said its pending agreement for over-the-road truckers would be amended to match what the Chicago Teamsters achieved.
I loved those months in my life. I swam in the competitive challenges, I reveled in my stories that explained, puzzle piece by puzzle piece, what was going on. And, frankly, I loved the attention.
So much of daily journalism is situational. I would remain at the Sun-Times another year on the labor beat, before moving elsewhere, and I don’t think Peick and I ever spoke again, because we didn’t need to. That Christmas came a case of expensive booze from the Joint Council of Teamsters, which I returned with regrets. Still, and all, never since have I met someone with the interpersonal and negotiating skills exceeding those of high school-educated Louis Peick.