The Teamsters---Will Reality TV Be Stranger than Fiction?

A version of this piece first appeared at Working In These Times.

From "Jersey Shore" to the short-lived "All-American Muslim" to the glitzier "Shahs of Sunset," there seems to be no ethnic community left untouched by the national carny show known as reality TV. Always dissed or ignored by the mass media, the multi-ethnic enclave of organized labor might have been the last holdout against letting it all hang out in this shamelessly exhibitionist genre.

But that’s about to change, quite possibly for the worse. A&E Television Networks is filming a pilot called "The Teamsters." Reality TV will zero in on a local tribe that I know well—the Irish—thanks to my great-grandfather, who fled potato-less County Leitrim for Boston more than 160 years ago.

The new series will focus on members of Teamsters Local 25, a union with a long, colorful, and sometimes troubled history with the entertainment industry. Native son Mark Wahlberg, the son of a Teamster, is collaborating on the project with Stephen Levinson; the two worked together on "Entourage."

An IBT Contender?

The ambitious young labor leader who will be featured in "The Teamsters" is Sean O’Brien, a good buddy of Wahlberg and Cambridge homeboy Ben Affleck. Sean is a second-generation Local 25 member whose career was nurtured by his well-connected father. He sports a shaved head, has demonstrated some media savvy of his own, and is popular with many rank and filers in his local. He’s also a recent addition to the Teamsters International (IBT) executive board, where he’s been a loyal supporter of President James Hoffa.

The 70-year-old Hoffa has yet to comment publicly on how he feels about the media spotlight shifting abruptly to another “Teamster junior,” much younger and more photogenic than himself. It’s widely known, locally and nationally, that O’Brien wants to be International president; he’d be the third Local 25 president, since the IBT’s founding, to serve there. The subtitle of Wahlberg’s show could well be "The Making of a President."

But it’s not clear that becoming the next Snooki is the best career move for a would-be national union leader. Given the local cast of characters and the out-of-town talent involved in "The Teamsters," there’s some risk that previous Hollywood conceptions of blue-collar Boston will get all moshed together in ways that will not enhance labor’s image, increase public understanding of what unions do, or even boost Brother O’Brien’s upward mobility in the IBT.

Marky Mark No More

Once better known locally—in his saggy pants and rapper days—as “Marky Mark,” co-producer Wahlberg has spent much of his acting career playing blue-collar guys in eastern Massachusetts. In "The Perfect Storm," he was part of a doomed fishing crew that never made it back to Gloucester. In "The Departed," he was a hard-ass Boston police sergeant caught up in the plotting of Irish mobsters and dirty cops.

Most recently, Wahlberg starred in "The Fighter," the story of a hard-luck junior welterweight from nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, his overweening Irish-Catholic mother, and drugged-up ex-pug brother. This much better treatment of working-class life, warts and all, upheld the local filmmaking tradition of "Good Will Hunting" and "Mystic River."

The movie crew of Teamsters Local 25 represents a small minority of its 11,000 members. But it had a big hand in making all of these films, and many more, both good and bad. Local 25 members drove the wardrobe trailers used by visiting stars, chauffeured them around town, and otherwise did quite a bit of well-paid hanging about while the cameras rolled.

But Hollywood’s love affair with Boston as an affordable place to shoot has run hot and cold over the years, depending on how much the companies have ran afoul of Teamster cronyism, payroll padding, and other forms of union corruption.

The much-publicized misbehavior of Local 25 insiders, who worked on local movie sets in the past, never reflected well on the thousands of honest, hard-working drivers and freight handlers employed at UPS and other firms. For that reason alone, let’s hope that Wahlberg keeps his Local 25 historical flashbacks to a bare minimum.

One legendary Local 25 “transportation coordinator,” the much investigated but never indicted James P. Flynn, wangled bit parts for himself, as a criminal court judge in "Good Will Hunting" and as a crew leader of Jamaican apple pickers in "Cider House Rules."

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Flynn could have been better suited for a role in Ben Affleck’s "The Town." That 2010 film was set in Charlestown, the once gritty Boston neighborhood where Local 25 has its headquarters. As movie viewers learned, a few “Townies” used to specialize in armored car robberies.

Charlestown was known for its “code of silence,” when the police came knocking about who might have pulled off the latest Brinks job. As union-bashing Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr never failed to observe, “the Hibernian Highwaymen” responsible sometimes included card-carrying members of Local 25.

Real Life in The Town

O’Brien’s predecessor as Local 25 president was George Cashman, an equally ambitious, self-styled “New Teamster” who once saw himself as a future national leader of the IBT, too. Cashman was elected in 1991 as a reformer who was going to change the practices that led to movie crew scandals during the tenure of William McCarthy, the old guard Local 25 leader who was briefly national president in the late 1980s. Unlike O'Brien, Cashman came up the hard way; when he dared to challenge the old leadership, a McCarthy supporter pushed him down the stairs at the local union hall and broke his leg.

But more than a decade into his presidency, Cashman had clearly reached an unsavory truce with Local 25 leg-breakers. The Teamsters became the subject of extensive reporting in the Boston Globe about the continuing problems of Hollywood studios and local independent filmmakers. A federal grand jury was convened to investigate allegations of movie crew shakedowns that caused some production companies to boycott Boston.

Both local newspapers were soon running stories about the use of union pressure tactics to hire convicted bank robbers, several of whom were implicated in the slaying of two armored car drivers. In one notorious incident, Flynn allegedly authorized the roughing up of IATSE member Susan Christy when she balked at turning over her movie set snack-truck concession to one of his cronies.

In response to bad ink—like the Herald editorial charging that Cashman “and the thugs he allowed to operate in Local 25 just about killed any hope of movie-making [in Massachusetts]”—Cashman made several pilgrimages to L.A. to patch things up with the industry.

His Republican pal, Governor Paul Cellucci, offered incentives like public funding of a movie sound stage. Both before and after he was hit with a multi-count federal indictment, Cashman vigorously denied that he was personally guilty of any wrongdoing. In 2003, however, he and his Local 25 vice-president pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud, and/or extortion.

As part of the plea deal that reduced his time in jail, Cashman admitted arranging for 19 non-eligible people to be covered by the union medical plan. Among the friends of Local 25 who received this costly favor was John “Mick” Murray, a convicted bank robber and much-feared associate of mobster Whitey Bulger. In his own bid for leniency, Thomas DiSilva, the Local 25 employer implicated in the health care scam, told federal prosecutors about illegal payments that Cashman received from his trucking company and another firm that owed money to a Teamster pension plan.

Cashman himself was not required to cooperate with the feds in any further probing of the movie crew, which managed to escape further indictments.

A mere 10 years later, Local 25 officials await their 15 minutes of fame. One longtime Boston truck driver, a Teamster who did not want to be identified, is worried about A&E’s project. “What if Local 25 looks too much like Teamsters of the past?” he asks. “Is this movie thing just going to be a puff piece for Sean, polishing his image for a run as international president?”

In any TV show about unions, he said, “we would want the members to be front and center. The workplace leaders—the stewards—would be shown organizing, defending workers’ rights, and fighting against employers, while at the same time disagreeing, when necessary, with their own higher-level elected union officials.”

Whether A&E is up to that task remains to be seen. If not, when "The Teamsters" airs, there may be some labor viewers, inside and outside of Local 25, longing for the good old days when the “code of silence” still prevailed in Charlestown.


Steve Early worked as a Boston-area union representative for nearly 30 years and actively supported Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009) and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011). He can be reached at Lsupport [at] aol [dot] com.

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Steve Early
Steve Early is a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee. He can be reached at lsupport@aol.com

Comments

upsteamster (not verified) | 03/26/12

I just wish you(Steve Early) would watch the show first before trashing it. You may not like whom it is featuring, but I am interested in viewing it.

I have heard many good things about Sean O'Brien and will be watching this program.

All this back and forth name calling is a waste of time.

Evil (not verified) | 03/26/12

What local do you belong to UPSTEAMSTER?

Unless your from the Boston area you don't know much about the Wonder Boy. He is two faced and will tell you what you wan to hear.

He was supporting Sandy Pope before Hoffa bribed him with the International position he originally demanded. And this is a fact. Some of the officers that had been upset including the Wonder Boy all considered backing either Sandy Pope or Fred Gegare.

Before Local 82 was trusteed the Wonder Boy was in good standing with Perry and his goons. Hoffa tried to protect Perry but he got over his head when they kicked the crap out of that cop. He went overboard and Hoffa couldn't protect his sorry ass anymore. But everyone knows Perry was one of Hoffa's favorites. So when the IRB recommended 82 be put into trusteeship Hoffa didn't hesitate. To secure the Wonder Boy's support, he told him before anyone that he was merging 82 into 25. The Wonder Boy saw nothing but dollar signs. Oh and guess what? They all backstabbed their crooked brother Perry with it. That's what the old guard knows how to do best.

Let's not forget about Hoffa's good friend and brother Bill Hogan from the windy city who ran on the his ticket in 1996 and his son Bobby who were caught with their crooked partner in crime Dane Passo with their hands in the cookie jar? Dane Passo became the poster child of Coli's goon squad in Chicago and Hoffa loved it.

Don't forget that all of these guys have been and are good friend's with the Wonder Boy.

Wondering Why (not verified) | 03/26/12

There is something you and Steve Early are just too dumb to understand--our Union leaders aren't running around constantly trying to stab each other in the back in an endless game of betrayal and palace intrigue. Believe it or not, Ken Hall, John Coli, Sean O'Brien and Becky Strzechowski are all GOOD FRIENDS and ALLIES who are working together for the betterment of our Union.

I know TDU is run differently and Sandy Pope is a shameless self-promoter who wanted no part of sharing her limelight with a slate. Teamster members saw through Sandy Pope and rejected her in historic fashion. You see, unlike TDU, most of our brothers and sisters still have faith in the "Team" part of the Teamsters.

Instead of working to help build our Union and work for the betterment of the "team", you choose to slander our leaders and insult their children. Steve Early went one better and takes cheap shots at Sean's father who died of a heart attack last month after a 16-hour shift at work. But hey, that's just how you guys roll, right?

"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." -Rev. Dr. MLK Jr.

Wondering Why (not verified) | 03/25/12

By the way Steve, the Teamsters already have their own version of Snooki --Her name is Sandy Pope. If you've never heard of her she can be seen on FoxNews where she is a regular on Neil Cavuto's show as an example of how weak and ineffectual labor's leaders are today. Here she is advocating for New York public employees to take a cut in pensions and benefits. Go Sandy!

http://mms.tveyes.com/Transcript.asp?StationID=2025&DateTime=3%2F13%2F20...

Wondering Why (not verified) | 03/25/12

Sean O'Brien is a FOURTH GENERATION Teamster.

O'Brien started with the Teamsters on a rubbish truck, if that's coming up the "easy" way, how does the college-educated Trotskyite Steve Early characterize the way he himself came up??

O'Brien is building something in Boston. He is inspiring members to the point where 1000 members attend the local's monthly meetings. All Early knows how to do is tear things down...And he isn't even any good at that.

Effete intellectuals like Early have as much in common with working class people as the Koch brothers. If readers are wondering how the labor movement got into the dire straits it's in today, look no further than fake blue-collar journos like Early who attack young leaders like O'Brien who are the movement's only hope.

Keep up the good work Steve!

Evil (not verified) | 03/26/12

Hey Wonderer you don't seem to know much about Wonder Boy.

Early says that Wonder Boy Sean OBrien was "a loyal Hoffa supporter". That's not what I heard a year ago. I heard from many Hoffa camp insiders, that Sean O'Brien gave him and ultimatum and told Hoffa that if O'Brien wasn't asked to be an International Vice President on Hoffa's slate, O'Brien would support Sandy Pope at the 2011 Teamsters convention. This was made clear. Someone else said he had flirting with Fred Gegare but I don't know how much that was true. As a matter of fact I was present on the convention floor when Juan Campos of 705 talked to O'Brien and asked him if he was still sticking to his promise to support Sandy Pope at the convention. The Wonder Boy didn't answer.

Hoffa was so worried about O'Brien flipping that he made him a better offer for his support before the convention. In their last meeting before endorsing him, Hoffa convinced O'Brien by telling him that he was merging Local 82 into Local 25. When the Wonder Boy heard the news he saw nothing but dollar signs. And in January of this year without the vote of the member of 82, we got merged into dirty 25.

That's the way the old guard roles in this union. Lots of shady stuff went on in Las Vegas last year. The Teamsters are no different now then we were 30 years ago.

Wondering Why (not verified) | 03/26/12

You Local 82 TDU bozos are just like Early, you do more to tear down union people than build them up--and you do it with lies.

Everything you posted is a lie, just like reading your smears on Teamster.net. If O'Brien was undecided up until the convention on who he would support, why had he already raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Hoffa-Hall slate, more than anybody in the union??? Why did O'Brien gather more signatures for the Hoffa-Hall slate than anyone in the union??? So he could run with Gegare or Pope?? Sure thing Einstein.

Even an "evil" idiot like you knows you don't fundraise for your opponent, right? O'Brien NEVER told Juan Campos he would support Sandy Pope. The only thing O'Brien ever told Campos at the convention was that Juan wasn't being loyal to his boss Steve Pocztowski by playing footsie with Sandy while STeve was running on the Hoffa slate. And there was no deal for Local 25 to get 82, but be honest, if Local 82 members could have voted for what local to join, are you telling me they wouldn't have wanted 25? Contracts are finally being enforced, members are paying their dues on time and there is finally some accountability. Maybe the 15 TDU rats like yourself didn't want to go into 25, but you are the minority.

But keep complaining. I just hope you don't have kids who grow up learning that it's better to lie about people and talk about how bad everything is instead of working together with your brothers and sisters to change things for the better.

Evil (not verified) | 03/26/12

What do you have to say about Becky Strzechowski being appointed as a Central Region International Vice President for the next five years. She's just another dirty old guard officer from dirty JC 25. Coli gave her his own creation Local 700 and merged 726 and the Hogan's 714 in 2010. Do you remember? Her appointment strengthens Coli's political power within the Teamster International. She made $274,032 in 2010. How much did the Wonder Boy make? Ken Hall, better watch his back because Coli has his own lucrative ambitions. I'm sure the Wonder Boy would back Coli over Hall to take over. After all Coli is a master of nepotism, he's gotten his fat kids on board there in his dirty JC. And lets not forget that Sean "the Wonder Boy" O'brien is a product of nepotism. You've said it yourself, he's a 4 generation Teamster. I guess the Teamsters are becoming as nepotistic as the Long Shoremen's Union. The Wonder Boy is no different then the Hoffa's, Coli's, Hogans etc. They come first, their families and buddies second and the members dead last. And Local 25 is as dirty or dirtier then 82.

Wondering Why (not verified) | 03/26/12

There is something you and Steve Early are just too dumb to understand--our Union leaders aren't running around constantly trying to stab each other in the back in an endless game of betrayal and palace intrigue. Believe it or not, Ken Hall, John Coli, Sean O'Brien and Becky Strzechowski are all GOOD FRIENDS and ALLIES who are working together for the betterment of our Union.

I know TDU is run differently and Sandy Pope is a shameless self-promoter who wanted no part of sharing her limelight with a slate. Teamster members saw through Sandy Pope and rejected her in historic fashion. You see, unlike TDU, most of our brothers and sisters still have faith in the "Team" part of the Teamsters.

Instead of working to help build our Union and work for the betterment of the "team", you choose to slander our leaders and insult their children. Steve Early went one better and takes cheap shots at Sean's father who died of a heart attack last month after a 16-hour shift at work. But hey, that's just how you guys roll, right?

"We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools." -Rev. Dr. MLK Jr.