Robert Bussel is a professor of history and director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. He answered some questions about his book Fighting for Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working-Class Citizenship.
Q: What is “Total Person Unionism?”
Robert Bussel: In their approach to trade unionism, Harold Gibbons and Ernest Calloway insisted that workers were both economic and social beings. Although unions were justifiably concerned about conditions on the job and fighting to improve them, Gibbons and Calloway regarded “the other sixteen hours” workers spent in their communities as equally important. In their view, if the quality of life in one’s community was sub-standard, unions were failing to meet the vital civic, social, and psychological needs of their members as “total persons.” They also saw the opportunity for newly powerful unions to help workers assume an expanded social role beyond the confines of their workplaces.
Gibbons and Calloway believed that the expertise workers gained in their role as unionists could be applied to their lives as citizens in their communities. By establishing a “community stewards” program in the 1950s and a “trade union oriented war on the slums” in the 1960s, they created vehicles that allowed rank-and-file Teamsters to exercise what Calloway described as “full functional citizenship.” Using their shop floor experience of how to use power, pressure, and negotiation to win victories for workers, they applied this knowledge to address major issues in their communities such as transportation, housing, education, public health, juvenile delinquency, and racial injustice.
Q: How did Harold Gibbons and Ernest Calloway come to team up?
Bussel: Gibbons and Calloway first met in Chicago in the late 1930s when Gibbons was working for the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and Calloway had begun working for the United Transport Service Employees (also known as the “redcaps” union). As the story goes, they met in a Chicago bar in 1950, and Gibbons asked Calloway to come to St. Louis for three months to establish a research program for Teamsters Local 688, the union that Gibbons headed. Three months turned into over twenty years, with Calloway assuming multiple roles within the Teamsters and collaborating closely with Gibbons in developing their concept of total person unionism.
Q: What made St. Louis a “laboratory” for the progressive vision of Gibbons and Calloway?
Bussel: During the post-World War II period, St. Louis was experiencing a host of challenges that faced cities across the United States, including inadequate housing, decaying infrastructure, a moribund downtown, and threats to public health. The city’s demographics were also changing rapidly with an influx of African Americans who flocked to St. Louis in search of better opportunities. However, the black community in St. Louis encountered profound structural racism that circumscribed its quest for fair treatment and inclusion.
Deeply committed to the city as an essential source of social vitality and determined to press for racial justice, Gibbons and Calloway strived to make St. Louis a more livable place and overcome what they regarded as the inertia and parochialism of the city’s power elite. Calloway’s role as president of the city’s NAACP chapter in the late 1950s enabled him to wed labor and civil rights concerns, supported by the Teamsters’ growing effectiveness in influencing the political process in St. Louis. Convinced that the union could play a substantive role in addressing the city’s social problems, Gibbons and Calloway proposed ideas for urban revitalization, civic partnerships, economic development, and improved race relations. Although many of their ideas did not come to fruition, their efforts to revive the city and redeem its social promise made their voices influential both in St. Louis and even in national circles.
Q: During this era, the union would engage in the kind of work most would think was the responsibility of municipal government. How did the Teamsters of Local 688 become involved in community affairs?
Bussel: In multiple ways. During the 1950s Local 688 members crafted a plan for school desegregation in St. Louis. Community stewards developed proposals for addressing juvenile delinquency and established programs for teen recreation. The union sought to improve the city’s transportation and sewer systems by passing ballot measures that would centralize administration and permit greater popular oversight of these essential services. Local 688 members and leaders also became integrally involved in seeking to improve housing in St. Louis. They built a senior citizens housing complex that helped revive a decimated area of St. Louis and campaigned to remove racial barriers that limited housing options for African Americans. In the late 1960s, the union actually administered public housing in St. Louis for several years following Harold Gibbons’s successful mediation of a major public housing rent strike. During the same period, the union’s Tandy Area Council aided campaigns for increased social spending, tenants’ rights, and expanded opportunities for African Americans.
Q: What is the legacy of this era of Teamsters Local 688?
Bussel: Under the direction of Gibbons and Calloway, Local 688 helped create or inspire an impressive list of institutions—a metropolitan sewer district, a bi-state public transit agency, a community college system, housing for senior citizens—that demonstrably improved the lives of both union members and St. Louis’s broader working class. Local 688 also played a crucial role in enabling African Americans to uproot St. Louis’s entrenched culture of racial hegemony and helped the city avert the civil disorder that permanently scarred many other urban communities during the 1960s. Although Gibbons and Calloway fell short in their ultimate quest to rejuvenate the post-industrial city, their efforts to introduce “trade union principles in the community at large” made discernible progress in chipping away at racial and class disparities in St. Louis.
More broadly, Gibbons and Calloway’s abiding faith that ordinary people could use their experiences as workers to enhance their roles as citizens perhaps represents Local 688’s most significant legacy. This faith offers hope, in Calloway’s words, for not only for extending “democratic unionism” but also for reviving “democracy itself.”