• U.S.

LABOR: Both Barrels

3 minute read

Almost alone among big U.S. corporations, Montgomery Ward fought off unions with unrelenting vigor. But when Louis Wolfson launched his attempt to take over the company, James R. Hoffa, rough, tough vice president of Dave Beck’s A.F.L. Teamsters’ Union, saw an opportunity to tighten the screws on aging Ward President Sewell Avery, who is desperately trying to hold onto control.

To Jimmy Hoffa, 41, pressure tactics is a way of life. In 1936 he quit a grocery clerk’s job to start organizing for the Detroit teamsters’ locals. With most of the area’s teamsters already signed up when he joined, Hoffa looked for new fields to conquer; he threatened to cut off deliveries to some Detroit retailers, thus organized their clerks. By 1946 he was top dog of Detroit’s 87,000 teamsters. In 1953 a House committee examined his rule of the Michigan teamsters, found “racketeering, extortion and gangsterism.” Along the way, Labor Leader Hoffa (annual income: a reported $30,000) also picked up part ownership in a brewery, a trotting track and summer camps.

Against Ward, Hoffa mounted a double-barreled attack. While organizers signed up union members in Ward warehouses, Hoffa, as trustee of three union pension funds, began buying Ward stock. Early this year. Hoffa dropped hints that his men had talked to Wolfson and would vote the 13,500 shares of union-owned stock against Avery. Knowing that Avery could not afford a strike in the closing days of his fight with Wolfson, Hoffa got his new members at Ward’s to approve a walkout.

Last week in Chicago, Sewell Avery capitulated. As Hoffa looked on, Avery and Teamster President Dave Beck signed the first companywide union contract in Ward’s history. When the bitter moment arrived, Sewell Avery, who once forced Franklin Roosevelt to order him carried out of his own office rather than deal with a union, acted as though it was not so hard to take after all. As photographers swarmed into his office, Avery playfully rubbed Beck’s bald head, looked pleased as Punch when the union leader said: “You’ve got more hair than I have.”

In the new contract, Avery recognized the Teamsters as bargaining agent for Ward’s 15,000 warehousemen (not affected are some 37,000 clerks and retail employees). Further, he agreed to boost the warehousemen’s wages 3¢ to 5¢ an hour. In addition, the contract calls for a maintenance-of-membership arrangement, sets up grievance machinery and formalizes current vacation benefits. Calling off the strike threat, Dave Beck announced that the union would cast its proxies for Avery.

When all of the terms had been announced and the picture-taking was over, Avery suggested that “Dave” drop by for lunch some day. Said Avery: “It’s been a nice party.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com