He is as chunky as ever and just as excitable, especially when bellowing about how he and his union faced a vendetta of foes of the labor movement and Robert Kennedy. At 84, ex-Teamsters war-horse Dave Beck has lost none of his gift for being gabby and evasive at the same time.
He claims, for example, to know what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, his hand-picked successor who disappeared three years ago. Was it the Mob? “Sure, they murdered him,” snaps Beck, “but I don’t know who.” Perhaps it’s all part of a come-on to build interest in his authorized biography, by writer John D. McCallum, due out next month. Topics will include Popes he knew (three), and Presidents. Harry Truman offered him the Secretaryship of Labor, says Beck, “but I turned him down twice.” Then there was Jerry Ford, who granted him a full pardon in 1975 after his conviction for falsifying union tax returns. But in the early 1960s Beck did 30 months at McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. To hear him tell it, prison added 10 years to his life through regular hours, three squares a day and a job in the warehouse. “I lost about 18 pounds—it was the greatest vacation I ever had.”
Beck’s turbulent labor career began in 1911 driving a laundry truck in Seattle. After Navy service in World War I, he became a protégé of Teamsters boss Dan Tobin and helped build the union into America’s largest (current membership: 2 million). When Tobin retired in 1952, Beck took over. His troubles began five years later when Bobby Kennedy, counsel of the Senate rackets committee, accused him of 52 counts of malfeasance. At the hearings Beck invoked the Fifth Amendment more than 200 times. His Teamsters were booted out of the AFL-CIO and other charges followed—all of which Dave denies “on my mother’s grave.” “It was politics,” he says.
But if prison ended Beck’s power, it barely dented his finances. He remains a millionaire and draws a $50,000 annual Teamsters pension. Twice a widower, he lives in a 12th-floor apartment in a Seattle building of gently fading elegance. He keeps fit by jogging (2.8 miles in 55 minutes) and by working out daily on his exercise machine. He never misses a home game of the Seattle baseball Mariners and keeps up with the news. He’s patently unenthusiastic about Hoffa’s replacement, Frank Fitzsimmons, and thinks the Teamsters were mistaken in taking on Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers in 1975. He no longer has an active union role, though, he says, “I’m always available.” Is he lonely? “I’m busier now,” insists Dave Beck, “than when I was president of the International.”