Breaking legs and organizing workers: a Teamster reviews Scorsese’s “The Irishman”

Isaac, formerly a Teamster at UPS and alternate shop steward, reviews Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman for Organizing Work.

When I was a UPS Teamster in Baltimore, our business agent was a bitter divorced alcoholic old fuck named Eric. He came by the job honestly, working his way up from being a driver, and he was fiercely loyal to local president Denis Taylor. Local 355 was Denis’s personal fiefdom; he ran unopposed every election, and he surrounded himself with guys who were unquestionably his guys. Watching Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman reminded me a hell of a lot of Eric and Denis.  

One time in the parking lot outside our hub, a worker shot and killed another worker. The two men had been in an argument about seniority because the younger guy resented having to leave first. He waited for the older guy outside, wanting to fight. He didn’t know the older guy had a gun in his pickup truck. Long story short, the senior worker claimed self-defense and beat the murder charge. UPS tried to fire him and there was a grievance hearing.  The union won, and he KEPT HIS JOB. Eric represented him, and Eric was a union man through and through — he impressed me with both his dedication, and his total amorality. “I think our guy was in the right,” he shrugged. “Y’know… seniority.”

The Irishman is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, which follows the life of union rep and mob hitman Frank Sheeran. When Bill Bufalino (played by everybody-loves-Raymond) represents a young Frank (Robert DeNiro), it’s like he’s channeling Eric. In the first flashback scene — the whole story is told in flashbacks — Frank is a corrupt Teamster driver for a meatpacking plant in south Philly. He has a racket going where he’s hustling off his job, selling sides of beef to the local mafia. “Did you do it?” Bill asks him straight up. “I don’t care if you did it — I’m here to protect you.”

Joe Pesci is perfectly cast as Russell Bufalino, head of the Bufalino crime family, who takes Frank under his wing and teaches him about the Philadelphia underworld. He grooms Frank for a life in the mob, and eventually gives him the opportunity to start “painting houses” (killing people). The star-studded cast also includes Al Pacino chewing up the scenery as Jimmy Hoffa, Stephen Graham as the famously mobbed-up New Jersey Teamster boss Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, Anna Paquin as Frank’s estranged daughter Peggy, a cameo by Harvey Keitel as Pesci’s mobster predecessor Angelo Bruno, and that creepy blonde guy who played Todd on “Breaking Bad” as Hoffa’s spiritual son Chuck O’Brien.

For the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, stories about the life and death of Jimmy Hoffa are practically a creation myth. Retired guys at the union hall all have an opinion about where his body is. His asshole son Jimmy Hoffa, Jr still runs the union to this day, after getting elected based on his last name despite never having been a union member. Hoffa Senior’s only marketable skills in life were breaking legs and organizing workers. After leading the “Strawberry Boys” strike against Kroger’s as a teenager, he was hired as an organizer in Detroit’s Local 299 based partly on his charisma but mostly on his martial prowess. He was sent to participate in the autoworkers’ 1936 sit-down strikes as the leader of a flying squadron armed with blackjacks and baseball bats. His mentors included Farrell Dobbs, a Socialist Workers Party leader from Minneapolis, who he worked under in the Teamsters’ central states over-the-road trucking campaign. The young Hoffa absorbed all of Dobbs’ militancy and ruthlessness, and none of his socialism. His campaign to organize Detroit’s Jewish-owned laundromats consisted mostly of bombing the ones who wouldn’t recognize the union.

The Irishman alludes to this history when Frank is hired to blow up a laundromat in Delaware. This turns out to be a big mistake, as it’s owned by Russell Bufalino’s business partner Angelo Bruno (Keitel). Bufalino saves Frank’s life by talking to Bruno, drawing Frank deeper into his debt and cementing his loyalty.

As Frank rises through the ranks of the mob, Bufalino gives him a day job as a Teamster organizer for cover. It isn’t long before Hoffa takes notice of him, and invites him to Chicago to bomb the cars of a non-union taxi company. The two men become close friends, going on family outings together, and Frank quickly becomes one of Hoffa’s most trusted right-hand men. His young daughter Peggy takes a particular shine to Hoffa, even though she’s scared and mistrustful of her dad’s other criminal friends.

One major thread running through the (three-and-a-half-hour-long!) movie is Peggy’s deteriorating relationship with Frank. She’s a smart kid and she has a pretty good idea of what her father does for a living, although he never talks about it.

I’m not going to give away the entire plot, but the movie covers a LOT of historical ground. There’s some really entertaining speculation about mafia involvement in the Bay of Pigs and the JFK assassination. One of the funniest devices Scorsese uses is a freeze frame whenever a new crooked Teamster official is introduced, with text describing each one’s eventual violent death. I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to tell you Al Pacino doesn’t make it in the end.

As a union member, what struck me most about the film was how little the culture of the Teamsters has changed. The feds have long since cleaned out the mafia, but a residual mafioso-ness is still baked into the DNA of the union. The cronyism, the emphasis on personal loyalty, the hyper-masculinity, the faux-Italian accents on motherfuckers who aren’t even Italian.

In 2017, Hoffa’s shitty kid appointed our local president Denis Taylor as director of the Parcel Division. This meant he was in charge of negotiating the master contract that covers all 260,000 UPS workers in the US. There was record turnout for the contract vote. 48% of all the workers voted, and the “No”s won by a 54% margin. The workers rejected Denis’s concessionary contract loud and clear.

Denis invoked a rule in the Teamsters constitution that says if less than 50% of the bargaining unit votes, the contract can be imposed anyway… even if the “No”s won. UPS even released a statement that same night saying they were willing to return to the table. Denis implemented the contract anyway. Morale on the shop floor was at an all-time low. What was the point of even voting?

Eric, if you’re reading this, I haven’t forgotten about that grievance I still have in the pipeline for the back pay I never got.

Denis, I hope somebody gets you a fucking trip to Australia.