SENATOR FROM THE TEAMSTERS
The union leader as dedicated careerist
When Senator Ed Lawson of Vancouver flies to Ottawa for his duties in the upper chamber, the taxpayers of Canada provide him with the $280 Air Canada return fare. Economy section. But Ed Lawson also happens to be Canadian director of the international Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America. The Teamsters, being the Teamsters, have a rule that their executives fly only first class. So the Teamsters pick up the $98 difference and Senator Ed Lawson, Teamster, sits up front with the pâté de foie gras and cherries jubilee. Other British Columbia senators flying the same route sit back in steerage.
It fits right in with Ed Lawson’s practised line when offered bait by political parties: “I would never give up the dignity and prestige of a union leader to become a politician.”
At the same time it gives him the confidence to turn down the recent offer of a 10-year, $100,000-a-year position from private industry with another of his maxims: “If employers would simply treat employees fairly and honestly, they’d make unions obsolete. But we can always rely on the imaginative or innovative skills of employers to cheat the employees.” Ed Lawson, with his 1940s' pompadour, bookworm glasses and neat blue suit, which make him look like a school teacher down to the city for a visit, is Canada’s unknown labor leader. He makes more money than any other Canadian union figure and he also happens to be the youngest vice-president of the largest and most powerful union in the world. The only higher spot Ed Lawson can go is as $125,000 head of the big, bad Teamsters, the outcasts of the North American labor movement.
All of which is not bad for a foster home product from Spy Hill, Saskatchewan, who never finished grade 10 and who gives the appearance of a choirboy amidst all those Edward G. Robinson-suited heavies at the plush Teamster conventions in Miami Beach and Hawaii, since Edward doesn’t smoke and positively gags át the taste of firewater.
It’s not hard to understand how 42-year-old Lawson has escaped public consciousness in Canada. It’s not too many labor leaders — at least not too many Canadian labor leaders — who like to golf with publishers and celebrities, who spend their lunches in expensive restaurants with lawyers and columnists and like to sit around passing on anecdotes with corporate types.
The concept of the cigar-chewing, beer-bellied labor boss of course is out of date. But, still, Lawson is a bit different. One gets the impression sometimes that he never sees anyone with a checked mackinaw and high yellow boots that lace past the ankle. He undoubtedly could make a living as an afterdinner speaker specializing in acerbic one-liners, and there are federal and provincial cabinets that would like to have him.
The fact is, however, that the dapper young man controls 60,000 Teamsters in Canada, the linchpin union that can make or break so many other strikes, and he is proceeding on a 10year plan for a national trucking agreement which would give the Teamsters the same power over the economy that their two million tough brethren impose on the U.S. If you haven’t got the Teamsters, goes the old union refrain, you haven’t got a strike.
The senator with the $50,000-plus income sits in his Teamster office at an unfashionable address on the east side of Vancouver, a faint smile playing around his mouth as he anticipates another interviewer’s question. The couch is gold, the rug blue, the walls covered in grass cloth and paneled rosewood. William Manchester’s The Death Of A President sits on his bookshelf beside Report Of The Task Force On Labor Relations. Lawson could pass muster, in looks, as an accountant. But he has quick, decisive movements, his eyes darting continuously behind his horn-rimmed glasses, his words swift and unequivocal, that smile flickering on and off.
There’s no doubt that the mere mention of the Teamsters, with all its Brando On The Waterfront image, sends a shiver of revulsion through a Canadian public that has watched from afar the jail sentences of big fat Dave Beck and tough little Jimmy Hoffa, the last two Teamster bosses.
Lawson is amused at the knee-jerk reaction that there is automatically something crooked about the Teamsters. Perhaps it’s something the public wants to believe, but he likes to cite the record which shows something somewhat different. Of 8,000 paid representatives of the Teamsters, he points out, five have been removed from office for committing felonies. By comparison the Vancouver legal profession alone is eight times more corrupt.
Going further, “our records indicate” that more members of the clergy are convicted of serious crimes than are union officials. Bankers, those silver-templed pillars of the community? It is to laugh, laughs Ed Lawson. He can cite figures showing that more money has been embezzled from banks in any five-year period than in the whole history of the labor movement of more than 50 years.
Hoffa, who was making mattresses in a Pennsylvania penitentiary before being released last year after serving five years of a 13-year sentence for jury-tampering and pension fraud? “If Hoffa had been a murderer, he would have been out of jail far sooner. Because he’s a Teamster, he stayed in. Bobby Kennedy and John Kennedy took political advantage of him. There’s no doubt about that at all.”
But why go on? Lawson marshals his facts and bangs them down, bites them off, to a service-club banquet or newspaper guest column or panel on labor relations. He’s a forceful, decisive speaker with an agile, witty mind that can more than hold its own with the university products he encounters and fights to a standstill on platform after platform. That high-powered guest speaker list at the hundredth anniversary of the Canadian Manufacturers Association in Toronto? There was the little grade-10 dropout, one of the major participants along with then CPR chairman Buck Crump, global thinker Buckminster Fuller, Ford of Canada president Roy Bennett and other such luminaries. His method, often as not, is to let his listeners know right off that he holds them in no awe, that here is no cap-tugging foreman from the masses grateful for the chance to break bread with the mighty.
Here is Vancouver Ed, dashing in late, direct from the airport, to the head table before a stuffy Canadian Club luncheon in the Hotel Vancouver. “Is there someone here from Canada Safeway?” he asks as he rises to speak. “Good. I always like to have people present when I carve them up.” He proceeds to carve up Canada Safeway and then tears into the Vancouver Sun, which has a representative — at Lawson’s invitation — at the head table.
Here is Ottawa Ed, in from Chicago on the way to Vancouver, proudly showing a visitor his new office in the Senate which enables him to nip into the chamber by a short-cut staircase just beneath the Speaker. (In his maiden speech, he refuted the charge by Quebec Senator Jacques Flynn that the first thing the Teamsters would do would be to try to organize the Senate. “It is the policy of our union,” replied Lawson, “to organize only the downtrodden and underprivileged.”)
Here is Teamster Ed, tooling around Vancouver in his Ford station wagon, calling into a radio hot-line on his car phone to explain a Teamster dispute, checking with his secretary on yet another flight to union headquarters in Washington, DC.
Lawson fits very well the concept of the Teamsters, the so-called “businessmen’s union,” who want their representatives out in the marketplace, not sulking in some union hall. “It’s harder to call a union leader an s.o.b. if he just conceded a three-foot putt,” says Lawson.
"IF HOFFA HAD BEEN A MURDERER HE'D HAVE BEEN OUT OF JAIL SOONER"
The key to the Teamsters is that they are so much an American union, wedded to mobility, that they see nothing incongruous in a union man voting Republican. It is such a contrast to our unions, founded on Old Country traditions and still with that instinctive Keir Hardie cloth-cap image with its class warfare underlay. There is still a trace of the belief that there is something uncomfortable about talking with the boss.
The Teamsters prosper (their membership has been increasing, not decreasing, since the Hoffa-era scandals) because they talk the same tough, pragmatic language as their corporate “adversaries.” Their proudest boast is that having once agreed to a contract, they stick to it. “Even if it’s a bad contract,” says Lawson, “it must be enforced not only by management but by the members.”
Here is Teamster Ed, sitting in that office in far-off Vancouver, examining the message on the Teamster teletype: “Local Union No. 170, Worcester, Massachusetts, has requested approval of out-of-work benefits.”
Back on the teletype to Teamster president Frank Fitzsimmons in Washington goes the message: “I vote yes outof-work benefits Local Union No. 170, Worcester, Massachusetts, to cover approximately 254 members employed by Melville Shoe Corp. (Auburn warehouse) and approximately 762 members of Local 170 who could become involved.” It is signed, “Senator E. Lawson, vice-president.” Not Ed Lawson. Senator E. Lawson.
Here is Senator Ed, a few minutes later answering a call from Ottawa which seeks his counsel on appointments to the committee that will distribute the $80-million federal help provided for industries hurt by President Nixon’s 10% surcharge. Now the advice is flowing the other way across the border.
It’s a skillful tightrope performance, balancing between the demands of his American superiors, his Senate responsibilities and the requirements of his Canadian union members. Lawson is exceptionally adroit at it. He has that distinctively American quality of the appropriate crack for every occasion, the ability of instant comradeship without revealing what’s beneath the surface. The latest jokes are there, to be passed along. The apt anecdote is ready to melt the ice. If multi-national corporations are to take over the economy of the future, Ed Lawson is the international labor leader of the future as he drops references to the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, the Century Plaza in Los Angeles and recalls the latest bon mot from the Trudeau supergroup.
His urbanity and his penchant for mixing with high names in high places are just some of the reasons why Ed Lawson is so disliked by other labor leaders in British Columbia.
“He’s the darling of the business community,” is one of the milder comments from Ray Haynes, secretary-treasurer of the BC Federation of Labor.
Broadcaster Jack Webster, who refers to him on the air as “the Senator from the Teamsters,” says, “Lawson is the brightest high-school dropout in the country. He lives by the old Samuel Gompers maxim of rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies. That’s why he’s a senator. He’s the least socialist labor leader in BC.”
Syd Thompson, president of the Vancouver Labor Council, says, “It would be better if he became a full-time senator. It would be a lot better for the labor movement. That’s all I care to say.” Thompson has reason to be careful of his comments. His last outburst, labeling Lawson a “Judas” and a “labor faker,” resulted in a $3,500 slander judgment in BC Supreme Court.
The peculiar ferocity of the slanging matches between BC labor leaders is undoubtedly hard to understand elsewhere in the country. Feuds that would make the back pages of union organs in other provinces are standard page-one news in Vancouver papers. It has its roots in the fact that BC is the most unionized province (43% of its workers are organized compared to the Canadian average of 30%). The passions of socialism have always run deeper in BC, where the CCF/ NDP has waited in vain more than 30 years now as the official Opposition. Socalled traitors to the cause are viewed more traitorously, with pure venom.
Lawson’s Teamsters, of course, are outside all other labor groupings — they were expelled from the Canadian Labor Congress in 1960, just as Hoffa’s Teamsters were booted from the AFL-CIO in 1957 — and Lawson holds his public adversaries in equal contempt.
“There’s a reverse snobbery present in so much of the labor movement — the feeling that there’s something wrong in mixing with management. Me, I try to learn from the other guy. I can’t see sitting around telling each other how perfect we are. By some strange process people are supposed to wake up in the morning and know all the good things that labor has done. Surely it makes better sense to go out and test your policies.”
It’s hard to determine where Teamster thinking leaves off and Lawson thinking begins as he explains that his union’s philosophy has always been to work with the party in power, of whatever political persuasion. “I don’t hold with the socialist philosophy that better glorious defeat than reasonable compromise.”
The BC Federation tie-in with the New Democratic Party, of course, merely heightens the scorn with which Lawson views other unions. “I have no right to bind our members to any political party. I couldn’t deliver them anyway,” is his final practical proof. To the Teamsters, pragmatism is god. That same pragmatism has forced Lawson in recent months to back away slightly from his vow that he would never align himself with the NDP-supporting unions. New Social Credit labor legislation has brought the admission that his union will “probably” oppose Socred members seeking reelection.
Lawson’s disdain for left-wing dogmatism does not dilute his belief in the essential blindness of the management class: “Every benefit possessed by the labor force was conceived through the unions and not through management. The employer has lost the advantage of having given these benefits. He has had to have them extracted from him.”
The general public respect he has earned in BC has come from his genuinely progressive views in the field of labor relations, a field too often dominated on the one side by neanderthals from the old cloth-cap school and on the other by latter-day robber barons — of which a primary resource province such as BC still has a few.
Strikes, Lawson says, are “a public declaration that the parties aren’t mature, intelligent or reasonable enough to
settle their problems any other way.” Labor and management negotiating teams look on their task as a battle of wits, “for which most of them are only half-armed.”
He’s been a long-standing advocate of a central pool of highly paid skilled mediators who can be called in to settle labor disputes before they reach the strike stage. He points out the futility of provincial governments appointing $8,000to-$ 10,000 mediators to settle a dispute involving Teamsters who are being paid $12,000 to $15,000. The public is fed up with both labor and management teams
which approach the bargaining table “in the haggling spirit of gypsy bazaar merchants.”
This wonderful eye for the quote and his witty style provide an effective smokescreen for the fact that Lawson, the businesslike labor man, manages to keep his true self well hidden.
On one grass-cloth wall of his office is a three-quarter-length portrait of Lawson as gunslinger, painted by local artist Joan Foster. She knows Lawson well, having worked with him in the founding of TEAM (The Electors’ Action Movement), a new civic party slowly gaining control of Vancouver city hall. In the picture, Lawson’s hand dissolves, disappearing into a misty void.
“I didn’t know what to put in it,” explains artist Foster, “a flower or a gun. Ed Lawson is a non sequitur.” Paraphrasing Churchill’s comment on Russia, she has titled the portrait, “An enigma wrapped in a riddle surrounded by a conundrum.”
An apt description, for Lawson doesn’t give much of himself away. He is particularly sensitive regarding his early upbringing. It’s understandable since it couldn’t have been pleasant. He was born Adolph Lachowski, the youngest of four children, in Spy Hill, a hamlet 150 miles east of Regina. When he was six weeks old, the family left for the Peace River country in northern BC and one day, shortly after, his father walked out. When he was six, his mother took sick. Lawson doesn’t know what happened to her.
The three boys and a sister were shuffled around various foster homes before they were reunited on a farm in the Fraser Valley east of Vancouver. The BC Gazette shows that in 1953, when he was 22, Adolph Lachowski had his name legally changed to Edward Martin Lawson. Lawson does not feel the matter is a reporter’s business and he declines to discuss it.
In those pre-foster-home days he can recall the daily fare as cottage cheese for breakfast, cottage cheese for lunch and, “to give the impression that dinner was different, cottage cheese sprinkled with cinnamon.”
(A favorite Lawson haunt these days is a table in the Hotel Georgia coffee garden where a band of lawyers, crown prosecutors, perhaps a judge and a newspaper type or two exchange gossip and witticisms in what is known mockingly as “the Georgia Law School.” Lawson, along with his familiar glass of milk, will occasionally order cottage cheese sprinkled with cinnamon — a flagellating form of reminder.)
At 15 he quit school to work. “He was pretty thin,” remembers Claire Baxter, wife of the New Westminster garage owner who hired him. “He sure needed fattening up.”
His role in the union movement was set the day the teen-age truck driver tried to organize a nonunion trucking firm. He was fired for his efforts and the grateful Teamsters fixed him up with a job in Kitimat, the boom aluminum project up the BC coast which attracted workmen from around the world. The bookish-looking youngster found himself job steward, mastering the intricacies of jurisdictional problems on the massive construction job. He was soon president of the joint union council, covering 3,000 men. Two years later he was back in Vancouver, as a Teamster business agent.
“I can remember it clearly because my starting pay was $65 a week. The income tax alone on my Kitimat pay cheque the week before was $65.” It was enough, however, to marry the daughter of a pheasant farmer he had met at school 15 years earlier.
The spectacular rise through the rough Teamster ranks was underway. He was only 26 when elected president of the Teamsters Joint Council for BC. Today the airline plaques on his office wall testify that he has flown the equivalent of more than 40 times around the world on Teamster and Senate business, which is a lot of cherries jubilee.
In those early days, he struck up a valuable acquaintanceship. Jack Wasserman, the longtime Vancouver Sun gossip columnist, recalls, as a young reporter, stumbling across the strange workings of a Teamster pension fund. He confronted the new, downy-cheeked Teamster leader. “I presented him with the information,” remembers Wasserman. “He looked it over and said, ‘You’re right. There’s something wrong here.’ It was the first straight answer I’d ever received from a Teamster executive.”
LAWSON IS "AN ENIGMA WRAPPED IN A RIDDLE SURROUNDED BY A CONUNDRUM'
Over the years Lawson’s accomplishments have piled up in a wider community outside labor. After resisting Social Credit pressure to be labor’s representative on a number of commissions and boards, teetotaler Lawson accepted a 1969 appointment to the royal commission examining BC liquor laws. (“I understand it’s great stuff for starting the car on a cold morning, but I just can’t stand the taste of it.”)
Ottawa has tapped him in the past for duty on both the Canada Pension Plan Advisory Commission and the Canadian Consumer Council. He has been a director of the BC Lions and a close associate in the Vancouver group that attempted to gain control of the U.S.owned Vancouver Canucks NHL franchise.
And, of course, those political feelers. There have been, he says, those Social Credit emissaries whispering about a cabinet post. There was, he says, the quiet federal Liberal approach, talking about a parliamentary secretary position with a cabinet spot in the offing if he would run. It was not under the present administration, he says, which would make it the Pearson administration. And finally, that $100,000-a-year offer from industry that came in the year after his Senate appointment.
Some Lawson-watchers (i.e., this one) feel he made the first strategic error of his remarkable career in accepting the Senate offer. It simply cuts off too many future options for a man of his relative youth; there is little doubt the mayoralty chair of Vancouver could be his if he desired, and one could see him as leader of the BC Liberal party, if he desired, poised for the day Premier Bennett is carried from his throne.
It’s an interesting commentary on the whole Teamster story that Lawson himself, when Prime Minister Trudeau phoned one 1970 Friday morning offering a Senate seat, politely indicated he wasn’t interested. The Prime Minister urged him not to make such a quick decision but to consult friends and colleagues over the weekend.
Lawson naturally called Washington to talk to Fitzsimmons, the portly, pedestrian Teamster chief who has succeeded Hoffa. “Fitz told me,” recounts Lawson,“ ‘Surely if you’re called upon to serve, you have a duty to serve.’ ” His mind swayed on a Canadian political post by the urging of his American superiors, Lawson phoned Trudeau on Monday morning to accept. The suspicion remains among some Lawson-watchers (i.e., this one) that the Teamster brass don’t appreciate the difference between the U.S. Senate and the Canadian Senate and that they wanted that “senator” tag on their masthead more than Lawson realizes.
With that fillip, Lawson arrived at the Teamsters’ Miami Beach convention last summer determined to push his point that a Canadian deserved to be elected to one of the 14 international vice-president posts. It apparently was a bitter fight, with Lawson prepared to put his career on the line. The first signal that he had won came when Fitzsimmons appeared behind his chair at an executive meeting, dumped a glass of water over his head and growled, “You s.o.b., you’re all right.”
By the time the floor vote confirmed the executive decision, Lawson had collapsed in a Miami hospital. Jack Wasserman diagnosed his illness from long distance as “tension,” the result of pulling off the vice-presidential coup with a total Canadian Teamster membership less than that of the city of Los Angeles.
Lawson’s humble past haunts him when questions of his total income come up. There is that $18,000 from the Senate, plus $4,000 expenses, the $30,000 from the Teamsters, plus a “small honorarium” which he won’t specify from another Teamster post — for a healthy $50,000 to $60.000 over all. He is full of elaborate explanations as to how the Senate salary will net him only $7,000 and how exorbitant are his cross-country baby-sitting costs and so on until an interviewer is tempted to cry out, “Relax, Ed! You’ve earned it. You deserve it. Part of the rewards come in a 40-yearold house, now being renovated, that sits with its own stream and woods on a hill in suburban Burnaby. Wife Doreen has her own political career as a busy aiderman. There are three daughters and Lawson likes to spend part of his summer with them on a dude ranch in the Cariboo. (“Every self-respecting Teamster should be able to ride a horse.”)
What, in fact, ever intimidates Senator Supercool? Friend Wasserman has the answer: “Water. He can’t swim. And do you know why I suspect it is? Because it is one of the few situations where he cannot control all factors.”
Ah yes, but there are pragmatic solutions. Lawson is putting a roof on his new pool and is taking swimming lessons. Wipe out that weakness. Adds Wasserman: “He is not encumbered by philosophical distractions.” He walks the tightrope, evading the label that society likes to pin on people. He sits in the Senate as an Independent, but is now consulted by the Liberals as to judicial appointments. He has been a past friend of Social Credit but retains his labor credentials.
The philosophical distractions do not include the question of autonomous Canadian unions, since Lawson naturally opts for the muscle of international unions. He points out that international unions, though representing 62% of total Canadian union membership, are responsible for only 50% of man-days lost. Only the international unions, he argues, have the strength to impose proper bargaining conditions on the international firms which dominate the Canadian economy.
His own Teamsters have a “conservative” strike record compared to many smaller Canadian unions. “Conservative” means the powerful Teamsters can pick their spots, selecting their showdowns with the confidence of vast international resources behind them. The international paid out two million dollars in strike pay in an Ontario cartage strike. For 15 years the three Canadian Teamster areas each have been receiving $7,500 a month in organizational grants from Washington.
The Teamsters have vast resources. There is $23 million in the union treasury, another $64 million in the strike defense fund. The biggest of the employerfinanced pension funds, which had reserves of $280 million when Hoffa was convicted of conspiring to defraud it seven years ago, now has assets of more than $850 million. Little wonder that Lawson can be patient in his 10-year plan for a national trucking contract that would give the Teamsters power over the Canadian transportation lifeline.
On the question of Hoffa, Lawson is now adamant. He led Vancouver in op-
position to Hoffa’s reelection the first time around, but supported him the second time, after he had met him. In return, Lawson was the first Canadian ever appointed to the Teamster constitutional conference. “I am convinced if he hadn’t been a Teamster head, he wouldn’t have been convicted and he wouldn’t have gone to jail. Hoffa’s benefits to the union over all outweigh the harm he has done to the union.”
There is little doubt now that then U.S. Attorney-General Robert F. Kennedy used questionable tactics in hounding Hoffa. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a dissenting opinion by Chief Justice Earl Warren, said as much. There’s also little doubt, in the prevailing morality in Teamster locals in the U.S., that Hoffa could be reelected today if allowed to run. To Hoffa, life was a jungle in which strength not justice prevailed, and the rank and file like the strength he’s given them.
It is easy to read too much into these things, but there are uncanny similarities in the backgrounds,of these two remarkable self-made men, James Riddle Hoffa and Edward Lawson, the enigma wrapped in a riddle. It would be strange if there were not some mutual attraction.
Lawson, in the BC environment he naturally does not want to leave, has established his reputation in the community as the paramount union leader who obeys the law. When a Vancouver labor leader charged that “judges are political hacks,” Lawson replied that if certain union leaders “would learn respect for the courts they may earn respect from the courts.” When labor leaders cried for defiance of a government back-towork order last spring, it was Lawson who won editorial page cheers with his statement, “How can I tell my children to obey the law if I don’t do it myself?” In the wild and woolly atmosphere of BC labor, it is the defender of Jimmy Hoffa who is known as the respecter of the law.
The most interesting current point about Ed Lawson is not what he has done, but what is he to do next? He states that no, he will not leave his Vancouver — to which the Teamsters had to move their Canadian headquarters to accommodate him. It would seem he has burned his political bridges behind him by accepting that appointment to the Senate, from which they never come back. He’s 42, looks 35 and maintains the schedule of a 30-year-old. What does he do for an encore? How much longer can he control the adroit tightrope act, his labor masters on one side of the border, his political masters on the other? How soon before a confrontation involving a growing government concern over foreign control of the economy and the unions? Stay tuned. There’s lots more of Ed Lawson to come. ■