The Teamsters---Will Reality TV Be Stranger than Fiction?
A version of this piece first appeared at Working In These Times.
From "Jersey Shore" to the short-lived "All-American Muslim" to the glitzier "Shahs of Sunset," there seems to be no ethnic community left untouched by the national carny show known as reality TV. Always dissed or ignored by the mass media, the multi-ethnic enclave of organized labor might have been the last holdout against letting it all hang out in this shamelessly exhibitionist genre.
But that’s about to change, quite possibly for the worse. A&E Television Networks is filming a pilot called "The Teamsters." Reality TV will zero in on a local tribe that I know well—the Irish—thanks to my great-grandfather, who fled potato-less County Leitrim for Boston more than 160 years ago.
The new series will focus on members of Teamsters Local 25, a union with a long, colorful, and sometimes troubled history with the entertainment industry. Native son Mark Wahlberg, the son of a Teamster, is collaborating on the project with Stephen Levinson; the two worked together on "Entourage."
An IBT Contender?
The ambitious young labor leader who will be featured in "The Teamsters" is Sean O’Brien, a good buddy of Wahlberg and Cambridge homeboy Ben Affleck. Sean is a second-generation Local 25 member whose career was nurtured by his well-connected father. He sports a shaved head, has demonstrated some media savvy of his own, and is popular with many rank and filers in his local. He’s also a recent addition to the Teamsters International (IBT) executive board, where he’s been a loyal supporter of President James Hoffa.
The 70-year-old Hoffa has yet to comment publicly on how he feels about the media spotlight shifting abruptly to another “Teamster junior,” much younger and more photogenic than himself. It’s widely known, locally and nationally, that O’Brien wants to be International president; he’d be the third Local 25 president, since the IBT’s founding, to serve there. The subtitle of Wahlberg’s show could well be "The Making of a President."
But it’s not clear that becoming the next Snooki is the best career move for a would-be national union leader. Given the local cast of characters and the out-of-town talent involved in "The Teamsters," there’s some risk that previous Hollywood conceptions of blue-collar Boston will get all moshed together in ways that will not enhance labor’s image, increase public understanding of what unions do, or even boost Brother O’Brien’s upward mobility in the IBT.
Marky Mark No More
Once better known locally—in his saggy pants and rapper days—as “Marky Mark,” co-producer Wahlberg has spent much of his acting career playing blue-collar guys in eastern Massachusetts. In "The Perfect Storm," he was part of a doomed fishing crew that never made it back to Gloucester. In "The Departed," he was a hard-ass Boston police sergeant caught up in the plotting of Irish mobsters and dirty cops.
Most recently, Wahlberg starred in "The Fighter," the story of a hard-luck junior welterweight from nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, his overweening Irish-Catholic mother, and drugged-up ex-pug brother. This much better treatment of working-class life, warts and all, upheld the local filmmaking tradition of "Good Will Hunting" and "Mystic River."
The movie crew of Teamsters Local 25 represents a small minority of its 11,000 members. But it had a big hand in making all of these films, and many more, both good and bad. Local 25 members drove the wardrobe trailers used by visiting stars, chauffeured them around town, and otherwise did quite a bit of well-paid hanging about while the cameras rolled.
But Hollywood’s love affair with Boston as an affordable place to shoot has run hot and cold over the years, depending on how much the companies have ran afoul of Teamster cronyism, payroll padding, and other forms of union corruption.
The much-publicized misbehavior of Local 25 insiders, who worked on local movie sets in the past, never reflected well on the thousands of honest, hard-working drivers and freight handlers employed at UPS and other firms. For that reason alone, let’s hope that Wahlberg keeps his Local 25 historical flashbacks to a bare minimum.
One legendary Local 25 “transportation coordinator,” the much investigated but never indicted James P. Flynn, wangled bit parts for himself, as a criminal court judge in "Good Will Hunting" and as a crew leader of Jamaican apple pickers in "Cider House Rules."
Flynn could have been better suited for a role in Ben Affleck’s "The Town." That 2010 film was set in Charlestown, the once gritty Boston neighborhood where Local 25 has its headquarters. As movie viewers learned, a few “Townies” used to specialize in armored car robberies.
Charlestown was known for its “code of silence,” when the police came knocking about who might have pulled off the latest Brinks job. As union-bashing Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr never failed to observe, “the Hibernian Highwaymen” responsible sometimes included card-carrying members of Local 25.
Real Life in The Town
O’Brien’s predecessor as Local 25 president was George Cashman, an equally ambitious, self-styled “New Teamster” who once saw himself as a future national leader of the IBT, too. Cashman was elected in 1991 as a reformer who was going to change the practices that led to movie crew scandals during the tenure of William McCarthy, the old guard Local 25 leader who was briefly national president in the late 1980s. Unlike O'Brien, Cashman came up the hard way; when he dared to challenge the old leadership, a McCarthy supporter pushed him down the stairs at the local union hall and broke his leg.
But more than a decade into his presidency, Cashman had clearly reached an unsavory truce with Local 25 leg-breakers. The Teamsters became the subject of extensive reporting in the Boston Globe about the continuing problems of Hollywood studios and local independent filmmakers. A federal grand jury was convened to investigate allegations of movie crew shakedowns that caused some production companies to boycott Boston.
Both local newspapers were soon running stories about the use of union pressure tactics to hire convicted bank robbers, several of whom were implicated in the slaying of two armored car drivers. In one notorious incident, Flynn allegedly authorized the roughing up of IATSE member Susan Christy when she balked at turning over her movie set snack-truck concession to one of his cronies.
In response to bad ink—like the Herald editorial charging that Cashman “and the thugs he allowed to operate in Local 25 just about killed any hope of movie-making [in Massachusetts]”—Cashman made several pilgrimages to L.A. to patch things up with the industry.
His Republican pal, Governor Paul Cellucci, offered incentives like public funding of a movie sound stage. Both before and after he was hit with a multi-count federal indictment, Cashman vigorously denied that he was personally guilty of any wrongdoing. In 2003, however, he and his Local 25 vice-president pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud, and/or extortion.
As part of the plea deal that reduced his time in jail, Cashman admitted arranging for 19 non-eligible people to be covered by the union medical plan. Among the friends of Local 25 who received this costly favor was John “Mick” Murray, a convicted bank robber and much-feared associate of mobster Whitey Bulger. In his own bid for leniency, Thomas DiSilva, the Local 25 employer implicated in the health care scam, told federal prosecutors about illegal payments that Cashman received from his trucking company and another firm that owed money to a Teamster pension plan.
Cashman himself was not required to cooperate with the feds in any further probing of the movie crew, which managed to escape further indictments.
A mere 10 years later, Local 25 officials await their 15 minutes of fame. One longtime Boston truck driver, a Teamster who did not want to be identified, is worried about A&E’s project. “What if Local 25 looks too much like Teamsters of the past?” he asks. “Is this movie thing just going to be a puff piece for Sean, polishing his image for a run as international president?”
In any TV show about unions, he said, “we would want the members to be front and center. The workplace leaders—the stewards—would be shown organizing, defending workers’ rights, and fighting against employers, while at the same time disagreeing, when necessary, with their own higher-level elected union officials.”
Whether A&E is up to that task remains to be seen. If not, when "The Teamsters" airs, there may be some labor viewers, inside and outside of Local 25, longing for the good old days when the “code of silence” still prevailed in Charlestown.
Steve Early worked as a Boston-area union representative for nearly 30 years and actively supported Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He is the author of Embedded With Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009) and The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011). He can be reached at Lsupport [at] aol [dot] com.