Rich Egeland: A ticket to the fight

What I am posting below is written by a close friend of ours, Rich Egeland. We first met him when we were teaching labor education in Chicago. As you can see from this, he took advantage of just about every labor ed opportunity that came along.

Rich and I were chatting on line about his current adventures in his union, IBT (International Brotherhood of Teamsters) Local 705, which represent the over-the-road drivers, the people who drive those huge trucks all over the country. He himself drives a tanker truck. Every now and then I try to imagine what it’s like to be out on the icy roads of a Chicago winter night, or during a summer thunderstorm, driving a truck around those weather-beaten, cracked and pot-holed freeways. I asked him if he would write something about his life in the union that I could put in this blog.

His union, IBT 705 is a “live” union, not one that has been totally buried under a single regime. IBT 705 actually has elections, and people run for office, and although the activity around the elections gets intense and there are some wild stories of people engaging in physical confrontations, the newly elected leaders do take office and the old incumbents move out of the building, so union democracy actually does happen there. The energy around elections should be seen as evidence of the value placed on actual bottom-up representation of the membership.

Looking ahead at our time in Vietnam: When we talk about the need for bottom-up organizing, grassroots worker representation and all those other things that we imagine will grow out of freedom of association, it’s important to know what the unions that develop through freedom of association may actually look like. In bottom-up self-organizing and representation, the fight is likely to happen right there at the bottom. There’s nothing easy about it. It’s rough, and  education is not the magic silver bullet, either. Rich has been taking classes and now teaching classes for years; he’s got all the education you need,  but it hasn’t lessened the intensity of the fight. He brings his education into the fight and does what he can because it’s his union.

So here is a serious individual, someone who has put a life into this union, writing about his experience. It’s not full of happy anecdotes. Instead, it illustrates what I mean when I say that our system of labor relations, for all our freedom of association, is just a “ticket to the fight.” Read this as being about the fight, and what it takes.

My Union Life

Rich Egeland

Though I did not grow up in a union household, I did learn about unions from my mother and we lived those union ideals. We learned that striking a business was the last resort and one that was never to be taken lightly. We learned that workers will do their very best at their jobs because that is how they support their families. If the company fails, then they are out of work and the family suffers. We learned that an honest day’s work is fulfilling and can bring great joy to the family as they reap the benefits of the worker. Their happiness is my happiness.

She used to take us to picket lines to bring water and sandwiches to the people and made sure that we looked them in their eyes. We saw fear, hope and steadfast purpose in the eyes of these people. We saw the gratitude in their hearts when we gave them these seemingly small items. These gifts of kindness were and are appreciated and the memories of their thankfulness are still remembered by me this very day. My wife and I carried on the tradition of bringing relief items to strikers and their families even now.

My mother’s real parents died when she and her four siblings were quite young. Her older sister was about 11, she and her twin brother were about 9 and her youngest sister was less than a year old. Grandpa Joe and Grandma Edna were my mother’s aunt and uncle so they adopted the twins. If it wasn’t for the good job that grandpa had, I do not know where my mother and her brother would have ended up. By the way, Grandma Edna was a “Rosie the Riveter” at the torpedo plant in what is now the Ford City Shopping Center on the southwest side of Chicago. Grandpa used to go into negotiations knuckles first and Grandma Edna was not far behind in her work place. You didn’t mess with them.

My maternal grandfather was a truck driver (Teamsters Local 705 Freight division, my own local!) and the first time that I rode in his truck was when I was about 5 years old. The noise! The smoke from the exhaust stack! The rumbling of the powerful truck as we rode! I never felt anything like it before in my young life! My grandfather was shifting the old fashioned twin sticks and the manual steering! I knew that I wanted to be a truck driver just like him. As I grew older, I had other opportunities, some of which my grandfather never had but people like him paved the way for the following generations.

I finished high school and went to college ( and subsequently flunked out). I lived in a nice house in the suburbs of Chicago and had plenty of opportunities that others worked and fought for. Then I wanted to be independent so I got out of my parents house and started to make my way on my own.

My first real job was that of a steelworker at Ryerson Steel (Joseph T. Ryerson and Son, Inc.) and I thought that I made it! This was a real job with benefits and since I was engaged, I knew that I could start and maintain a family. It was not a union job then but it was a good place to work. This was a finished steel fabrication house as opposed to the steel making of a mill. We got the steel from the mills and processed it to our customer’s specifications.

I had lots of “capacities” (job titles) which included, “hooker”, “lander” “shearman” “burner” “craneman” and “swinger.” Job titles in the steel industry are the best too. “Hooker” and “lander” are people who bring the steel to you to process. The hooker hooks it up and sends it down the way by use of the overhead crane to the lander or someone who lands the lift. The shearman operates a machine that cuts the steel to a specific length. The burner used a torch to cuts shapes in the steel (my favorite job) as per the orders. The swinger is the truck driver who moves the trailers around and supplies the plant with delivered items.

I wanted to be a truck driver for the company but the management personnel said no. When I asked them why, they had several reasons and none of them made any sense. So I kept asking and they kept saying no.

The plant personnel were in the midst of one of several union organizing drives and I jumped in on each and every one of them. The three drives were unsuccessful and the head chopping ceremony soon followed. I was within an inch of their focus when the attitude changed.

I read the collective bargaining agreement the company had with the delivery drivers and noted that it said “all drivers” and not specifically the delivery drivers. I called the agent at Teamsters Local 705 to let him know that I was doing bargaining unit work and that I did want into the union. He kept coming up with reasons why I couldn’t so I asked others who knew about unions if it was so. It was not so, which led me to asking time and again. I’d call up the local 2-3 times a week and sometimes every day, for two years. Now, one would imagine that they would take all comers but not this guy.

One Saturday morning my foreman came up to me and lamented that they did not have any drivers available for a hot load that had to go to the main plant 16 miles away. I told him that I could take it. He asked if I had the license for it and I did so he said I want you to take this load there ASAP. I took the load to the main plant, dropped it and picked up an empty trailer and came back. I kept the paperwork too.

That Monday I called the hall and told them what I had done. Sam was incensed that I took his guys’ work but I told him that I was ordered to, and what choice did I have? That same day my superintendent called me into his office demanding why I took the load and if I didn’t like it there, I could choose a door since we don’t need a f**king union here! That’s all that I needed. I did as my boss requested of me, and I was threatened with retaliation because of my union affiliation. The following Monday I was on the street delivering the processed materials. I made it after almost 3 years of trying! I would not have made it if the foreman didn’t mess up either.

The union agent came by shortly after that and noted that I could get off of his back. That provoked me so I told him that I wanted to be shop steward. He almost dropped his cigar out of his mouth. He said that we didn’t have enough members to have a steward but I read where you have to have 29 members for an election. He could appoint one if we had less. He didn’t like that one but it was the law. He made me his “point man” so he could skirt the issue.

I became the official steward shortly after that because we had an election and a new agent was given to us. Then I became chief steward and then got onto the contract negotiating team. It was a lot to ask but the more I did the more I learned.

We were permanently replaced some years later and I ended up in the tank haul division of Local 705. I still volunteered for anything and everything that the local wanted me to do and the principal officer asked me if I wanted to go to school to learn more about unions. I leapt at the chance! The first year had about fifteen 705 members in attendance. Some of these did not finish the first semester, but I did. I asked for the next session and was granted permission to attend. The following year came and I was one of 3 members who still attended. I asked for more and was told that I could take all of the classes that I wanted just as long as I brought back good grades. All of my grades up until them were A’s so I kept going. These were certificate classes so there was no diploma.

A little while later, the National Labor College partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago so I got the certificates translated into grades and these because credited classes. I kept going until I finally graduated with my bachelors Degree in Labor Studies in June of 2006.

I waited a year and asked the local for the Master’s program. They said yes so I completed my master’s degree in their three year time frame. I asked for the PhD program but have not heard a word since so the answer is no. That’s a real shame too but I went far further than I ever would have though possible and I can thank my grandfather for this feat.

I’ve been very busy with my degree helping anyone, anywhere and at anytime. My own local is keeping me at arms length because they are afraid that I might take over one day. My own International body holds me in disdain as they know that there is no controlling me. They do not have dirt on me so I can’t be pressured to accept their substandard ideals.

Indeed I could run my local but for now, I’m teaching classes, helping others get their jobs back when their agents don’t seem to want to. My phone rings at all hours of the day and night by people who have heard of my helping and though sometimes I am very tired, they do get the help they need whether it is my help of I can direct them to where they can get help. Sometimes it gets difficult as I work 12 hour shifts 5 nights a week but I know that it is appreciated.

I’ve gone all over the country because of my education and have taught classes at various places. It is fun and the look in the eyes of the students always amazes me. They have the same look as the strikers that I remember from way back when. I can thank people like my grandfather for this opportunity and the dedicated professors who helped me along the way. My thanks to them will be using my education and experience for others so that they too can enjoy their lives in the best way possible.


Published by helenaworthen

Labor educator, retired from University of Illinois, taught at TDT University in Ho Chi Minh City in the Faculty of Trade Unions and Labor Relations. Co-author with Joe Berry of Power Despite Precarity: Strategies for the contingent faculty movement in higher education, forthcoming (August 2021) from Pluto Press.

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