Teamsters Local 142 Recording Secretary Harvey Jackson Shares His Union Story

“You think this (black) man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain’t a union, it’s a [expletive] club! They got you fightin’ white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain’t but two sides in this world — them that work and them that don’t. You work, they don’t.”
— from the 1987 film “Matewan”

My interview with Harvey Jackson took place at 1300 Clark Road in Gary — the union hall of Teamsters Local 142. He is recording secretary, a trustee of the pension, health and welfare fund, and one of Local 142’s business agents. He’s also a union organizer.

Jackson, 47, was raised in Hammond but now lives in Valparaiso.

“I grew up in Columbia Center,” Jackson began. “It’s a housing project. That area has changed for the better today. The houses we lived in were all red block buildings. My dad left when I was 2. It was just me and my mom. She was one of 14 kids from Decatur, Ala. She kind of migrated up here with her brothers who got jobs in the mills.”

High school?

“Hammond Gavit. I played football and swam for four years.”

How did you get involved in the union?

“While working for a company called Gary Transfer, the (union) halls would send us receipts that our dues had been paid. I saw that they had taken dues out of my check again and decided to go to the next union meeting to see just what they were doing with my money.

“In the beginning, I didn’t know a lot of people. I’d just kinda sit in the back and listen. That was back in 1991. I’d go to a meeting, then miss a meeting. Eventually, I started going to every general meeting.”

You work out of the union hall full time now.

“Yeah. One of our business agents, Larry Regan, had a heart attack, and I was called in to help out. I’d been around a long time and had volunteered as an organizer. I was supposed to be there for a couple weeks, which eventually turned into six months. Then we had another business agent pass away — Jim Skinner.”

I attended Jimmy’s wake at Sheets Funeral Home in Lowell. He was a year behind me in high school. Although he was from rural Morocco, he had a childhood similar to yours.

“Jim Skinner was a fightin’ son of a (gun) who cared about his members. After his passing and the retirement of another officer, I was asked to become a business agent and a recording secretary — two jobs I never wanted to do. I was told ‘no harm, no foul.’ “

Explain, please.

“It’s a hard job. They told me if I couldn’t do it, I could go back to driving a truck. I gave it a try. It’s tough, negotiating contracts. Every contract is different. Every day is different. I’ve been a business agent for about six or seven years now.”

I’ve been keeping an eye on the Steelworkers negotiations in the newspaper.

“People don’t realize the impact if ArcelorMital and U.S. Steel go out at the same time. They figure for every employee in the mill, there are seven or eight jobs affected on the outside. It’s a huge thing.”

There seems to be an inordinate amount of union bashing these days.

“I don’t know how — in such a short period of time — the unions, and especially the public-sector unions, have become the bad guys. If a worker is able to have a decent job with health care and a retirement, why does that make them a bad guy? That guy from Wisconsin (Gov. Scott Walker) says if he gets elected he’ll come out with a national right-to-work.”

Has right-to-work legislation affected Local 142?

“Not too much. Some, after peer pressure, have changed their minds. Some, after I’ve gotten their jobs back or their overtime pay straightened out, come to realize the importance of a union. I have to represent them whether they pay dues or not.”

That blows my mind. Talk about wanting your cake and eating it too. How many of those 3,900 Local 142 workers are dues-paying members?

“All but six.”

What is Local 142’s jurisdiction?

“Lake and Porter counties in Indiana and Calumet City in Illinois.”

How long has there been a Local 142?

“Since 1940. We’ve been here at 1300 Clark since 1960. This photo on the wall was taken at our dedication ceremony-open house in November of that year. Recognize the guy addressing the crowd from our balcony?”

That would be James Riddle Hoffa, a native of Brazil, Ind. Final thoughts?

“The unions aren’t about taking somebody’s money or beating the companies down. I’ve worked on contracts right beside management to make sure they stay viable. Somewhere, we have to find a happy medium. The company has to make money to provide jobs. We understand that. With that said, the workers deserve union representation. I prefer that members carry my card in case they’re called in by management. Read the back of it.”

“If this interview could in any way lead to my being disciplined or terminated, or affect my personal working conditions, I respectfully request that my union representative, officer or steward be present at this meeting. Until my representative arrives, I choose not to participate in this discussion.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has had its history in the past 100 years or so. Some good, some bad. But history books and mainstream media don’t often focus on the good. Unless you’re a labor historian, you probably aren’t familiar with the Teamsters strike of 1910 in Seattle. As an experiment, the Seattle Transfer Co. decided to stop the noontime feeding of their horses. The Teamsters stopped working in protest. The Humane Society was called upon. A Miss Krueger, secretary of the society, lauded the motives of the strikers.

“It is one of the most remarkable things of which I’ve ever heard, that these men should be willing to forfeit their jobs and probably endure hardship because of their sympathy and affection for the horses.”

The strike was successful, and the horses’ lunch breaks were saved.

This story originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on October 5, 2015.