Some call it "a benevolent dictatorship." Others know it best for its prodigious Christmas parties, with turkeys and gift packages for thousands. Its backbone is a squad of husky business agents accustomed to long hours and six-day weeks.
They also do double duty. On one side their calling cards identify them as agents for Local 507 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The other side proclaims them as representatives of Local 19 of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International, a union in good standing with the AFL-CIO.
This is the home base of Jackie Presser, general president of the Teamsters and the highest-paid union official in the United States. It is also the home base of Harold Friedman, who is president of Local 507, president of Local 19, the occupant of three other Teamsters posts and the second highest-paid union official in the nation. Each collected more than half a million dollars in salaries and expenses last year. (AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland received $122,700).
As the national chief of the Teamsters since April 1983, Presser has been the union's man in the limelight, as he was again last week when the Justice Department reportedly dropped a prolonged labor fraud investigation involving both him and Friedman. Friedman, by all accounts, runs the Cleveland operation on a day-to-day basis at the two locals' joint headquarters on East 19th street here.
Chris Farrand learned that much when he was a Local 507 member between 1979 and 1982. At the outset, he said, he tried to attend the 5,000-member unit's monthly membership meetings on a regular basis, but soon realized it was futile.
"The meetings were a joke," he said in an interview. "Usually there wasn't even a quorum [of 15] present. Often there weren't any officers there, maybe just a trustee. During the ones I went to, I never once heard the minutes read, never heard them put to a vote, never heard a financial report, and never heard one put to a vote . . . It was usually just a discussion of gripes . . . And during the meetings, a huge business agent would walk up and down the aisle. When anyone spoke, he would stop at that aisle and look at you."
"I think all the business agents from 507 must have the same first name," quipped a Teamster from another local in a separate interview. "It's 'Big' . . . you know, as in Big John, Big Ed . . . . "
Farrand said his days as a Teamster ended shortly after he tried to organize a meeting among fellow members at the East Side machine shop to discuss, among themselves, what they most wanted in their next contract. The union got wind of the plan and one day, six business agents from Local 507 turned up at the 40-member shop and persuaded them to come down to the union hall instead.
Friedman showed his concern by presiding, with a table full of business agents at his side, Farrand recalls. At one point, the Local 507 president observed that he had heard some people grumbling that all the union was interested in was their dues.
"Let me tell you," Farrand remembers Friedman saying, "the dues of all the people in this room wouldn't pay for the hubcaps on my Cadillac."
Farrand says he pressed Friedman at the meeting to promise that someone from the machine shop would be named to the committee negotiating their contract. "Two days later," Farrand says, "I got laid off from my job. No one from our shop was ever put on the negotiating committee."
Friedman, who has a reputation of never talking to the news media, could not be reached for comment. A visit to union headquarters Friday morning was stopped short at a set of teller-like cages where a smartly tailored young man politely advised a reporter that Friedman was not available.
The two-story brick building, however, is eloquent testimony to what several sources call an organizational setup unlike any other in the world of union labor. The Teamsters union was expelled from the AFL-CIO in the late 1950s for persistent corruption, but here it flourishes in symbiosis with Bakers Local 19.
A plaque beside the entrance shows that the building was erected in 1946 under Local 19's chief officer, Harvey Friedman, Harold's father. A 1951 diploma on the anteroom's wall announces Harold's expertise in "Master Cake Decorations and Fine Candy Making."
Other posters reflect the subsequent union alliance, one "Announcing Another Great Benefit for Our Members in Bakers Union No. 19 and Teamsters No. 507 -- $800 A Month Normal Pension, effective Oct. 1, 1984." The headline is flanked by pictures of Presser and Friedman.
It has, by now, all the earmarks of a family business, entering the third generation. The vice president of Local 507 is Presser's son, Gary. The vice president of Local 19 is Friedman's son, David.
The alliance began in 1966 under the watchful eye of Jackie's late father, William E. Presser, the longtime head of the powerful Ohio Teamsters Joint Council whose empire began with a Cleveland jukebox union in the 1940s. The leadership of Teamsters Local 507 was at first a triumvirate, with Harold Friedman president, Jackie Presser secretary-treasurer and Jackie's uncle, Allen Friedman (no relation to Harold Friedman), vice president.
According to trial testimony in 1983, Allen Friedman told Labor Department investigator James F. Thomas several years ago that Presser was to "provide the political clout and the business clout," Harold Friedman was to "handle all the inside duties, the administrative duties and the contract negotiations," and Allen Friedman's job was "to organize the people in the field." Each was to have what amounted to a veto power in the running of 507.
By the early 1970s, however, Allen Friedman, his health failing, saw that he was being pushed aside. According to his lawyer, he plunged ahead anyway, concentrating on an independent union, Local 752, that he formed to organize shops that 507 didn't want. Then, in 1976, he was hospitalized with a near-fatal heart attack.
Jackie Presser and Harold Friedman paid him a bedside visit that resulted in what government prosecutors later charged was a "sale" of Allen Friedman's union and its members. According to government testimony, they told him: " 'Allen, you are too sick to work. If you merge local 752 into the Teamsters Local 507, we will pay you $1,000 a week for the rest of your life.' "
Allen Friedman "agreed to the deal," investigator Thomas said of a 1983 interview he had with Friedman. "He told me that from that date in the hospital until sometime in August of 1981, he did absolutely nothing for the union," Thomas testified.
Organized crime investigators for the Labor Department started an inquiry in August 1981. That same month, Allen Friedman later told them, "Jackie Presser summoned him to the union hall where he met with Presser, Harold Friedman and one Tony Hughes," a former Golden Gloves boxer and business partner of Presser's second wife.
"During the meeting," government prosecutors recounted, "Friedman said Presser told him he was being taken off the payroll and a violent argument ensued. In the course of the investigation, Hughes said he would kill Friedman if Friedman told anyone about the activities of 507."
Months later, according to court records, Allen Friedman opened up to investigator Thomas, but then refused to repeat his story to a federal grand jury. "I'm sorry I let you guys down," he reportedly stated after the June 1982 grand jury session, "but you have to understand that Jackie is my nephew."
Obviously bent on building a case against Presser, Justice Department strike force prosecutors brought Allen Friedman to trial in the fall of 1983 on charges of embezzling $165,000 in "no-show" paychecks and secured a conviction.
Evidence at the trial showed that Presser and Harold Friedman signed all the checks that Allen Friedman was convicted of embezzling.
Allen Friedman pleaded ill health, but prosecutors argued for a stiff sentence, partly on the strength of a memo accusing him of having continued to lead an active life including "possession of a firearm . . . extortion, fraud and apparent loansharking activity."
Sentenced to three years in prison, Friedman protested bitterly at his final court appearance, asking "Where is Jackie Presser and Harold Friedman?" and alluding to their high salaries and to Presser's support of President Reagan and ties to the White House.
At one point, Allen Friedman wondered aloud "if one branch is hiding the big shots, President Reagan's friends . . . . " At another, he said, "that's what I call stealing,Your Honor, when somebody makes $500,000 a year to represent 6,000 members or a million members." Finally, he referred to the persistent allegations that have dogged his nephew for years, that he was a government informer, first for the Internal Revenue Service, then for the FBI.
"Is the government protecting Jackie Presser because he is putting them [mob figures] all in jail now?" Allen Friedman protested. "They claim he is an FBI informer . . . I'm confused, bewildered . . . Here I am, I'm going to jail. And Jackie Presser and Harold Friedman, who's making $400,000 and $500,000 a year, they haven't even been indicted."
The news that the Justice Department had rejected the recommendations of its Cleveland-based prosecutors and decided that the case against Presser was "without prosecutive merit" has drawn some pointed reactions here.
"Something is unfair here," said Sam Theodus, president of the independently minded Teamsters Local 407, which prides itself on being composed primarily of truck drivers, unlike the warehousemen of 507. "If nobody else is guilty, why is one guy [Allen Friedman] in jail? He can't put himself on the payroll."
Theodus offered one other insight. Although trial testimony, primarily from a string of former business agents, indicated that it was Harold Friedman who kept their noses to the grindstone, the one with the real clout in any Teamsters local can vary from unit to unit, but is always the one whom the local's bylaws designate as "the principal officer."
A check of the bylaws of Teamsters Local 507 shows that the "the principal executive officer" there is the secretary-treasurer, a post that has always been held by Jackie Presser.