Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 861

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 861


This is the grave of Daniel Tobin.

Born in 1875 in County Clare, Ireland (here we have another example of the gravestone likely having an incorrect date), he grew up in middling circumstances in Ireland. His father was a shopkeeper. With economic opportunities limited, Tobin, like so many other Irish of the era, migrated to the United States in 1890. He found a job as a sheet metal worker while also taking high school courses at night. In 1894, Tobin took a job as a street car driver. This led to the life-changing moment for him: he became a Teamster.

Tobin was a charter member of Teamsters Local 25 in Boston and he soon became a leader as well. He won election as the local’s business representative in 1904 and then in 1907, became president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (which formed in 1903 out of various teamsters’ unions). Tobin would remain president of the Teamsters for a mere 45 years. His election came out of a disastrous strike in Chicago where IBT leaders had been indicted in an extortion plot. The membership evicted the leadership and Tobin won in a narrow victory. It was a divided union and Tobin had significant opposition to his leadership for the next few years before he took total control.

Tobin was like a lot of union leaders in these days–a complete totalitarian in running the organization. From Samuel Gompers to John L. Lewis, this was very common. But the IBT also was a pretty decentralized organization, with local councils having a lot of autonomy. This was not something Tobin or his successors, including much later, Jimmy Hoffa, would have much ability to rein in. But at the leadership level, it was Tobin’s show. From the very beginning of his tenure, Tobin led the Teamsters in a tough and often violent war against the National Union of United Brewery Workmen over jurisdiction over organizing beer wagon drivers. Much of the American Federation of Labor’s job during these years was deciding jurisdictional battles and the AFL sided with the Teamsters here, but the Brewery Workmen did not just roll over and die. This battle went on for a mere 60 years, well beyond Tobin’s lifespan. This was very ugly, though the details are a bit arcane for a post like this. But what it did represent was Tobin’s desire to make the Teamsters the largest and strongest union in the nation. One way to do that was to aggressively demand jurisdiction anywhere imaginable in transportation. He succeeded in this. Moreover, Tobin organized the Teamsters into regional councils and created centralized forms of governance that laid the groundwork for a functional union.

Tobin initially opposed American entry into World War I. But when the AFL went whole hog into the war effort, Tobin changed his mind and joined Gompers. He was nothing if not a supporter of Gompers after all. By this time, he was AFL Treasurer, having defeated an incumbent candidate labor reformers said was not organizing workers fast enough. Tobin was an odd choice for socialists and Progressive to support since he was a strict anti-radical, though a supporter of strike support funds at least. From this point for the next fifteen years, Tobin was arguably the most important person in the labor movement outside of Gompers. William Green would replace Gompers as AFL chief in 1924, but Tobin was probably more powerful than Green and along with other major international leaders such as Big Bill Hutchison and Matthew Woll really ran AFL policy.

On policy, Tobin was a mixed bag, even for a man of his time. Again, he was a strict anti-radical. But he was willing to support radical-led strikes with financial contributions. One area where he strictly opposed Gompers was on the AFL’s opposition to unemployment insurance, which would amazingly continue until a grassroots revolt on the issue in 1932 forced the federation’s hand. This came out of the belief that government intervention in the labor movement would constrain unions and ultimately support employers. But this would then lead to the labor movement supporting policies that actively hurt workers. He fought to get the federation to endorse Bob LaFollette for president in 1924, though he didn’t win that battle either. An active Democrat (unlike many AFL leaders who remained vigorous Republicans well past the New Deal, including John L. Lewis), he demanded the federation support Al Smith in 1928 over Herbert Hoover. Green refused this. Tobin resigned from the AFL board and AFL feared its largest union would disaffiliate over the matter, though that did not happen. On the other hand, Tobin led the fight to defeat a Black-led movement in 1921 to force locals and internationals to delete white-only language from their charters and admit workers regardless of race, national origin, or religion. Sigh. He also would not tolerate communism in his own union, leading him to dismantling the legendary Trotskyite-led Local 574 in Minneapolis, which had led the epic 1934 strike that helped usher in the National Labor Relations Act. Can’t have that kind of political independence, no sir. In fact, after the passage of the Smith Act, he helped the federal government build cases against the Minneapolis leadership. Although most of them never served any prison time, it still broke the local.

Tobin would be a big FDR supporter, though once the CIO formed and industrial unionism ruled the day, CIO leaders thought him tremendously ineffective in any political action and eventually formed CIO-PAC to really drive workers into the Democratic Party. Tobin eventually followed along with the CIO strategy as a minor player, even though he never ever supported the CIO’s existence. William Green wanted FDR to pick Tobin to be Secretary of Labor in 1933 and was furious when he chose Frances Perkins instead. After all, not only was Perkins a woman, but she was not a labor leader and that position and traditionally got to a loyal union head, regardless of administration. I’ll go ahead and say that FDR made the right choice here. Tobin also hated the idea of industrial unionism. He didn’t exactly oppose the National Labor Relations Act, but he was upset that it did not do more to protect the privileges of craft unionism against industrial unionism. Of course, a craft unionist model would never have organized the masses of American workers and built worker power. But AFL leaders never could see that, more focused on their myopic vision of a 19th century style of labor that finally drove John L. Lewis to form an entirely new federation. Tobin remained one of FDR’s leading labor supporters and served in a variety of government roles during World War II.

Now, we have to get to the issue of corruption. By the 1940s, the Teamsters already had the stain of corruption on it. I don’t know a lot of evidence to show that Tobin was personally corrupt, though I haven’t looked into the matter much. But what I do know is that he was so jealous of his union’s autonomy that he not only defended the union from corruption allegations but increased power at the regional council level that allowed for even greater corruption by reducing accountability.

As Tobin aged, he started losing power over the union. Dave Beck, who came out of Seattle and was definitely corrupt, started taking power from Tobin in 1947 when he forced the creation of a VP in the union, which he then filled. He took over many of the major union offices with his supporters and by the late 40s, Tobin was really president in name only while Beck ran the show. This happened when Beck and his long-time enemy Jimmy Hoffa teamed up in a new alliance against Tobin, right before the latter was about to denounce Beck to the AFL during a period of Teamster raiding against the International Association of Machinists that Beck had led. This forced Tobin to back down, as he feared losing his beloved presidency more than he did stopping the raids.

Tobin and Beck continued to battle for control of the union until 1952, when Beck gave Tobin a huge payoff to step down, after threatening to give him nothing if Tobin ran again and lost. Beck forced Tobin to nominate him as replacement in order to humiliate the old man, then passed a number of resolutions to make it harder for an internal challenger to do to Beck what Beck had done to Tobin. If this all sounds very mafia, well, there’s a reason for that.

As part of the deal, the Teamsters bought Tobin a super nice house in Florida with a car and driver and other luxuries. So he moved down there and spent the last three years of his life in comfortable exile, dying in 1955 at the age of 80 in a hospital in Indianapolis, where he had lived for a long time beforehand and where his doctors were. He had a bad ticker.

Now, I wasn’t totally sure this was this Daniel Tobin’s grave. It’s not that uncommon of a name and there is the discrepancy in the birth date. John and Katharine Tobin are the names of two of his children, but that’s not necessarily dispositive. I have no idea who Helen Boylan is, but she is not one of his two wives, neither of which are buried here. Moreover, the Wikipedia entry says he was buried in Indianapolis. However, if you go to the Find a Grave site for Tobin, what is shown there but a picture of his death certificate, which shows that he did die in Indianapolis, but is buried in Cambridge Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other leading Teamsters, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. As you read this, I am presently on my first flight since the pandemic, to serve the needs of you all who have donated. So please help me defray the costs and keep this series alive. Dave Beck is in Seattle and Jimmy Hoffa, oh wait, a minute. Uh. Well, Frank Fitzsimmons is in Cathedral City, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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