BOSTON–From Jersey Shore to the short-lived All American Muslim to the much 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—and thus hungry for more attention–the multi-ethnic enclave of organized labor might have been our last hold-out against letting it all hang-out in this shamelessly exhibitionist genre.
But that modest stance is about to change, quite possibly for the worse, on union turf that’s very familiar.
A&E Television Networks is now filming a pilot called The Teamsters. Forget those flashy Persian immigrants, the scarf-wearing women of Dearborn, or the sacrilegious Italian stallions (and their tacky fillies) who populate the Garden State, this show is zeroing in on a local tribe that I know well, thanks to my great grandfather, who fled potato-less County Leitrim for Beantown more than 160 years ago.
According to The Boston Herald, A&E’s proposed new series will “focus on the lives and struggles of members of Teamsters Local 25,” a union with a long, colorful, and sometimes troubled history with the entertainment industry. Dorchester’s own Mark Wahlberg, the son of a Teamster, is collaborating on the project with Stephen Levinson. Levinson helped Wahlberg co-produce The Entourage, a very popular show that ran for eight seasons and recycled the actor’s own real-life experiences as an up-and-coming Hollywood star.
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 International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) executive board, where he’s been a loyal supporter of current IBT president James Hoffa and no fan of Hoffa’s feisty female critic, Sandy Pope, from Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
Re-elected by a large margin for the fourth time last year, the 70-year old Hoffa has yet to comment, publicly, on how he feels about the national media spotlight shifting, so abruptly, to another “Teamster junior” much younger and more photogenic than himself. It’s widely known, locally and nationally, that O’Brien would like to become the third Local 25 president, since the IBT’s founding, to serve in Hoffa’s position–in the post-Hoffa era (whenever that should begin). Due to the egocentricity of Teamster politics, the sub-text of Wahlberg’s show (if not the actual sub-title) could well be The Making of a President.
In the meantime, it’s not clear that becoming the next Snooki —Jersey Shore’s singular contribution to reality TV stardom—is really the best career move for a would-be national union leader? Given the local cast of characters (and 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 necessarily 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, white 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 under the captainship of George Clooney. In The Departed, he was a hard-ass Boston police sergeant caught up in the sanguinary plotting of Irish mobsters and dirty cops in Martin Scorsese’s fanciful re-imagining of the South Boston gang led by Whitey Bulger (who was badly played, per usual, by Jack Nicholson). A wily informant for the FBI and brother of our longtime state senate president, the real-life Whitey was finally pinched in Santa Monica last summer, after 16 years on the lam. He now faces trial for 19 homicides but, on the bright side, both Affleck and Matt Damon, plus a competing Hollywood creative team, are trying to make two more movies about his serial killing.
Most recently, Wahlburg starred in The Fighter, the story of a hard luck junior welterweight from Lowell, Mass., his over-weening Irish-Catholic mother, and drugged-up ex-pug brother (brilliantly portrayed by Christian Bale). This much better treatment of working class life, warts and all, upheld the local film-making tradition of Good Will Hunting (a joint creation of Affleck and Damon, before they became famous) and Mystic River, the dark Clint Eastwood adaptation of a kidnap-murder mystery by Boston novelist Dennis Lehane.
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 (and, in some cases, supplied) the wardrobe trailers used by visiting stars, chauffeured them around town, and otherwise did quite a bit of well-paid coffee-drinking and just 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 west coast production 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, even wangled bit parts for himself–as a criminal court judge in Good Will Hunting and, less anomalously, as a crew leader of Jamaican apple pickers in Cider House Rules. The Crucible was also made within Local 25’s New England jurisdiction—on Hog Island, north of Boston—but any Flynn entreaties to be cast as a Salem Puritan, circa 1690, were apparently rebuffed (and wisely so because Jimmy was no Daniel Day Lewis).
If he was still active in Local 25 today, Flynn could have been well cast in Ben Affleck’s The Town. That 2010 film was set in Charlestown, the once gritty but now rapidly gentrifying Boston neighborhood where Local 25 has its fortress-like headquarters. As movie viewers learned (in much distorted fashion from Affleck’s automatic weapons-filled cops and robbers saga), some “Townies”—like the one he portrayed—used to specialize in armored car robberies. Before too many “Toonies”—condo-buying yuppies—moved into this poor and working class Boston neighborhood, 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 Highwayman” responsible sometimes included card-carrying members of Local 25. (In Affleck’s film rendition of this felonious moonlighting, it’s a very Verizon-like telephone technician who helps disarm the alarm system of a targeted bank in Harvard Square and later aids a fatally botched heist at Fenway Park.)
Real Life in The Town
Sean 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 IBT national leader too. Big George was elected in 1991, as a reformer. He was going to change the practices that led to movie crew scandals during the tenure of William McCarthy, the old guard Local 25 leader (and former Arlington, Mass. neighbor of mine) who briefly served as national IBT president in the late 1980s. Unlike Sean, George 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]”–George 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 that was to be built in cooperation with Bunker Hill Community College (the Charlestown setting for Good Will Hunting). Both before and after he was hit with a multi-count federal indictment, George 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 people to be covered by the union medical plan, even though they were not eligible. Among the friends of Local 25 who received this costly favor was John “Mick” Murray, a convicted bank robber and much-feared associate of 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.
Some Reasonable Doubt In Southie?
While Local 25 officials await their fifteen minutes of fame ten years later, South Boston memoirist Michael Patrick MacDonald has already expressed concern about possible sensationalism in the Jersey Shore knock-off now being filmed for MTV in his old neighborhood, on the other side of the city from Charlestown.
MacDonald is the author of Easter Rising and All Souls. Both books draw on his experience, growing up as one of 11 children raised by a single mother on welfare in the Old Colony public housing project when it was part of Whitey’s drug dealing turf. He doubts that Hollywood is really capable of dealing with the complexity of life in a changing working class community like “Southie.” As he told The Herald this month: “They’re dealing with a place that has a history of organized crime and class disparity issues … things that could easily be messed with in a way that’s just wrong. When you’re dealing with really important issues that affect people’s lives at the core … it’s wrong to mess around.”
One long time Boston truck driver, who did not want to be identified, is similarly 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?”
Nevertheless, my Teamster source remains hopeful that some helpful glints of social reality might actually shine through. In any TV show about the benefits of unionism, “we would want the members to be front and center,” he told me. “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.”
Ideally, he noted, a reality show could “demonstrate how a union can build unity among workers regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or immigration status. It would illustrate working class power and union struggles for better education and child care, quality health coverage, and more jobs for returning veterans.”
Whether those lofty political goals will ever be achieved by A&E remains to be seen. If not, when The Teamsters finally airs (for a short or longer run), there may be some labor viewers, inside and outside of Local 25, longing for the good old days of the “code of silence” in Charlestown.
When he was not watching movies about Boston, 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). A version of this article was originally posted at Working In These Times. Early can be reached at [email protected])