For more than 100 years, the Teamsters Union has been at the forefront of the struggle for workers’ rights in North America. The Teamsters early on believed in “no color line” and would not hold with the practice of separate unions for black members. Women and minorities were part of the membership from the beginning, with black Teamsters attending at the founding convention. Teamster contracts included provisions for equal pay as early as 1917. That year, the union won a clause in a contract for women laundry workers that employees would be paid the same regardless of race.
A cardinal rule of the labor movement—and for life in general—is that one must study the past in order to better prepare for the future. Over the years, the Teamsters Union has been privileged to call some very remarkable men and women Teamsters. The stories of their lives—their struggles, their sacrifices, their achievements—helped build the foundation of our great union and helped make North America a better place for all of us.
In 2006, the union started a biography series on past Teamster leaders who made a difference in not only the union, but in the labor movement and America as a whole. To inaugurate this series, the union started with the story of John Cleveland, the first African-American International Vice President of the Teamsters, one of the union’s important leaders, a man who broke through barriers, a man with unquestioned integrity, and a man who devoted his life to improving society at all levels for all people—a true Teamster.
Today’s Teamsters work in almost every imaginable occupation and hail from a multitude of backgrounds and ethnicities. While our heritage and tasks may differ, we share a common commitment to guaranteeing a safe and fair workplace, a secure retirement and a decent standard of living for ourselves, our families and our fellow workers. People like John Cleveland have made sure that our union never lost sight of these goals.
To pick up your own copy of “John H. Cleveland: A Teamster’s Life,” contact your local union.