As part of Cleveland Magazine's 30th anniversary celebration, the editors have chosen 52 of their favorite stories from the magazine's archives, and wish to share them with you.
A new story will appear every week at Clevelandmagazine.com. It might be controversial, comical, nostalgic or nonplussing. But it will be Cleveland.
From Cleveland Magazine, October 1980
Cowboy hats and pistols are the unofficial trademarks of Truckers Local 407 -- perhaps the most independent Teamsters local in Cleveland -- and when Jackie Presser appeared before its membership for the first time this past spring, he did so with trepidation.
His fear had nothing to do with not being tough enough or with not having kinship with the over-the-road haulers; as a young man Presser was known as quick-fisted and streetwise, and for a short time, was a truck driver himself. Rather, Presser's fear had to do with his insecurity about being accepted on his own. Few rank and file Teamsters had even heard his name until a decade ago, and to those who had he was known as a smart-mouthed, carefree, highly paid errand boy for William Presser, his legendary father.Despite Jackie Presser's appointment in 1976 as an International Teamsters Union vice president-a gift bestowed through his father-and his other impressive-sounding titles in state and regional Teamsters affairs, he could not personally address any local other than his own until two years ago for fear of being poorly received or rejected. Hardcore and rugged Local 407, consisting primarily of truck drivers, therefore was a special test.
For 30 minutes on a Sunday morning Presser spoke about the economy and politics to the 600 members who had gathered in their union hall a few blocks from Presser's own Local 507. They were silently attentive during the speech and rewarded him with a standing ovation at its end.
The response was a strong signal to Presser, who recently turned 54 but who seems much younger, that he had finally come of age, that he had sold himself to the most discriminating of Teamsters.
Jackie Presser is now regarded by many-both inside and outside the Teamsters-to be the toughest, most powerful man in Cleveland. In a sense his control of the Teamsters bureaucracy by itself supports that view; the Teamsters are by far the mightiest labor union in Greater Cleveland and Ohio. Presser's position alone makes him an intimidating figure in labor, business, civic and political circles. He has almost total say over whom the Teamsters in Ohio will endorse for political office, and how the union will contribute to campaigns through its wealthy Ohio DRIVE war chest.
But Presser's carefully cultivated image is also largely due to clever and elaborate use of the media. He uses his 250,000-circulation newspaper, The Ohio Teamster, to support or revile programs and politicians according to Teamster interests -- that is, Presser interests. This same newspaper, which even has the White House on its mailing list, serves as the linchpin of an eight-year-long public relations drive to publicly disseminate every word and thought of Jackie Presser. His picture graces every issue of the paper, as it does most Teamster printed material. His image is further enhanced through promotional color-and-sound movies distributed among locals. As if all this were not enough, Presser's public standing is bolstered by a campaign to get him the best possible television and daily newspaper coverage wherever and -whenever possible.
More than a study of power, then, Jackie Presser's story is a study of the selling of a Teamster -- not only to his union but to the community and politicians.
Presser rose to power within the union by playing politics with his father's connections in the Teamsters' high command on one hand, while on the other promoting himself to the rank and file as a tough labor official who is dedicated to their interests.
One thing leads to another. Presser's power in the union and his public expressions of such power not only have helped him gain the image he wants, but also have gained him the respect if not the genuine friendship of leading politicians, civic leaders and businessmen. He has won appointments to seats on various civic committees and governmental boards never before occupied by any labor representative, let alone a Teamster, by packaging himself as a corporate head and as an investor who is on a first-name basis with every key banker in the city and as the president of the Teamsters' Ohio DRIVE.
Whether the eighth-grade dropout, millionaire and former owner Front Row Theater can maintain his polished appearance, however, is, questionable. Although Presser's associates and even the FBI in Cleveland believe that he has or at least strongly wants to sever longstanding Teamster links to organized crime, recent court testimony and federal court affidavits suggest the difficulty of achieving that end.
This spring Jimmy Fratianno mafia-hitman-turned FBI-informant testified at the embezzlement trial of San Francisco Teamster Michael Tham that Presser was under the control of Cleveland Mafia Boss James (Jack White) Licavoli. And in FBI affidavits filed three years ago in Los Angeles, Presser was identified as a hidden owner along with Fratianno in a Las Vegas detergent company. While Presser denies any dealings with Fratianno in the detergent company and claims has never met Licavoli, he may be an unwitting captive to old-fashioned racketeers using his name and position.
Today Presser keeps close relations with the FBI. Yet it is no secret to federal agents here that he is regularly visited in his Teamster office by Maishe Rockman, a relatively low-key bu powerful figure in Cleveland's underworld. Rockman, brother-in-law of the late Cleveland Mafia don, John Scalish, reportedly serves as liaison between the Cleveland outfit and mob figures in other cities. He has been under FBI surveillance for many years.
According to FBI affidavits, Rockman is extremely close to Licavoli and actually was involved in plotting the bombing death of Danny Greene in 1977. Rockman was not indicted in the conspiracy to murder Greene. Licavoli was indicted but was found not guilty of the charges after a lengthy court trial.
Rockman also runs a cigarette vending machine firm in Cleveland and has been close to the Presser family for decades.
Mob ties to Teamsters certainily predated Jackie Presser's union involvement, and federal agencies have targeted Presser's father as a mob associate since his early Teamster organizing days.
Despite such allegations, Jackie Presser recalls the early organizing era with little fondness. He talks not of mob ties but of days when his father was hard-pressed to put food on the table. It was at the height of the Depression in 1936, when Jackie was only 10, that he first accompanied his father on his union rounds where he became acquainted with the tough leaders who represented a cross section of trades, and watched boxing matches where future union organizers sparred.
But because William Presser spent so much time away from home during lean Depression years, Jackie and his younger brother, Marvin, largely were raised by their mother, Faye, an immigrant from Austria-Hungary. Later, the Pressers adopted two more children, Ronnie and Toby. By the time Jackie entered his teens, he had become too much for his mother to handle.
"I was hard to contain," he recalls. "I wanted to grow up faster than
my years. I was fast with my hands and I was fast-tempered." Uninterested in
studies at Patrick Henry Junior High School, he dropped out to pursue what he
considered to be a far more valuable education on the streets.
At age 17, over the objections of his father, Presser enlisted in the Navy. As part of his World War II service obligation, he worked nights in a food processing plant. Upon discharge he diced and pitted peaches in canneries in Fresno and Modesto, California. In 1946 he returned to Cleveland to learn radio repair.
Unsuccessful in that endeavor, he took a job driving a stake-bodied truck
for the Triangle Music Company, delivering jukeboxes and vending machines. His
father by that time had joined forces with mobsters in trying to control the
vending machine territories and the lucrative union service contracts for the
machines. It was an era of bombings and violence -- an ideal time for young
Presser to establish himself as a street man and organizer.
He got his opportunity in 1947 when he joined the office staff of Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union Local 10. "Ed Miller, the president, was down to nothing in membership and he wanted somebody with charisma and balls to organize, " Presser proudly recalls.
Miller's union was composed of 650 members. Presser -- in a style that he would later adopt in the operation of his Teamsters local -- merged it with four other locals and inflated its ranks to 6,000. Barely into his twenties, Presser was rewarded for his efforts by being elected the local's president. He celebrated his success by spending union money on trips and cars.
"I wanted everyone to know about us ... I became braggadocios. I thought I was Mr. Bigshot." A dispute over the use of the union's funds became a civil court matter, and Presser was expelled from the local.
For the next few years Presser attempted to become a businessman. "I couldn't find my way around," he says. There was a bowling alley and a partnership with his friend, Max Joseph, in a $29.95 per car painting business which has since become Cleveland Commercial Auto and Truck Body.In 1952 Presser married his first wife, Patricia, and returned to union activities as an organizer for Teamster Joint Council 41, which his father had gained control of two years earlier, and as an organizer for Teamsters Local 521.
Throughout much of the fifties Jackie Presser kept a low profile, perhaps because of the intense scrutiny of the labor unions by the federal government. Presser's father in 1960 was convicted of obstruction of justice and eventually served a jail term of six months for destroying a list of persons, reportedly politicians, who in 1955 were to receive $100 champagne buckets as Christmas presents from the Teamsters. Because he refused to tell a Senate investigating committee whether he had destroyed the piece of paper, William Presser was cited for contempt and had to serve an additional 50-day jail sentence.
While William Presser was building a national reputation, his son still was considered an unruly brat -- even well into his thirties. The elder Presser reportedly turned to his old friend, Sam Klein, for help in bringing up Jackie. In a Nevada Gaming Commission investigation of a loan to Klein's Bally Manufacturing Company from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, Klein was asked about Jackie Presser.
According to the deposition, Klein said: "I've known Jackie Presser ever since he was a baby ... and go back to when his old man was very unhappy with his performance and got me to beat the shit out of him in the early sixties, try to guide him and make him behave." (Putting on his glasses to read the deposition recently, Presser begins to laugh: "He has never laid a hand on me. In his best day he couldn't lay a hand on me. In the sixties I could have put him in my back pocket and shook him around.")
It was not until 1964 that Jackie Presser first gained public attention when his Eastgate Coliseum project, also financed by a loan from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, went bankrupt and was taken over by Klein. Two years later Presser used the application cards from a dozen paint company workers to win the charter for Teamsters Local 507.
Soon after the local was conceived, Presser was nearly killed. A disturbed union member walked into Presser's office and fired a shot at him. It missed. Presser pulled his own gun and returned the fire but also missed his target; the bullet only pierced the local's charter on the wall.
Presser quickly emerged from the obscurity of Local 507 on the strength of his toughness and ingenuity, but also through the influence of his father, who in title still maintains the presidency of Joint Council 41 and the Ohio Conferene of Teamsters. The 73-year-old Presser is a quiet, but forceful presence in the union's affairs, and many labor officials believe he continues to dominate his son.
In any event, William Presser placed the mantle of union leadership on his son in 1974 when he had Jackie elected as the vice president of the joint council, an umbrella organization representing 130,000 Teamsters. Two years later William Presser surrendered as vice president of the International and had the power to hand the seat to his son.
But William Presser's role also has hurt his son. Many Italian Teamster officials in Cleveland resent Jackie Presser's rise to leadership, contending that they and not a Polish Jew should have the power. They particularly dislike him for riding on his father's coattails.
In fact, when Presser took over the reins as vice president of the council, he actually believed that John (Skip) Felice, Jr., former head of a beverage drivers local, had put out a contract on his life. Presser and his close associates, Harold Friedman and Tony Hughes, according to a federal investigator, hurriedly left town and traveled incognito by plane across the country until being reassured that Felice was not openly after Presser. Felice, convicted of embezzling Teamster money two years ago, has publicly maintained friendly relations with Presser. Privately, the men distrust each other.
The joint council technically supervises various Teamster locals under its banner, but in reality each local has autonomy. On many issues a local can defy the council leadership, which shows why Jackie Presser has an incomplete control over other Teamster local leaders.
Occasionally the lingering resentment toward Presser shared by Italian factors
within the Teamsters toward Presser surfaces. Such is the case of Charles Cimino,
Jr., who operates Local 400. The local had once included in its membership 450
hourly employees of American Seaway Foods, Inc., in Bedford Heights.
More than a year ago some of the members of Local 400 petitioned to join Presser's local, believing that its benefits were greater. Initially Presser and Harold Friedman, the Local 507 president, discouraged the plan because they did not want to alienate Cimino. Finally Cimino was offered a large salary if Locals 400 and 507 merged. Cimino rejected the offer. Then Joint Council 41 stepped in, saying it was settling a jurisdictional dispute, and transferred the memberships of the Seaway workers to Local 507, of which Presser is secretarytreasurer.
In a highly unusual move-Teamsters normally settle their differences in more direct ways-Cimino filed suit in federal court and also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board charging Local 507 with raiding its membership, and Joint Council 41 with engaging in unlawful conduct.
The grudge now held against Presser by Cimino goes very deep, says one federal
investigative source, and the situation is said to be potentially explosive.
Presser does his best to shield himself from such unpleasantness. His domain is a large, dark wood-paneled office that has a view of his local's parking lot and his red Lincoln Continental. Once he is in this office, he is protected by two sets of locked doors and plenty of burly union business agents.
Reporters find it impossible to speak with or to meet Presser without first contacting his public relations representatives, Richard Bellamy and Peter Halbin. Bellamy is a former newspaperman and son of the late Paul Bellamy, considered by many to be one of the best editors in Plain Dealer history. Halbin is a former social worker and aide to former Mayor Carl B. Stokes.
Either one or both of the public relations aides is usually present during Presser's interviews, taking notes or coaching Presser on what to say. They also play a major role in putting together The Ohio Teamster, the monthly house organ which reflects the wisdom of Jackie Presser.
During two interviews which total more than eight hours, Presser is extremely guarded in what he reveals about himself, especially about his past. He is not a story-teller and does not volunteer breadth or color to events in his life.
Although humorous and charming at times, Presser often seems a solitary figure-extremely lonely-and without dimension, much like a figure beamed on television screen. Even his own public relations man, Halbin, has a habit oif saying of Presser: "What you sees is what you gets."
The Jackie Presser who sits behind his desk lighting cigarettes with a miniature gold-plated blow torch is a man whose been has been manufactured, packaged and sold by Bellamy and Halbin.
Still, Presser deserves some credit for the product. He has significantly purged speech of profanity and malapropisms. He also has upgraded his wardrobe. As recently as 1973 he posed for publicity photographs in a dark-colored sports jacket and shirt and a light-colored tie. Today Presser might pass for a business executive. A gold identifition bracelet and a pinky ring appear to be the only remains of his former tough-guy look. (He is quite sensitive about the jewelry; in an outburst during the interview, Presser demanded that a photographer not take a picture of the hand with the ring.)
Presser is proud to have his photograph taken before his countless plaques and mementos -- possessions he refers to as medals. One locked cabinet in Presser's office is filled with golfing trophies. Golf is almost his only mental and physical release from his heavy work schedule. "If I didn't have it, I'd lose my mind," he explains.
Other than golf, sometimes in the company of such celebrities as former President Richard Nixon at the Teamster-financed La Costa spa, Presser's only hobbies are collecting coins and movies. For 20 years he amassed a gun collection, but gave it up. He is most fond of talking about his 400 to 500 movies on video tape, some of which reportedly are X-rated and stored at Teamster headquarters. Rugged Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson are his favorite actors, although he enjoys musicals and once owned a copy of Deep Throat until a borrower ruined it.
Much of Jackie Presser's life revolves around Teamster business -- day and night. The time he spends away from home contributed to the breakup of his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 1971, and there has been a great deal of strain on his marriage to his second wife, Carmen, who has twice filed for divorce.He and Carmen live in an expensively furnished $800-a-month third-floor apartment in Shaker Heights. And while Presser readily admits to being a lonely man, he rarely takes her on union business and he never socializes.
Instead, on out-of-town-trips or sensitive missions, Presser travels with Tony Hughes, who collects $79,000 a year from various positions with the Teamsters' and Bakers' unions and who is a partner with Presser's wife in The Forge restaurant.
FBI and Labor Department investitors say Hughes is Presser's liason with the Little Italy underworld and with Italians inside and outside the union, much like the late N. Louis (Babe) Triscaro was for William Presser. Hughes and Presser became friends a decade ago while Presser was searching for an organizer. "He's a street man and an indoor man here. He's a very colorful guy and well known around town. It doesn't hurt to send him into a plant or to have him at the window [of Local 507]," Presser said.
Hughes, a former Golden Gloves boxer who is rarely seen at the union hall, also functions in private business dealings for Presser. Presser says that because of his name he cannot buy property without the price being dramatically increased, and therefore he uses Hughes as a representative. Such was the case some years ago when Presser bought a home in Hughes's name.
In recalling the deal, Presser inadvertantly mentions, in the vaguest of details, arriving home one day to find the garage door slightly ajar. Suspicious, Presser checked the fuse box and discovered the wiring had been tampered with. He got someone knowledgeable about such things to inspect the house and was told that had he turned on the lights, the house would have exploded. Nonetheless, Presser still insists he does not need a bodyguard. "I don't need anybody. Nobody's shooting at me." Over the warnings of associate Harold Friedman, Presser often drives alone around Cleveland. But he does pack a handgun in a briefcase for protection.
There is perhaps nothing more revolting to the new Jackie Presser than the portrayal of the Teamsters as baseball bat carrying goons and gangsters. Of course, the 1977 bombing death of mobster and Teamster official John Nardi in the Joint Council 41 parking lot certainly has not helped Presser's campaign to clean up his labor organization's image.
"I hear cracks like, 'Don't start up your car because a bomb might be under it,' " Presser says. "People laugh at you because you're a labor official ... I've been denied a lot of things because I'm a labor official."
Presser sips from a coffee mug with "Jackie" painted boldly on its side and talks of how unions are a lot different than how they were portrayed in the movie, On the Waterfront.
"You're getting a different kind of labor leader. I'm a statesman in the business community. I know every banker in this city by his first name ...
"We're more involved in banking than most corporate executives. We have in excess of $1 billion in certificates of deposit right here. I deal with the finest law firms, the highest grade accountants. "
Presser is only fair at negotiating contracts and organizing, but he excels at planning innovative programs for Teamsters and drawing positive media coverage for such undertakings. Examples include two senior citizen retirement homes and a blood bank. "We've created a lot of things and programs in Cleveland. I feel that the Teamsters local here is a model for the rest of the country," he says.Presser also likes to discuss his recent appointment by Governor Rhodes to the City of Cleveland's Financial Planning and Supervision Commission. In fact, the listing of his memberships in civic associations spans nearly two pages of his official resume. He is the first labor representative to sit on the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, and among other things he is also a member of such groups as the Hunger Task Force and the New Cleveland Campaign. Many credit him with doing a good job in his civic work.
Picking up a pen from his desk, Presser declares: "This is a hel!,of a lot tougher than a baseball bat. While Presser still prides himself on being streetwise, he says he has learned one important lesson over the years: "You didn't have to prove to people that you were tough. You had to prove that you were smart." These days Presser rarely admits he does not know everything, says an associate.
Although he does not read books and has lacked the time to enroll in manent courses, as suggested by Belamy and Halbin, Presser has a knack for using people as resources for knowledge. He boasts of turning himself into modern-day labor leader by studying Dunn and Bradstreet reports before deciding whether Local 507 should organize a company or allow other union members to join it. "There's no point in putting a company out of business and laborers out of work. If it's a marginal business, why destroy it?"
While Presser may be denied some things because he is a Teamster, and denied acceptance among some of Cleveland's elite because he is Jewish, he is not denied money. "I'm a millonaire. So what? I can't be induced with bribes under the table. I can make million through the union," he says, explaining that all he has to do is set up couple more Teamster programs to increase his income legally,
Last year Presser was paid $208,000 as secretary-treasurer of Local 507. His other positions with Joint Council 41, the Ohio Conference of Teamsters and the International union pushed his total income to nearly $270,000.
Presser says he became a millionaire with the sale of the Front Row Theater to a company in Chicago that deals in vending machines. Other business ventures over the years have not been so successful.
Grandmother Matilda, Inc., an antique business he set up for his wife, Carmen, went bankrupt in three months and lost $15,000. A wine and spirits store in which Presser entered a partnership with Robert Moss of the Leaseway Corporation, one of the largest Teamter employers in Ohio, also went bankrupt. Presser had hoped his daughter, Bari, would one day run the store.
Six years ago Presser and two other union officials, including John (Skip) Felice, Jr., unsuccessfully attempted to urchase for $800,000 a golf course in Lorain County on which they planned to build high-rise apartments or condominiums.
Presser still holds stock in Cleveland Commercial Auto and Truck Body, but has received no compensation from it in 12 years. He also owns 500 shares of Bally Manufacturing Company stock, purchased in 1967 and now worth $20,000, according to Bellamy. Presser's children from his first marriage, Bari, 26, and Gary, 22, who is an employee of his father's local, also own 100 shares of stock each in Bally.
The full extent of Presser's business holdings has not been revealed, although Carmen, the mother of two children from a previous marriage, once asked that such information be disclosed during a divorce action. Later, Presser talked her out of the divorce.
One of Presser's business associations, which has not been reported about locally until now, involved a behind-the-scenes partnership with Irving (Slick) Shapiro of Toledo; La Cosa Nostra member Al Pilotto, who reportedly has great influence over the Laborers International Union of North America; and Jimmy (The Weasel) Fratianno, in a Las Vegas detergent company called Alfa Chemical.
According to FBI affidavits filed three years ago in Los Angeles, the company was partly capitalized with money from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund. Company representatives were trying to convince Las Vegas hotels to buy detergents from Alfa by threatening labor problems in Presser's name or by calling in Teamster loans.
The FBI also believed that Alfa, which has since become an instant-lighting-charcoal firm with a plant in Toledo, had been doing favors for public officials in California and for a governor of New Mexico to insure favorable supply contracts. In January of this year the New Mexico governor's Organized Crime Prevention Commission released a report saying former Governor Jerry Apodaca was an unwitting participant in Alfa's scheme, although it was pointed out that he did accept, on behalf of Shapiro and others, complimentary lodgings at Las Vegas hotels and casinos and free airline accommodati ons.
Presser was not indicted in the Alfa Chemical Company case-in fact, the FBI said it was unable to penetrate the firm. However, information gained from wiretaps was used to prosecute a group of persons who planned the bankruptcy of a plush, Las Vegas-style theater in New York state.
"Lots of people use Jackie's name because of his position. He has no control over that, but he was not involved," insists Presser's public relations adviser, Peter Halbin.
While Presser denies any connection with Alfa, he does admit knowing Fratianno by reputation from years ago when Fratianno lived in the Collinwood area. During the investigation of Alfa, Presser was notified by the FBI that one of his telephone conversations had been tapped. Presser said the caller was Fratianno and that Fratianno put someone on the line who inquired about detergents.
Later, FBI agents visited Presser and reportedly assured him they were unconcerned about the call. To Presser the telephone call was simply an example of Fratianno, whom he considers a hustler and a liar, throwing around his name.
"I know him as the Weasel . . . anything the Weasel says you can put in a can of worms and put it in Lake Erie," Presser says angrily. He also says Fratianno, who has admitted involvement in the Mafia killings of I I men, only wants to sell a book.
Nonetheless, Fratianno, who became a government witness after his arrest in 1977 on charges stemming from the bombing death of Danny Greene, is considered by the FBI to be its best insider on La Cosa Nostra activities since Joe Valachi. And this year in San Francisco, Fratianno testified that during 1975 and 1976 he was acting on behalf of Michael Rudy Tham in trying to improve the Teamster labor leader's position with the International through contacts with Jackie Presser and through La Cosa Nostra associates in Warren, Youngstown and Cleveland.
According to Fratianno, Tham was in the bad graces of Fitzsimmons because Tharn had been aligned with Jimmy Hoffa, a former International Teamsters union president who mysteriously disappeared in 1975. Fratianno testified that nearly any Teamster official who was still considered a Hoffa man was on the outs with the International.
During Tham's trial for embezzlement, Fratianno also testified that Presser was under the control of James Licavoli, whom he also referred to as Blackie and Jack White, the don of the Cleveland organization. He also said the Teamsters of Cleveland were run by the mob. "Jackie Presser, he told me himself that, 'I don't do nothing unless Blackie tells me,' " Fratianno testified,
Presser claims the story of Fratianno trying to patch things up for Tham with International President Frank Fitzsimmons is false. "If Fitz didn't like Rudy, he could have gotten rid of him.
"I can't tell you how close we are, Tham and I," Presser continues. To prove his point he holds up a large, clear cube containing gold coins embedded withinb that had been sitting on a table in his office. It had been a gift to Presser from Tham, who has been identified by California and New Mexico investigative agencies as an organized crime figure.
Sources in the U.S. Labor Department say one of Presser's biggest obstacles as a Teamster leader has been that orgaanized crime figures habe been unable to accept him as they have William Presser -- possibly because the elder Presser