By Greg Roberts
The forthcoming Netflix movie The Irishman (due November 1) is based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, which details the deathbed confessions of Frank Sheeran. Sheeran was a World War II veteran from Darby, PA who later became a truck driver and contract killer. Sheeran was eventually employed by Jimmy Hoffa as a Teamsters official and worked for both Hoffa and Northeastern PA mob boss Russell Bufalino. Sheeran’s story is interesting for Philly WSA as the book details fascinating historical and geographical information about World War II, early 1900s Delaware County PA, and mid-1900s Philadelphia and U.S. labor history.
It is worth pointing out that the book I Heard You Paint Houses is steeped in controversy, for several reasons. In the book Sheeran claims intimate knowledge of mobster involvement in election rigging that allegedly helped JFK win the presidency. Sheeran also claims to have information on mob involvement in JFK’s assassination. Sheeran makes many controversial allegations regarding JFK, Bobby Kennedy, the Teamsters organization, organized crime, etc. One fairly uncontroversial topic raised by Sheeran is the mob working with the CIA in the “Bay of Pigs” failed attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro and gain back control over the mob’s commercial empire in Cuba, which was allegedly funded by the Teamsters’ pension fund.
The book is also controversial because it paints Jimmy Hoffa in a light that is most unfavorable to folks who are sympathetic to Hoffa as well as to conservative/business labor unionism. Sheeran details Hoffa’s ruthlessness in intimidating rank-and-file Teamsters struggling to bring democracy to and gain control over their own organization. Sheeran also details how Teamsters members and officials raided AFL-CIO locals. While the specific details of all these things are controversial, the general labor history around Teamsters/AFL-CIO locals (and other unions) raiding each other is not particularly so. Sheeran also details how mobsters and corrupt labor officials and politicians all worked together to enrich themselves and other powerful figures, against the interests of rank-and-file members and the general public.
As left libertarian labor activists we’re all too familiar with the damage raiding does to building working class solidarity, as well as the need for rank-and-filers to have direct control over their own labor organizations. We’re also familiar with how corrupt business unionism often mirrors the interests of employers, when both invest capital and muscle in the political machine to advance their own interests, against that of rank-and-file members and the general public. That’s why we fight for a new independent labor movement that’s self-managed democratically by the rank and file and builds militant working class solidarity.
Philadelphia-area activists and historians will likely find the information in I Heard You Paint Houses to be fascinating from the perspectives of critical geography, social science and labor history/activism. Sheeran’s accounts of growing up in 1920s Delaware County, and later living in Philadelphia are filled with many interesting anecdotes and geographical notes. Those of us with experience in anti-war activism may find it illuminating how Sheeran recounts his participation in war to helping him later kill for hire without remorse. For labor activists, the harsh realities of mob infiltration in labor organizations and top-down conservative/business unionism are not glossed-over in this book. Many of us are excited for the forthcoming star-studded film The Irishman, hoping that it portrays these topics in a factual and historically valuable manner.