By ED FINKELSTEIN
Bobby Sansone, 78, a Teamster’s teamster who died Aug. 19, was as gregarious, hard-working, honest, sincere, loyal and fair as anyone I’ve ever known. The last two wonderful attributes, however, were key to a setback in his storied career. That and the fact, through no fault of his own, he got caught in a political crossfire between the U.S. government and the Teamsters International Union…and got burned as a result.
Robert C. Sansone, “Bobby” to everyone who knew him, died after a long illness. He dedicated his career to the cause of his members and to working men and women everywhere.
While he fought hard for his members, their wages, benefits and rights, he was both a reasonable man and a realist in dealing with employers. It was never “my way or the highway” but rather “let’s sit and work this out to benefit us all.”
And because he was a respected, trusted and honorable union leader, when a problem broke for him during the tumultuous years that the Federal government controlled the Teamsters International Union to rid it of mob influences, St. Louis businessmen, congressmen, labor leaders, religious leaders and rank-and-file members came to Bobby’s defense.
Here’s a man who, the son of a 40-year Teamster truck mechanic, at the age of 16 drove a dump truck as a Teamster Local 682 member and kept his card while in college, continuing to work to pay for his college. After graduating in 1960, he did a stint in the Army and upon his discharge in 1964 he was hired as a Local 682 business representative, servicing contracts in every facet of the construction industry where Local 682 had members. He worked his way up the leadership ladder and was elected the union’s business manager in 1975 when his predecessor Gene Walla retired.
‘IT’S IN MY BLOOD’
“The union is in my blood,” he said in his 1991 speech accepting the nomination for vice president in the Teamsters International Union as part of a reform slate.
This pinnacle point in his career was preceded by almost a decade of periodic stories in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch alleging that a Local 682 rep and union vice president, Tony Parrino, had connections with, and may have been a part of, the local mafia.
While the federal government rightly was determined to rid the Teamsters of any criminal influence, it put Sansone between a rock and a hard place.
Sansone had initiated three independent investigations over the years to determine if there was any validity to the newspaper allegations. Independent investigations by two of St. Louis’ top labor lawyers and a third outside lawyer concluded there was no evidence of Parrino’s association with the mob other than the newspaper articles that never cited sources or provided hard evidence.
That wasn’t enough for the Feds; they wanted Parrino gone. The government’s beef with Bobby — not that he was involved in anything but rather that there was a “failure to act quickly enough” in investigating Parrino and removing him from the union.
They made their charge against him six weeks before the International Union election. It was enough to doom Sansone’s election along with the entire reform slate.
In his own defense, Parrino pointed out that he was a childhood friend of many young Italian boys who later did become involved with the mob, and when he met them he socialized with them, as they were indeed boyhood friends. But he flatly denied he was ever involved in the mob. He ultimately resigned from the union in an effort to prevent any unfair actions against Sansone and Local 682.
In truth, the allegations against Parrino were very shaky. During the three separate investigations initiated by Sansone, it was discovered that:
- A former Secret Service agent, then a private investigator, declared there was no direct knowledge that Parrino had any gangster ties and that Sansone could not have reasonably done anything more than he did to investigate the unfounded allegations.
- Parrino’s name did not appear on a government list of more than 150 suspected mob associates within the Teamster’s union.
- Charges of alleged mob connections were only in unsubstantiated newspaper articles, whose author refused to cite sources.
- Parrino had absolutely no criminal record, and in fact the chief of police told one of the lawyers that he was never even on their watch lists.
FAIRNESS HIS DOWNFALL
This is where Sansone’s commitment to fairness failed him.
Sansone made it clear to the Feds that despite what was happening to him, in all fairness he could not fire Parrino for two reasons: First, there was no evidence to support the allegations and, therefore, it would be unfair to fire him as a union rep. Secondly, as Parrino was a vice president elected by the membership, he had no authority to discharge him from that office.
Said Bobby at the time in a Labor Tribune interview:
“In all fairness, with that kind of record and lack of any hard evidence, I simply could not fire a man because of a newspaper article. I made a judgment call, one that the lawyers said was mine to make because there was no law that required Tony’s firing under these circumstances.”
COMMUNITY HAD HIS BACK
During all this turmoil, the community supported Bobby as a leader, as an honest man, as a sincere and dedicated trade unionist. He was defended by 150 people who submitted written letters and affidavits – almost 100 from rank-and-file Teamsters, the balance from business, civic and religious leaders.
The list included such notables as then U.S. Attorney Thomas Dittmeier, St. Louis Post-Dispatch Publisher Nicholas Penniman, Congressmen Richard Gephardt and William Clay, former U.S. Senator Thomas Eagleton, Labor Council President Bob Kelley, PRIDE Management Co-chair Alfred Fleischer, St. Louis Mayor Vincent Schoemehl, St. Louis County Executive Buzz Westfall, former U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Senator William Saxbe, St. Louis Archdiocese Human Rights Director Monsignor John Shocklee, Missouri Attorney General William Webster, Management attorneys Robert Vining and Ned Lemkemeier and former Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court John Bardgett Sr.
Despite all this, the Feds said Bobby didn’t act “forcibly enough” so in early 1992 he was forced to resign all his positions within the Teamsters union: president of Local 682, president of Joint Council 13, president of the Missouri-Kansas Conference of Teamsters, an International Representative and trustee of the Central States Pension and Welfare Funds.
IRONY OF IT ALL
Adding to the irony of the entire farce, a federal background check prior to Bobby’s becoming a Central States trustee found that he was of the “highest character and reputation.”
But the Labor Movement, who respected and supported him throughout his ordeal, understood how Sansone was screwed.
Despite his travails with the Feds, in October 1992 Bobby was elected executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building & Construction Trades Council when then leader Dick Mantia went to work for his International Union. Bobby served until he retired in June 1998.
In November 1992 Sansone was honored as the Building Trades Man of the Year along with prominent construction leader Tom Dunne. At that dinner, Congressman Richard Gephardt said, “Tom Dunne and Bob Sansone are those kinds of rare individuals who are both great and good to the core.”
LEADERS SPEAK OUT
Marvin Kropp, current president of Joint Council 13, described Sansone as a man who worked tirelessly to advance the St. Louis Labor Movement and mentored many.
“I can still remember walking the picket line with him during NFL player strike in the 1980s at old Busch Stadium assisting the St. Louis football Cardinals,” Kropp said. “If there was a Labor problem Bob was there.
“One of the things that made Brother Sansone beloved in the Labor Movement,” Kropp added, was his uncanny ability with names.
“He could meet you one time but he would remember your name, and if your wife and kids were there, he would remember their names as well and ask about them the next time he saw you.
“He was just a great guy and he treated everybody the same,” Kropp said. “It didn’t matter whether you were a political official or a custodian at one of the shops. He respected everyone he met and treated everyone the same.
“He was a tough negotiator, but fair, and he could get things done in St. Louis at that time. He always cared about the members and it showed in his tireless efforts to always advance the St. Louis Labor Movement.”
Jeff Aboussie, executive secretary-treasurer of the St. Louis Building Trades Council, echoed similar sentiments.
“Bobby always put the members first, whether it was the membership of International Brotherhood of Teamsters or the members of the Building Trades whom he served. I think when Bobby retired he really missed serving the membership, and they missed him as well.”
COMMITTED TO UNION, COMMUNITY
During his 62 years in the Teamsters union, Bobby Sansone served his Labor community and the St. Louis community with honor and pride:
For Labor: in addition to his positions in the Teamsters already noted, he served on the executive boards of the St. Louis Labor Council, the Missouri State Building Trades Council, the St. Louis Port Council, and as Labor co-chair of PRIDE.
For his community: on the boards of the St. Louis Regional Commerce & Growth Association (now the Regional Chamber), the St. Louis Area Boy Scouts Council, as a member of the St. Louis County Planning Commissions Technical Advisory and Review Committee, as a member of the Missouri Highway Funding Task Force’s executive committee and co-chair of the State of Israel Bonds Committee.
A devout Catholic, for the last several years he spent his Sunday mornings serving coffee at St. Vincent DePaul Parish, which provides outreach to the homeless.
CONDOLENCES TO HIS FAMILY
The entire Labor Movement expresses its condolences to the Sansone family.
Survivors include his wife of 30 years, Terri Sansone, of Chesterfield; sons Nicholas Sansone, 44, of Fairview Heights, and Joseph Sansone, 47, of St. Louis; a sister, Mary Ann Barthelmass; and two grandchildren.
Funeral services were held Aug. 24 at the Kutis Funeral home chapel followed by a Mass at St. Anselm Catholic Parish. Interment was in Resurrection Ceremony.
Donations can be made to St. Vincent DePaul Parish, 1408 South 10th Street, St. Louis, Mo., 63104; or Most Holy Trinity Scholarship Fund in care of the St. Anselm Parish, 530 South Mason Road, Creve Coeur, Mo., 63141.
Bobby Sansone was a special man, a special leader, and a special friend to everyone, myself included. May His Soul Rest In Peace. No one deserves it more.