Last of the Molly Maguires

  • For half a century, John Morris has been the one of the toughest and most feared labor leaders in the East--he's the last of a breed who openly used violence and threats against employers and fellow unionists alike. When he traveled, he was surrounded by a squad of boxers and ex-convicts. At the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service in Philadelphia, the 6-ft.-wide conference tables were nicknamed "Johnny Morris tables" because they were wide enough to prevent him from jumping over them. But not even his union brothers were prepared for what they found two weeks ago. The 73-year-old Teamster legend was ousted from his Philadelphia union after a predawn raid ordered by political foe James P. Hoffa, the newly elected president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who said Morris was preparing for a "war." Teamster officials discovered tractor trailers containing enough shotguns, pistols, stun guns, pepper spray, helmets and ammunition to outfit a small army.

    Last week Hoffa's agents and Morris' loyalists were locked in confrontation at the union hall, separated by the Philadelphia police. Inside the building, Jim Smith, a former Morris protege helping run the local, said shakily, "I'm scared for me; I'm scared for my family. He is capable of anything."

    A few yards away, in a house he owns adjacent to the local hall, Morris held court in an easy chair surrounded by burly supporters, some of whom, he says proudly, he helped get out of jail. Morris, who makes more than $300,000 a year in salary and pensions, vows he will not quietly leave the union he built and ran for 54 years. He says he bought the weapons for use in strikes. But his critics--most of whom say they are afraid to be quoted by name--tell a different story. They say that Morris, who traces his roots and tactics back to the Molly Maguires, the fierce coal miners who waged violent battles against mineowners in the 1870s, has become increasingly erratic and violent over the past few years. Teamster officials say Morris' men have told them the weapons were being readied to disrupt the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia next July. It is not as farfetched as it sounds: five of Morris' men were charged this year with savagely beating anti-Clinton demonstrators during a presidential visit to Philadelphia in October 1998.

    Morris says he sees his removal as Hoffa's revenge for his support of Ron Carey, the disgraced Teamster president who was forced from office for using union funds to rig an election. Morris served as vice president of the international union under Carey. A federal court last week blocked Morris' bid to return to his local, but he vows the only way he will leave "is toes up."