It’s hardly front-page news that union corruption in this country goes back many decades. What may be less obvious is that some of the best exposes of organized labor’s goons and embezzlers have come from critics within their ranks. A new book, scheduled for February release, makes a strong case for union leaders to pay more attention to dissenters, and in the process avoid having to deal with cops, prosecutors and the courts later on. Written by former professor (Cornell, NYU) and longtime union organizer Robert Fitch, it’s called Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise (Public Affairs Press). It makes for a superb companion to Linda Chavez and Daniel Gray’s Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics and Herman Benson’s Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement (Association of Union Democracy), both published in 2004. In fact, this one’s even better.
Fitch, 67, has seen his share of union crooks through the years. He writes from the perspective of a distinctly New York City political type: the Leftie mugged by reality. Equally importantly, he puts the reader in the mind of modern film noir, a la GoodFellas, Casino, Hoffa and Donnie Brasco – all movies dealing, directly or indirectly, with union corruption. Solidarity for Sale, often through cross-cutting from one scene to the next, conveys the intimidation, the betrayal and the violence embedded in that world. Portions of the book have appeared previously as articles in the Village Voice.
So what explains the massive corruption? Fitch points to a patronage system as territorial as any banana-republic fiefdom. In virtually every union, local rainmakers receive protected status, the availability of jobs being tied to the bosses who dole them out. This system is a virtual invitation to gangsters to muscle their way into locals, district councils and on occasion international unions. It’s a system, moreover, protected by 70 years of federal labor law and court decisions. In addition, he argues, union officials have promoted a sentimental “usable-history” narrative, which enables them to deny or conceal crime with a clear conscience. In this narrative, whose initial glorious burst of energy and idealism inevitably occurs in the 1930s, unions are the heroic voices of working men and women everywhere standing up to rapacious employers.
Fitch proposes a quid pro quo as the best hope for reform: Employers must give up resistance to worker representation; unions in turn must give up their twin National Labor Relations Act-sanctioned privileges of exclusive representation and (in non-Right to Work states) mandatory dues payments as a condition of continued employment. Otherwise, he argues, labor leaders risk relegating many of the workers they claim to represent to Dickensian sweatshop conditions and chronic semi-poverty. For someone who still maintains ties to organized labor, that’s an unexpectedly welcome assessment. But read the whole book, not just the conclusions. It’s an indispensable guide to making the people who run labor unions accountable to rank-and-file membership and the general public.