Opponents of union corruption in the last couple months have been twice blessed – with books. Earlier this year Robert Fitch’s Solidarity for Sale (Public Affairs Press) recounted decades of organized labor getting its hands dirty with criminal underworld figures, in the process refuting the wish-fulfillment behind the idea of unionism’s long-lost Golden Age. Now another tome on the subject, also a mix of meticulous scholarship and outrage, has made its appearance. It’s called Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement (New York University Press), and it pulls no punches. The author, James B. Jacobs, a law professor at NYU, has published extensively on organized crime. Back in the 80s, in fact, he led the New York State Organized Crime Task Force’s investigation of corruption among unions and contractors in the New York City construction industry. Like Fitch, though in a lawyer’s voice, he knows details.
To a large degree, Jacobs explains, union business is the mob’s business. Nearly two dozen of the chieftains who convened at the infamous 1957 Mafia summit meeting in Appalachin, N.Y. were directly connected with unions or labor-management bargaining groups. Not that much has changed. When then-U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Rudy Giuliani filed a civil RICO suit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in June 1988, the complaint named as defendants the union’s leaders, the five Cosa Nostra families of New York, and prominent mobsters in Chicago and Milwaukee. And despite all the arrests and convictions of International Longshoremen’s Association officials over the past few decades, the union was still mobbed-up enough as of last year to merit a civil RICO suit filed against it in Brooklyn, N.Y.
So how did the Mafia work its way into the unions? Jacobs offers several explanations. First, they often came by invitation. In the early days, facing bitter opposition by employers and on occasion hired goons, unions fought back by hiring goons of their own. Second, unions are often family fiefdoms. More than one might think, officers of mob-dominated unions inherit their positions, James P. Hoffa, Jr. (Teamsters) and Terence O’Sullivan (Laborers) being prominent examples. That loyalty factor makes union criminal networks that much more difficult to penetrate. Third, police and prosecutors often may be subservient to party machines controlling City Hall, who in turn may do the bidding of organized criminals. Even when not in the mob’s hip pockets, they often are outmanned. Fourth, and arguably most importantly, many Mafia leaders see unions as crown jewels of their respective empires. And keeping the revenue flowing may require bribery, embezzlement, vandalism, arson, extortion and murder to keep dissenters in line. Career advancement means controlling a local union, then the international union, and finally the industry, or its key firms, in order to fix prices and contracts. The Genovese crime family, for example, gained control over the New York City District Council of Carpenters by controlling access to jobs. Craft unions, as opposed to industrial unions, Jacobs notes, are especially vulnerable to underworld control because their mobile labor forces are heavily dependent upon the good graces of unions to find work.
Politically, Jacobs, like Fitch, leans toward Left-progressivism, though not of the sort living in perpetual denial. Jacobs makes clear his objective is to reform unions, not bust them. He writes: “I know from experience that some readers will disagree with my assertion that this is a pro-labor book, but I do insist upon it…(T)here is nothing anti-labor about exposing and explaining organized crime’s infiltration and exploitation of the labor movement. Indeed, the heroes of this book are those labor leaders and rank and filers who opposed and struggled against labor racketeering, sometimes at the cost of their lives.”
But Jacobs knows that heroism needs the proper tools. His preferred remedy is the civil RICO trusteeship. He readily admits that imposed trusteeships usually have not succeeded in ridding unions of bad elements, despite the noble exception here and there, such as Teamsters Local 560 in northern New Jersey and the unions operating out of the Jacob Javits Convention Center on Manhattan’s West Side. But victory in such cases takes years, indeed more than a decade. So far we have not been willing to exploit the full possibilities of this approach. To break up rackets, trusteeships will require more pre-planning and oversight, a reorientation especially difficult with shifts in surveillance and prosecution priorities in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But great accomplishments, the author reminds us, require perseverance.