The Curse on Unions

Solidarity For Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise by Robert Fitch (PublicAffairs, 560 pages, $28.50)

Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement by James B. Jacobs (New York University Press, 320 pages, $32.95)

America's unions may be shrinking, but the literature on their decline could fill a small library. Explanations abound. There's globalization, and there's the shift from manufacturing (big plants, easy to organize) to services (smaller workplaces, harder to organize). There was the move of American businesses from the union-friendly Snow Belt to the union-bashing Sun Belt. There's the near total antipathy of American employers to unions, and the rise of the billion-dollar, union-avoidance consultant industry. There's the failure of American labor law to protect workers in the face of union-resistant employers. There's the inertia of American unions themselves, most of which forgot how to organize new workers during the fat years and couldn't for the life of them remember how to do it when the lean years rolled around. And there's American public opinion -- at times, hostile to unions, at times friendly, and with each passing day, so increasingly distanced from the life of unions that it really doesn't know what to think.

Now come two new volumes that tell the reader to forget all that -- well, most of it, anyway -- and focus instead on what they insist is the original sin of the unions themselves: corruption. Not that most unions have ever been corrupt, or that any but a handful of unions have been totally corrupt, but if anyone was skeptical that you could fill the pages of a book with a chronicle of corruption, these books dispel those doubts -- at least at first glance.

Indeed, the author of the more sweeping indictment, independent journalist Robert Fitch, sees corruption wherever he looks, and extrapolates it to places where he hasn't looked at all. A journalist based in New York who has been on the corruption beat for more than a decade, Fitch covered the embezzlement and voting-fraud scandals at DC 37 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees -- the union of New York City workers that was once the nation's flagship of progressive municipal unionism. He also chronicled the downfall of one-time Teamster president and reformer golden boy Ron Carey, whose backers illegally funneled Teamster treasury money into Carey's re-election campaign. DC 37 lost its moral cachet and Carey his position in these scandals; Fitch lost all sense of perspective.

This is not to gainsay that Fitch has done some valuable digging in unearthing the misappropriations in unions such as DC 37. But having found hell in New York's civic center, he sees fire and brimstone wherever workers congregate. DC 37's “corrupt governance,” he claims, is significant because of what it “says about the dismal state of public-sector unionism in America, which has followed the same numerical and moral trajectory as private-sector unionism.” Later, he adds, “Nor is there much reason to believe that standards of integrity in DC 37 were significantly below those of other large public-sector unions in the city or around the country.” For these sweeping claims, Fitch provides no substantiation.

It's a methodology he extends to other unions, too. Calling UNITE-HERE the country's “most idealized” union, he provides a long account of the travails of the Chinatown and garment-trucking locals of the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union, one of the four principal unions that have merged over the past several decades to form UNITE-HERE. To devotees of organized-crime or garment-industry lore, there's nothing new about many of these stories -- going all the way back to the days when the gangster Arnold Rothstein used his thugs to extort garment manufacturers and shortchange their workers.

Today, as Fitch acknowledges, those old locals have dwindled to virtually naught, and the union is run and staffed by people out of UNITE-HERE's other predecessor unions who ran the J.P. Stevens boycott and organized Cannon Mills and are working to unionize the Hilton Hotel chain -- all exemplary efforts about which Fitch has nothing to say. But as Fitch sees it, because the Lucchese crime family once controlled garment trucking in New York, the new union still carries a burden of suspicion.

New York looms ineluctably large in Fitch's tales of corruption and in those of New York University law professor James Jacobs, a key figure in task forces that investigated Mafia control of unions in the mid-'80s and early '90s. Not only was the Big Apple home to the greatest concentration of organized crime families (particularly in the days before a federal prosecutor named Rudi Giuliani took many of them down) but also to a vast number of nonindustrial unions that used hiring halls to supply workers to small businesses. In the early 1950s, Daniel Bell, who had worked as a labor reporter before becoming a sociologist, argued that organized crime had provided price stability for small businesses in some industries, but that the hiring-hall process enabled mobsters to dispense work to their own loyalists (collecting kickbacks as they went) and deny jobs to everyone else. Jacobs points out how the mob's control of construction work at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center could not be broken until the center abandoned the hiring hall and simply made its construction workers full-time employees.

Jacobs' is in good measure a book of lists: of Teamster locals prosecuted under anti-racketeering laws; of which crime families controlled which construction locals; of Mafia bosses with links to unions; of union leaders convicted and sentenced; of union figures murdered. Happily, there are no entries after 1992 in this last, lengthy hit list -- which could mean that the families are growing less violent or less powerful, that their penetration of unions has diminished, or merely that their aim has deteriorated. In fact, the events recounted in both books are not really ripped from today's headlines, though both authors, Fitch most especially, intimate that plenty of evil still lurks.

Fitch's disdain for the existing labor movement knows no bounds and is particularly acute for reformers who fail to measure up to his own standards. Teamsters for a Democratic Union? A bunch of saps who fell for Carey and have backed some corrupt local officials. Hotel and Restaurant President John Wilhelm? Cleaned up his predecessors' dubious locals, but failed to acknowledge his union's mobbed-up past. Andy Stern of the Service Employees? Also cleaned out corrupt local officials, but prefers very large locals with little participation to smaller, more democratic ones. (Never mind that it was the strength of the Chicago janitors' mega-local that enabled Houston's janitors to win a local of their own.) Labor historians David Montgomery, Philip Foner, Stanley Aronowitz, Mike Davis; labor liberals Louis Brandeis and the New Dealers? Too much stress on business power, not enough on union self-subversion.

Both Fitch and Jacobs point out that the United States holds a wide lead over other advanced democracies in its rate of union corruption (as it does in other crimes as well). Fitch argues this is a consequence of the hiring hall and of the all-or-nothing representational model that comes with the closed shop. My own surmise is that it is also a function of the nonideological nature of many American unions and the people who run them. But Fitch and Jacobs essay the reverse equation: that America's failure to develop a socialist movement is largely the result of union corruption. Would that were all there were to it.

Fitch and Jacobs are right that union corruption has helped to sour the American public on unions. But the world of unions is nowhere near so foul as Fitch would have us believe, nor the world of business so fair that if unions were angels, workers could get a fair shake.

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