- Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement
Although I have studied American labor unions for nearly two decades, the issue of racketeering rarely has caught my attention. I suspect this is true for most of us in the field of labor studies and labor history. James Jacobs' Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement, however, offers a jolting corrective to our complacency. "Labor racketeering," Jacobs argues, "was a defining feature of American organized labor from the first decades of the twentieth century" and has contributed mightily to the decline of US trade unionism.
Jacobs, a sociologist and legal scholar, begins his well-documented, cogently argued book by reviewing the ugly history of the Costa Nostra's infiltration of important segments of American labor. Organized crime took particular aim at unions representing employees of smaller enterprises in dispersed localities. Truck drivers, hotel and restaurant employees, and construction workers were frequent victims. Patronage, intimidation, and sweetheart deals with employers who were eager to undercut militant alternatives allowed the mafia to establish toeholds that later proved nearly impossible to upend. More than any other area, infiltrated trade unions became the primary "cash cows" enriching Costa Nostra families through embezzlement, bribery, and inflated salaries for mob figures serving in union offices.
Resistance, until recently, proved futile. The FBI—under J. Edgar Hoover, who denied the existence of the mafia—turned a blind eye to racketeering even as the agency aggressively prosecuted trade union radicals. Rank-and-file reformers gained little traction and often suffered bitter defeats. The AFL-CIO, except during a brief period in the 1950s under George Meany, fought federal oversight and eschewed internal reforms. The dark tide turned, however, by the 1980s. The second half of Jacobs' book treats in detail the rise of a more aggressive FBI and Department of Justice. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) passed in 1970 greatly expanded the federal government's arsenal against organized crime. In particular RICO contains powerful civil remedies allowing the government to impose far-reaching reforms on corrupt trade unions—including the imposition of trusteeships over corrupt unions. By the mid 1980s, the DOJ had filed a barrage of legal suits against unions, backing the onslaught with substantial resources.
The results of the federal government's war, however, have been mixed. The best case scenario is the "liberation" of Teamsters Local 560, a union previously in the grips of the Provenzano crime syndicate. The government [End Page 102] managed to purge Provenzano family influence and impose a successful decade-long trusteeship.
Elsewhere, RICO suits have enjoyed less success. Jacobs depicts efforts to purge Costa Nostra influence from a number of other unions, including the New York District Council of Carpenters and the Laborers' International Union of North America. In these cases, corrosive corruption proved almost impossible to eradicate. Union members (for reasons not adequately explored by Jacobs) frequently resist government regulation and defiantly reelect corrupt officers.
Jacobs recommends even more aggressive action in the form of an SEC-like organization to monitor and regulate trade unions. Comparing the challenges of "liberating" corrupt labor unions to that of "liberating" Iraq, Jacobs hardly paints rosy prospects. But his insightful book should open the eyes of many of us who study American labor to one important reality shaping its past and its destiny.