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David Witwer, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor.

David Witwer, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor (Urbana: University of Illinois Press 2009)

SHADOW OF THE Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor is David Witwer's insightful contribution to explaining the American labour movement's long-term decline. Although the literature on this subject is extensive, Witwer argues that it has largely overlooked the role of union corruption, its treatment in the media, and the way in which these have negatively affected public opinion. Thus, even when the public has generally supported the goals of the labour movement, as it did in the 1940s and 1950s, it nonetheless distrusted its leaders and organizations.

Unions are still often portrayed as rackets by the media. But, as Witwer's work reminds us, we must recognize that this is in no small part because sometimes unions are indeed corrupt rackets. While anti-union forces are eager to smear all unions as corrupt, labour's allies would be making a mistake to simply dismiss such claims out of hand.

Witwer's book is an excellent contribution precisely because he treats this difficult issue with the complexity it deserves and eschews simplistic evasions and denials. As the title of the book indicates, Witwer argues that we live in the "shadow of the racketeer." However, the racketeer is not simply an imaginary figure concocted by anti-union forces. Rather, Witwer shows that union corruption was a very real phenomenon, particularly during the New Deal era. What mattered, though, was not the simple fact of union corruption, but rather the way in which this corruption came to be represented. Labour racketeering, as Witwer demonstrates, involved a complex constellation of forces. When labour racketeering became a preoccupation of the national media, however, the broader context that gave rise to corruption was written out of the conversation, leaving behind a shallow understanding of labour racketeering that served the political interests of anti-New Deal forces.

Witwer makes his point by telling the story of a series of scandals involving George Scalise of the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU) and George Browne and Willie Bioff of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (IATSE). All three leaders had achieved prominent positions within their unions, with Scalise and Browne becoming presidents of their respective internationals. But all three also had long-term connections to organized crime that were exposed by conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler as part of his crusade against union corruption in the late '30s and early '40s. Indeed, in Scalise's and Bioff's cases, their involvement in crime pre-dated their union activities. Pegler's relentless attack on Scalise, Browne, and Bioff not only led to their convictions on racketeering charges, but also shaped the broader discourse on labour racketeering to the disadvantage of organized labour. Witwer argues that these cases and the way in which Pegler represented them laid the foundations for a sustained rollback of labour's New Deal gains.

After a preliminary biographical sketch of Pegler, Witwer sets to work filling in the broader context of labour racketeering. Specifically, he takes on the myth that the relationship between the mob and organized labour can be explained in terms of temptation on the part of union officials. The stories of IATSE and BSEIU suggest instead that this relationship is better understood as a hostile takeover. It wasn't so much that union officials were corrupted by temptation, but rather that the unions were taken over by a mob who instrumentalized and corrupted them as profitable enterprises.

But how was this possible? Witwer offers several explanations. He focuses first on the changing nature of organized crime after prohibition. As bootlegging was eliminated as a source of income, criminal organizations like Chicago's "Outfit" moved into labour racketeering, taking advantage of new networks of cooperation between criminal organizations across the country, and relying on a reign of violence that, in a context of police inaction and political corruption, enabled them to force their way onto union payrolls. George Scalise and Willie Bioff, for example, had only limited experience in organized labour before they muscled into the leadership of their respective unions.

While some unions were taken over by brute intimidation alone, Witwer shows that the "Outfit" and other criminal groups generally preferred to prey on unions in which elements of corruption were already present. Unions that were likely to develop a corrupt leadership were those in which the members were isolated from each other, leaders controlled the dispensation of jobs, and the union could exercise effective leverage over employers independent of member mobilization. So, for example, the infamous Thomas Maloy profited enormously from his position as the leader of IATSE'S Chicago projectionists' local by demanding kickbacks for favourable job placements and by extorting theatre owners, thereby attracting the interest of Chicago's "Outfit" which wanted a share in this lucrative enterprise. The dispersal of projectionists among the different theatres prevented them from coming together to challenge their union's leadership. Moreover, the nature of the movie business left theatre owners vulnerable to small acts of sabotage committed by hired thugs, making extortion easier. George Browne, who before becoming IATSE'S president was the leader of IATSE'S stagehands local in Chicago, also benefited from similar conditions. And it was after Browne, together with Bioff, managed to extort the Balaban & Katz theatre chain that the "Outfit" imposed itself as a forced partner. Witwer thus argues that there were underlying structural factors that generated corruption. Already guilty of breaking the law, and with few people they could depend on in government, unions like IATSE were vulnerable to a mob takeover. And while the unions may have been corrupt before, with groups like the "Out fit" now directly controlling them, labour racketeering reached another level entirely.

Witwer also shows how the rank-and-file were victimized by mob takeovers. Union funds were raided, shady assessments were imposed, and the mobbed-up union leaders profited by colluding with the bosses and demobilizing the membership. This gets at the second myth that Witwer challenges: employers were the primary victims of labour racketeering. Although Pegler was careful to frame his exposes of union corruption as a defence of the worker, Witwer demonstrates how the broader media discourse nonetheless focused on images of brow-beaten executives "quivering in their boots." (102) In fact, Witwer argues that the distinction between extortion and bribery is unclear, with employers often being willing partners of people like Browne, Bioff, and Scalise. Indeed, he argues that the Hollywood studios turned to organized crime during the turbulent Depression years to stabilize labour relations. Cutting deals with labour racketeers effectively allowed these employers to circumvent prohibitions against the formation of company unions. The context of union corruption, then, was more complex than portrayed. Although there was often an earlier presence of local corruption, without an aggressive, violent, and politically connected organized crime network and without willing partners among employers, labour racketeering would never have penetrated as deeply into the highest levels of some unions.

With this figure of the "racketeer" fleshed out, Witwer turns to its "shadow" by focusing on the discourse of racketeering that Pegler helped to popularize. While Witwer never questions Pegler's concern for workers caught up in corrupt unions, he also points out that Pegler was part of a broader anti-New Deal coalition that sought to weaken the Roosevelt administration by attacking New Deal labour legislation. By ignoring the context of labour racketeering, Pegler and others managed to transmute people's outrage over corruption into a suspicion of the labour movement in general. He did this by effectively redefining the term "racketeering" (already an ill-defined term) to include union actions that were perfectly legal. Moreover, the AFL's denials and evasions regarding the Bioff and Scalise scandals only fueled Pegler's case. His contribution to the anti-New Deal effort was to formulate hostility toward unions in populist terms which claimed to champion the common man against the machinations of corrupt union bureaucrats. Doing so provided a much-needed wedge to divide working-class support for the New Deal, laying the groundwork for later attacks on New Deal labour legislation.

Despite its many strengths, one wishes that Witwer had located his analysis within the broader context of the Depression era labour movement. He devotes some space to the CIO's response to racketeering, but the book would have benefited from a more systematic discussion of the CIO'S relationship to the AFL and to the "shadow of the racketeer." Witwer also glosses over the place of the Communists in all of the above, which is especially curious given their prominence in anti-union discourse. Indeed, Pegler and others consistently railed against the combined threat of racketeers and Communists, often conflating the two.

We can nonetheless learn a lot from Witwer's account of labour racketeering and its representation. Although the events of his book occurred over 60 years ago, we are still living with their consequences. Witwer documents a few efforts at union reform in the aftermath of the Bioff and Scalise scandals, but he laments their failure and the AFL leadership's lack of interest in rooting out corruption. Pegler stepped into this vacuum, and as a result the discourse on union corruption has taken on an anti-union flavor. To fight back, we must tackle this serious issue head-on with hard-headed analyses which help us to understand all the forces at play. Only on that basis can we counter anti-labour representations of labour racketeering with those honest representations which alone can truly advance the cause of labour. Witwer's book takes us a long way in that direction.


University of Michigan
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Author:Desan, Mathieu
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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