NPR logo Solidarity for Sale: Corruption in Labor Unions

Solidarity for Sale: Corruption in Labor Unions

The 1954 film On the Waterfront tells a sordid tale of corruption and crime in a New York longshoreman’s union. According to Robert Fitch, author of “Solidarity for Sale,” not much has changed in the American labor movement. Fitch tells Steve Inskeep that today's unions ranging from the garment industry to construction to the longshoremen are "classically corrupt."

Though Fitch says most lower-level union staff have their members’ best interests at heart, he alleges that top leaders often sell workers short, negotiating personal profits from companies in exchange for not organizing its workplaces.

Though Fitch's investigations seem to back the conservative critique that unions are inherently corrupt and inefficient, he argues that, with stagnant wages and rising worker safety issues, the principles of labor organization should be strengthened.

Excerpt: 'Solidarity for Sale'

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Public Affairs Books

Preface

"Mokita" is the term used by the Trobriand Islanders of Papua New Guinea for a truth that everybody knows but no one talks about. Corruption is mokita in the AFL-CIO. For generations, in the construction, longshore, hospitality, and teamster unions, mobsters have had more influence than the members in choosing the leaders; pension funds are stolen; and bribes smooth the way for contractors to replace union members with lower-paid non-union workers. To control union wrongdoing, the Justice Department routinely resorts to the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, treating labor unions as criminal enterprises. In defense, union leaders provide politicians huge contributions— essentially for Get Out of Jail Free cards.

Even though, as a Harris Poll released just before Labor Day 2005 showed, most union households disapprove of American unions, the main reason for their disapproval is never openly discussed in union media or addressed at union conventions. "Sure, unions are flawed," the defenders of American unions will concede when pressed. "They have people in them. So what do you expect? But they’re like democracy: a flawed solution that is preferable to any of its competitors."

But it’s misleading to blame the pervasive corruption of American unions on human nature or on the nature of unionism. You don’t find gangsters running European unions.

Nor does blaming the values of American business culture get us far. Even the leftists who ostentatiously reject those values somehow wind up living by them when they become American union leaders.

Corruption flows rather from the retarded development of American unions, which still haven’t broken out of nineteenth-century models of labor organization. The classic aim of the American union is still to monopolize a territory; the means—an exclusive bargaining contract; the result— 20,000 local unions that inevitably behave more like semiautonomous fiefdoms than like a genuine labor movement pursuing the common good for working people.

Despite the way corruption cripples every vital union function—from organizing to mounting strikes to safeguarding pension money—even many dedicated unionists believe that any open discussion of the corruption problem would undermine the movement. Most progressives inside the AFL-CIO deeply resent critics of union corruption. Yet I believe well-meaning insiders who close their eyes to the significance of corruption can and must be challenged, because for years, as a union member and later as a union staffer, I was one of them.

In the beginning, at least, my blindness could be attributed to youth. I was fifteen when I joined Local 5 of the Laborers. The ordinary members of the local couldn’t figure out what I was doing in the Chicago Heights, Illinois, based organization. Most members were Italian or black. I was Jewish, and I’d been wearing big thick glasses from the time I was five. "Cookie," a giant black fellow ditch digger, immediately dubbed me “The Professor.” Although he watched my back, he rode me constantly. I would retort that he was welcome to reign as the Lord of the Ditches, but I was going to college.

One late summer afternoon just before the 4:30 quitting time, I was digging away in a rowhouse project, just south of Chicago Heights and a few miles west of the Indiana border. I noticed a small cloud of dust on the flat horizon. It kept getting bigger and bigger, until the cloud produced a big black Buick that pulled up to my ditch. Two men in suits got out. They were business agents from Local 5. Towering over me, as I stood clutching my shovel, the shorter one insisted, “You gotta pay your initiation fee.” I’d just been paid, so I reached into my back pocket, took out my sweatsoaked wallet, and handed over the cash. While I don’t remember getting a receipt, I do distinctly recall being politely thanked. Then the two suits drove away in the Buick.

I forgot about my brief encounter with the Local 5 officials until many years later. In 1986, I was just beginning a career in the labor movement when Chicago was shaken by the news of one of the most brutal of the more than 1,000 gangland murders in the city’s history. The bodies of Anthony "The Ant" Spilotro and his brother Michael, both members of the Chicago Outfit, had been found buried in a shallow grave in an Indiana cornfield. They’d been beaten with shovels and then buried alive. The revolting and terrifying "batting practice" scene is reprised near the end of Martin Scorsese’s Casino.

Federal authorities found the bodies and the man who supervised the operation. He was Albert Tocco, the boss of the Chicago Heights crew that ran Local 5. His wife, Betty, gave him up by leading authorities to where the bodies were buried, and Tocco eventually received a 200-year sentence. According to testimony provided in 1997 at the trusteeship hearings into mob control of the Chicago Laborers District Council, Tocco had help from Local 5 officials: Nicholas "Nickie" Guzzino and Dominick "Tootsie" Palermo. They wielded the shovels.

It still gives me a shiver to think about the Spilotros’ burial by union business agents. But had I known about it at the time, I don’t think it would have affected my decision to become a business agent myself. Some years before the Indiana massacre, I’d made good on my boast to Cookie. I’d graduated from college and earned enough academic credentials from the University of California, Berkeley, to become an academic gypsy. After bouncing back and forth between low-rung positions at Cornell and New York University, I began to get union staff jobs through the left-wing job network. By 1990, I’d moved up to consulting for a small Tribeca-based municipal union run by leftists. My job was to produce a very ambitious economic development proposal: a Henry George–style land reform, taxing Wall Street, reviving manufacturing, and bringing back the New York City port.

To get support beyond the handful of leftist unions that tacitly supported the economic program, I argued that we ought to try to reach out to the International Longshoremen’s Association. "Who has a more direct stake in the revival of the port than the longshoremen’s union?" I reasoned. And Lou Valentino, political director and former business manager of Brooklyn’s Local 1814, seemed like the go-to guy. Lou was running for a city council seat from south Brooklyn. My boss agreed to write him a small check—$500 from our campaign funds. I even got permission to put the money in Valentino’s hands myself.

Feeling like a player in New York City electoral politics, I walked the dozen or so blocks from Borough Hall down Court Street to the old headquarters of Local 1814. I was brought up short when above the doorway into the union hall, I read the inscription "The Anthony Anastasio Memorial Hall." I knew that name from New York City history. Most notoriously, Anthony shared the surname with his brother Albert—a founder of the Gambino crime family and the boss of Murder Inc. For an instant I wondered if I should turn around. But it was too late. Besides, what would I tell my boss? I entered the building and asked a secretary, "Where’s Lou?" "He’s upstairs," the secretary replied. I walked up a single flight to find him all alone in a bare room just a few days before the election. He was shouting hoarsely into a telephone, "Get me half a dozen Puerto Ricans and put them on a flatbed truck." Although distracted, Lou seemed glad to get the check I’d handed him.

Practically the next day, Wayne Barrett, the principal investigative reporter for the Village Voice, wrote a feature story explaining who Lou Valentino really was: a Gambino crime family associate. Valentino had testified at the 1979 trial of Anthony Scotto, a Gambino captain and Lou’s predecessor as Local 1814 boss. On the witness stand, Valentino acknowledged that Scotto had ordered him to take $50,000 in cash from Anthony Anastasio and give it to Mario Cuomo’s 1977 mayoral campaign.

Cash contributions over $100 are illegal. Valentino, who had been the favorite, lost the city council race. But instead of feeling foolish that I’d tried to help elect a mob associate, I remember feeling let down by Barrett. Here we in the labor movement were trying to do something progressive in the economic development field, and we were being undermined, in the left-wing press, by corruption charges.

Perhaps if my union client hadn’t decided to can me, I’d still be developing vast plans for urban economic reform, rationalizing alliances with the mob, and fulminating against muckraking radical journalists. But returning to academia, and freelancing for the Voice myself, gave me a second chance to reflect on the low moral horizon of the American labor movement.

Even our classic fallback excuse for union corruption—that big corporations are just as bad or worse—started to wear thin. So what if they are?

We don’t rely on tobacco companies or HMOs to produce social justice or fight inequality. Because our expectations are low, corporate executives can hurt us only once. But because unions are supposed to stand for something besides the worship of the golden calf, union leaders can actually hurt us twice: first with the blow to our wallets, and then with the blow to our hearts.

The refusal to probe seriously the sources of organized labor’s failure shows that liberals and progressives don’t take their own political vocation seriously. A half century ago, in American Capitalism, liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith identified organized labor as the key institution in the constellation of countervailing powers needed to check corporate power and prevent a drift back to the politics of the Coolidge-Hoover era. It’s true that U.S. labor did put together a couple of very good years (1935–1937). But for most of the last hundred years or so it’s been stagnation and decline. Yet the stance of progressives toward official labor in this country, like the attitude of many Chicago fans toward their beloved Cubbies, seems to be, "Well, anyone can have a bad century." When pressed, labor’s progressive supporters will blame Bush, mean bosses, bad labor laws, globalization—anything but take an unflinching look at what’s gone wrong internally.

Last year’s epochal split in the AFL-CIO foreshadowed what may be the end of the line for the American model of labor. Evidently, the Federation had been on the skids for more than a generation. But in the summer of 2005, the full extent of its ugly disarray became obvious to the broader American public. At the end of July, in Chicago, on the fiftieth anniversary of its founding, after two years of ankle-biting argument, the Federation finally split into two warring factions. Supposedly at issue were questions of how best to make the labor movement grow, but it was over turf and dues money that the labor chiefs had taken to cursing each other at executive committee meetings.

Less than a month later, the newly divided movement faced its first crisis. Northwest Airlines insisted on cutting the pay of mechanics and ground workers by 20 percent, and more than half would lose their jobs. When the workers struck, Northwest brought in replacement workers. For a moment, the strikers and their families held their breath, wondering how official labor would react. Then the shrunken AFL-CIO and the dissident Change to Win coalition stunned practically everyone by uniting to support the company. In exchange for not striking, one union, the International Machinists Association, was awarded the jobs of the striking workers.

It was dispiriting to see big labor siding with a corporate Goliath intent on breaking a union. It was dismaying to realize that labor had split for no principled reason. But turmoil on the tarmacs and the specter of the usually placid labor chiefs calling each other “hypocrite” and worse in public at least had one advantage. Completely overshadowed and overlooked was the Justice Department’s RICO complaint earlier in July against the International Longshoremen’s Association. The government charged that the nearly 60,000-member organization had been run by the Genovese and Gambino crime families for half a century. It was the usual story of extortion, robbery, bribery, and even murder.

There was no comment from either faction on the Justice Department’s action. What could AFL-CIO president John Sweeney say? The ILA belonged to his faction. What could Andy Stern or James Hoffa—leaders of the dissident faction—say? The Change to Win coalition was generally portrayed as the progressive alternative to Sweeney’s AFL-CIO Old Guard.

But the fact that it contained three of the four historically most mob-dominated unions went widely unreported. Of course, because many unions are corrupt doesn’t mean they’re monolithically so. There are thousands of union staffers, and even top officials, who are trying to do their own jobs honestly. They refuse bribes, earn relatively modest salaries, and pass up the leased Lincoln Town Cars and the junkets to Honolulu or Las Vegas. But the honest officials aren’t willing to commit career suicide by criticizing corruption—unless it’s the corruption of a rival. If the odds of getting thrown out of the labor movement for taking a bribe are pretty steep, it’s odds-on you’ll get fired if you criticize bribe taking.

Still, the point of this book is not to show that American unions are corrupt. That’s obvious to anyone who reads the daily paper. The real argument is about how they’ve become corrupt, what difference it has made, and why America can’t let it stand.

Working people are never going to make sacrifices or run risks for institutions they don’t trust. And they are never going to trust institutions that refuse to come clean about themselves. This book is animated by a belief that American working people really want to know why the movement that’s been organized in their name has come to so little after so many years and such great sacrifices. It’s also based on a faith that today’s workers can stand the truth and will act on it.