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Published by EH.NET (October 2006)

James B. Jacobs, Mobsters, Unions, and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement. New York: New York University Press, 2006. xxxii + 320 pp. $33 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8147-4273-0.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Melvyn Dubofsky, Department of History, Binghamton University.

A quotation from the labor leader David Dubinsky that opens this book summarizes the author’s purpose: “Racketeering is the cancer that almost destroyed the American trade-union movement.” James Jacobs, the Warren E. Burger Professor of Law and Director, Center for Research in Crime and Justice, NYU School of Law, amasses the evidence to prove Dubinsky’s claim. Jacobs asserts that the “Mafia,” or as he prefers to label it, La Cosa Nostra (LCN), turned its penetration of trade unionism into its most profitable criminal activity and the accumulation of political power. In Jacobs’ words, “the Mafia’s unique political and economic position in American society derives from its base in the labor movement” (p. xii). The LCN’s penetration of unionism explains organized labor’s dwindling power (p. xiii). Indeed, in a twist on conventional explanations of “American exceptionalism,” Jacobs cites the criminalization of trade unionism as the most singular feature of the United States.

Jacobs makes his case for the links between LCN and trade unionism not in the manner of an historian or a social scientist, but in the style of an attorney preparing a brief for the prosecution. He vacuums up every available scrap and shred of evidence to establish historical and contemporary connections between crime and unionism, seldom pausing to subject the evidence swept up with his vacuum to careful analysis or doubt. In building his case for historical connections between criminals and unions, Jacobs draws upon any publication that buttresses his point, whether or not the source is reliable, scholarly, or verifiable. For the contemporary connections between crime and unionism, he relies on his own investigative work for a state commission in New York that probed organized crime’s penetration of unions, research and publications that he compiled with the assistance of other attorneys and legal scholars, and the findings of a presidential commission on organized crime (PCOC). Jacobs appears incredulous about what he has done and what he continues to do, observing in a footnote, “… studying racketeering in the labor movement is no more antilabor than studying family violence is antifamily” (p. xiv). True enough in the abstract, but, as a book that he praises as one of the few good studies of crime within the labor movement, David Witwer’s history of corruption and reform in the Teamsters’ Union, clarifies, the enemies of trade unionism exaggerated trade union corruption and criminal penetration of unions not to clean them up, but to eliminate trade unions. Had Jacobs read more carefully the congressional debates surrounding the passage of the original National Labor Relations (Wagner) Act, the enactment of the Taft-Hartley amendments to it, and the Landrum-Griffen Act, he would have seen how the opponents of trade unionism used language and allusion to associate labor leaders with crime and corruption and to build their case that union power must be curtailed.

Nevertheless, there is simply no doubt that some unions and their officials cooperated with organized crime, that criminals gained control of many union locals and few international unions, and that criminals and corrupt union officials enriched themselves at the expense of rank-and-file unionists, exploited businesspeople (Jacobs, however, fails to point out that the corrupt union and the affected business were often part of the same criminal operation), and mulcted the public. A recent book by Robert Fitch, Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America’s Promise (New York, 2006), lays out a similar case with more sophistication. Anyone interested in the illicit activities that soiled such unions as the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT), the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), as well as many locals in the building trades, will find all the evidence they desire in the pages of this book or Fitch’s.

Yet because of exaggerations and errors that he commits, Jacobs’ disingenuous claim that his exposure of union links to organized crime is pro-labor just as abolitionists’ exposure of the horrors of chattel slavery was anti-slavery (p. 254), rings false. Let me simply cite a few of his exaggerations and errors. On p. 17, he writes, “organized crime had never before murdered a national figure of Hoffa’s stature (unless, as some people believe, it assassinated President John F. Kennedy).” Or on p. 24, “ultimately, it was labor racketeering that made Cosa Nostra part of the sociopolitical power structure of twentieth-century America.” Or that to establish the extent of criminal penetration of the labor movement “it is not necessary to pinpoint the percentages of unions or unions who … have been dominated, controlled, or affected by Cosa Nostra labor racketeers” (p. 41). Or that IBT presidents Hoffa and Williams “were indisputably direct instruments of organized crime” (p. 43). Or that corporations are more easily monitored and regulated than trade unions (p. 255). Or that socialists and communists would have more been more influential in the labor movement and that unions would have become a dominant influence in a left-wing Democratic Party in the absence of corruption and crime (p. 260). Here are several errors of fact: “Jimmy Hoffa became the undisputed leader of the Teamsters in Minnesota …” (p. 11). “Sidney Hillman … called upon Buchalter [Murder Incorporated’s most infamous hired killer] to suppress competing unions and recalcitrant employers …” (p. 25). Characterizing the Central Federated Union of New York as an AFL competitor when it was, in fact, the AFL-chartered city central (p. 78). Stating that five unions broke away from the AFL in 1938 to establish the CIO, when the initial split occurred in 1935, and one of the five unions cited, the International Typographical Union never left that AFL, and another, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers, departed CIO in 1938 (p. 81). Jacobs refers incorrectly to Walter Reuther as John L. Lewis’s successor as president of CIO (p. 81). A reviewer must caution: reader beware!

Finally, one must observe that Jacobs’ solution to the criminal penetration of unions, the aggressive use of the Racketeer and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 (RICO) to place international and local unions under federal trusteeships by Department of Justice-appointed trustees, can only work if it is implemented in the manner suggested by the legal scholar Clyde Summers in a quotation on p. 238: “Only by making clear to union members that corruption and not organized labor is the target of the RICO litigation can the government and the courts avoid exacerbating the very problem they seek to correct.” Jacobs does not always make that distinction clear.

Melvyn Dubofsky, Distinguished Professor of History and Sociology Emeritus, Binghamton University, SUNY, is co-editor of American Labor: A Documentary Collection (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2004).