Published by EH.NET (June 2009)
David Witwer, Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2009. vii + 322 pp. $30 (paper), ISBN: 978-0-252-07666-4.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Lawrence Richards, Department of History, Miami University-Middletown.
Quick, think about the Teamsters Union. What is the first thing that pops into your head? If you are anything like my students, the name Jimmy Hoffa and a picture of gangsters was probably the first thing you thought of. The association of unions with organized crime is perhaps the most indelible image of organized labor in American culture. Even Americans who know nothing else about unions ? indeed, precisely those who know little about unions ? ?know? about union corruption. David Witwer?s new book Shadow of the Racketeer focuses on a crucial episode in American history that helped create this association.
This is Witwer?s second book dealing with union corruption. His first, Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union, as the title implies, examined several instances of corruption in the Teamsters from the early 1900s through the 1950s, including the famous McClellan Committee hearings that turned Jimmy Hoffa into a household name. As important as these hearings were in reinforcing the association of organized labor with organized crime, however, they were not the origins of this cultural trope. Although discussion of labor racketeering could be found as far back as the late 1920s, it was the explosive series of expos?s written by the syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler in late 1939 and early 1940 that popularized the idea that union ?bosses? were by and large gangsters. Before there was Jimmy Hoffa there were William Bioff and George Scalise. The origins of this scandal and its exploitation by anti-union and anti-New Deal conservatives are the subject of Witwer?s latest offering.
William Bioff was an officer in the International Alliance of Theater and Stage Employees (IATSE), while George Scalise was president of the Building Service Employees International Union (BSEIU). In addition to their positions in their respective unions, both men were connected to organized crime: Bioff was associated with Al Capone?s old organization in Chicago, called ?the Outfit?; while Scalise obtained his position with the help of the New York Mafia. Both men also shared a criminal record. It was Pegler?s exposure of these men?s criminal backgrounds that set the scandal in motion. In response to the publicity generated by his columns, federal and state authorities launched (in the case of Bioff, re-launched) investigations of these men?s activities which resulted in their convictions for extortion. Pegler himself was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1941 for his reporting on this scandal.
Witwer?s book is meant to tell ?the story of the story behind the scandal? (p. 11). In particular, he wants show how this is not just a story about Bioff and Scalise, but about how ?Organized crime, political corruption, and businessmen following their own economic imperatives were all among the forces that played important roles in shaping what happened. So was the press, by the virtue of the way it reported the story? (p. 11). Witwer more than succeeds in achieving his goal.
Over the course of nine chapters, the author examines each of the different players that made up this drama. We are introduced to the ?Crusading Journalist? who broke the story, and his anti-New Deal agenda. We are given a short history of the Chicago mob and its diversification into labor racketeering following the end of prohibition. We learn about the structural factors that made these particular unions susceptible to being taken over by racketeers. Very importantly, we are shown how employers could exploit this corruption for their own ends. The obstacles placed in the way of workers who wanted to oust the gangster are also explained, as well as the reasons so many union officials went along with the obviously corrupt practices of their leaders. The biases of the press in reporting this story are examined and labor?s often poor response to the expos? is detailed. Last but not least, the political legacy of the scandal is explored.
One of the strengths of this work is Witwer?s explanation of the structural factors that contributed to labor racketeering. For instance, he contrasts a union of movie projectionists who normally worked alone, and thus found it difficult to band together to oust their corrupt leaders, with a union of movie studio workers who, because they worked together in large groups, were able to organize to try depose the mobsters controlling their local. In another instance, Witwer shows how gangsters formed a union of parking garage attendants in New York City. In this case, the racketeers did not organize the employees but the employers. By threatening to vandalize the cars in the owners? garages, and thus subjecting them to a potentially devastating loss of business, the mobsters were able to convince these employers to enroll their employees in the union whether the employees wanted to be unionized or not.
In perhaps the most interesting part of the book, Witwer shows that employers were not just innocent victims in all of this. Rather, they often benefited by dealing with corrupt unions. In the case of the garage owners, for instance, not only did the mob form a union for the employees, but an association for the employers as well. This garage owners? association standardized parking fees and employee wages, and limited competition by keeping new garages from opening. In the case of the Hollywood studios, Witwer shows that the studio executives were perfectly content to meet Bioff?s demands for payoffs since the money they paid him was far less than they would have had to pay out in labor costs were they dealing with a legitimate union. As Witwer puts it, these ?payoffs could be seen as a fee that gangsters charged for setting up and running this new kind of company union? (p. 98).
This part of the story was simply ignored by Pegler and the media. Instead of a balanced account involving both corrupt employers and corrupt unions, a narrative was created that painted organized labor as the aggressor and employers as the aggrieved victims. This was a dramatic reversal of the narrative that had arisen in the early 30s, which painted employers as the tyrannical oppressors of struggling unions, and found its most powerful expression in the work of the La Follette Committee. Obviously this reversal was a god-send to opponents of organized labor who exploited the new narrative as a way to undermine the legitimacy of organized labor and begin the process of rolling back its legislative gains.
Witwer has delivered an engaging and illuminating work on a crucial episode in the development of the image of organized labor in the U.S. It is a welcome addition to the growing body of literature examining the ideology of anti-unionism in America. (David Witwer is an associate professor of history at Penn State Harrisburg.)
Lawrence Richards is a Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of History, Miami University-Middletown and the author of Union-Free America: Workers and Anti-Union Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2008).