Thursday, June 29, 2006

Assessing a half century of union reform

A discussion piece by Herman Benson (from the May/June 2006 issue of Union Democracy Review)

After decades of union reform effort, aimed at combating corruption, ousting organized crime, and strengthening internal union democracy, where are we?

In his book, "Mobsters, Unions, and Feds," James B. Jacobs, NYU law professor, assesses the results of the monitorships imposed by federal law enforcement authorities over unions dominated by corrupt officials, unions which were heavily infiltrated by organized crime. The government's campaign against racketeers in unions opened in 1982 with a successful federal suit under the RICO statute against Teamsters Local 560, then controlled by Tony Provenzano for the Genovese crime family. Over the years, more than 20 similar actions followed. Each led to some measure of federal control aimed at ousting the mob. A current Justice Department complaint against the International Longshoremen's Association makes clear that the campaign continues.

More than 20 years before the government move against Local 560, prompted by the adoption in 1959 of the LMRDA, which provided support in federal law for rights of members in their unions, insurgent movements, led by rank and filers and a few leaders, sprang to life in the labor movement demanding democratic reforms, an end to corruption, fair job referrals from union hiring halls. A substantial part of that record is preserved in two periodicals: Union Democracy in Action and Union Democracy Review and summarized in my own book, "Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers." As UDR readers know, movements for reform within the labor movement continue to this day, newly encouraged by easy access to the internet.

We now look back at nearly a half century of intensive reform activity, by government and by unionists. It all began before most of our current readers were born. Has it been a success and to what extent? What's next?

Government drive against mob in unions

Despite mixed results, federal authorities can point to a few notable achievements. Organized crime was pried loose from control over the international offices of the Laborers, the Hotel Employees, and the Teamsters. In Teamsters Local 560, mob domination was replaced by a new leadership recruited from the rank and file. But most cases ended inclusively; suspect forces still hold power or remain as an overhanging threat. In one case at least, Pennsylvania Roofers Local 30, federal control ended in disaster; a corrupt old gang remained in power and was allowed to threaten opponents and drive them out of the union and out of the industry. A few years later, in 2005 (after Jacobs had completed his book) the international imposed a trusteeship and removed all officers; they had brought the union, its pension fund, and its welfare fund to the point of bankruptcy; they were allowing contractors to hire nonunion workers. There have been battle victories but no Big Success in the war. Organized crime and corruption remain as major evils, poisoning our labor movement.

Summing up his estimate of the outcome of 20 federal monitorships over the previous 20 years, Jacobs writes:

"…. it has fallen seriously short of its full potential. The majority of trusteeships have not produced regime change. Many have not produced a single fair, much less competitive election. The majority have probably not completely purged organized crime's influence from the union….Only three of the hard-fought RICO trusteeships can be judged to have been completely successful, for many of the others, it is still too early to say. Some…must be considered complete failures. The Cosa Nostra crime families are much weaker … but they continue to be a presence in most of the cities where they have existed…."

Reform insurgency

After 50 years of insurgency, running through the labor movement, making an impact on most major American unions, with their rights newly protected by federal law, reform movements forced the union establishment to make concessions to the principles and even to the practice of union democracy. The victory of the Miners for Democracy overturned a murderous regime in the Miners union, gave the union a new democratic constitution, ended generations trusteeships over the union districts, and eased the way of Rich Trumka as secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO.

In the Teamsters union, the setback of organized crime in 1991, the victory of Ron Carey, and the rising influence of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union marked the high point in the movement for reform. Carey's victory changed the balance of power in the AFL-CIO and made possible the election of John Sweeney as AFL-CIO president. His ascendancy, despite the later setback for Teamster reform, opened a new stage in the history of the American labor movement. Reform battles legitimized union democracy, which is generally honored as a principle even where it is violated in practice.

However, despite the upsurge of union insurgency and despite the immense expenditure of federal money and manpower which did weaken the mob, there have been only a few instances where suspect union administrations have been overturned and then replaced by organized democratic reform movements. There have been a few exceptions: like the Miners; Musicians; Marine Engineers; Masters, Mates, and Pilots. More complicated, in the Teamsters. But they remain exceptions. Borrowing modern war-related terminology; There have been few major "regime changes."

And so corruption and mob infiltration remain, weakening the labor movement as it tries to rally public support for its organizing campaigns, and, most decisive, to win political support to change the balance of power in America. The problem is not merely "pockets of corruption" but a major disease, chronic and obtrusive. For proof, one need only read Jacobs and study the report of Edwin Stier on his aborted campaign to create a self-reform program for the Teamsters union.

Even if it were proper and convenient to shrug it all off as an embarrassment, in the hope that no one will notice, labor's adversaries will not permit it. Corruption undermines the labor movement; a campaign against it is part of the battle to strengthen the labor movement.

Why after all this time and trouble by government and by union reformers, and despite their achievements, is the record so inconclusive?

The limits of government action

The power of the government to effect change, despite its enormous power, is limited; that truism surely applies to its campaign against rackets in unions, mainly because it relies for execution essentially upon lawyers, prosecutors, former FBI agents, and assorted other law enforcement personnel.

Bolstered by all the resources of government and the power of the RICO act, federal attorneys can compose complaints and indictments against racket-influenced unions so persuasive that judges agree to impose federal monitorships or trusteeships over locals and internationals, Once government prosecutors have established a measure of control, to enforce their authority and back up any program of reform, they are armed with FBI surveillance powers, and the power of subpoena, the threat of fines and jail sentences. and the threat of contempt of court citations. These are powerful enforcement weapons, not available to union reformers or even to union leaders who would like to act against the mob.

The potential for government action against racketeers is so sweeping that union officials charged with corruption are ready to 'voluntarily' accept limited measures of government control in order to avoid trial and ward off even more drastic measures imposed by a federal judge. So it was that the Laborers, the Hotel Employees, and the Teamsters avoided total government trusteeship and submitted to some reforms. Even in the ILA, which so far has avoided court control over the international, the rank and file Workers Coalition has been able to function in a union where insurgency once meant death.

Those 20 years of federal action against labor racketeers have been good for the labor movement and made life more tolerable for independent-minded unionists.

But these were the big cases, open to close public scrutiny. However, as Jacobs concludes, the results of all those years and all that effort have been mixed. More bluntly, disappointing.

The prosecutors, lawyers, and appointed monitors have the power; they may be experienced in dealing with crooks, but they lack the knowledge and ability needed to reform a union. Some get nowhere because they have no idea that they must aim to replace a corrupted union with a good democratic effective union. Others have the will but don't know the way; without union experience, they don't know the good guys from the bad; they fail to encourage members to become union activists; they can't develop a new leadership to replace the old.

Usually they look for a fast cheap fix. But where rackets have been in control for decades, no union can be rescued in just a few months. Racketeers solidify their own base of support by intimidating and demoralizing all others. It takes time, resources, and union skills to pry them loose. The two most effective RICO suits were long and hard: It took 13 years before the Local 560 trusteeship could be lifted. After 18 years and with the existence of a dedicated reform opposition, a federal judge and his appointees are still needed to watch over the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

The limits of rank and file reform

For insurgents, a war against the mob is no do-it-yourself operation. They need help.

Citizens anywhere, armed or unarmed, rely on the power of government to combat organized crime; it is no different when racketeers wear a union label. All the obstacles that face insurgents in opposing any administration regime are multiplied overwhelmingly in mobbed up unions. Incumbents normally enjoy the advantage of greater resources: a permanently organized political machine, full time officers and staffers, access to the membership and union publications, control over the election and disciplinary apparatus, and more. Rigorously centralized bureaucratic unions provide no space where critics can develop the skills necessary for an alternative leadership.

Where racketeers are entrenched, all the normal advantages of incumbency are backed up by threats of violence and actual physical assaults, occasionally even murder. With the tolerance, even the direct assistance, of consenting employers, the mob blacklists stubborn opponents, starves them out by denying them work, and drives them out of the industry. For all these reasons, union reformers, however courageous, dedicated, and self-sacrificing, need the help of law enforcement authorities to oust the mob from their unions.

Greatest successes where two forces combine

If reformers need government support, government needs active help from union reformers; the greatest successes ---perhaps the only really major successes--- have been achieved when the authority of government and the power of reform insurgency have combined in mutual support in the war against thugs and mobsters. In the United Mine Workers, after a federal court armed insurgents with the tools of democracy and fair elections, the Miners for Democracy movement was able to get rid of a murderous officialdom and write a new democratic union constitution.

In the Teamsters union, court-appointed monitors warded off racketeers and presided over the first direct membership election of top officers in the union's history. With their rights protected by federal authorities, insurgents took control of the union's national office and elected Ron Carey as president. Even after Carey's defeat, still under the umbrella protection of federal monitors, the Teamsters for a Democratic Union has transformed itself from a small band of dedicated reformers into a formidable movement in opposition to the old guard. On a smaller scale in Teamsters Local 560, federal trustee Ed Stier wrested control of the union from the Genovese crime family; he succeeded because he understood the need to encourage a new leadership to come forward from the ranks and recruited a Teamster member, a former staffer, to help him run the union while under trusteeship.

Affirmative action to recruit reformers

Getting rid of racketeers and replacing them with a genuine union leadership is a tough job, really tough. Active or retired, those prosecutors, attorneys, and assemblage of federal agents simply cannot do it by themselves. The problem is that responsible federal reps who hope to get the job done are all lawyers themselves and are comfortable only with other lawyers. They need the help of union reformers at all levels. But where to find them? They need a new kind of affirmative action program to recruit union activists. Announce the need! Advertise! They are there: associates of the Association for Union Democracy; supporters of Labor Notes; and hundreds of others with union experience.

For federal authorities, it is a matter of recognizing a need and making a decision. Many union reformers, however, will be skeptical. "You can't trust the government," they will say, which is probably true but that simple truth is not a dependable guide to action. Nobody fully trusts the government. For Republicans, government and Democrats are the problem. Democrats don't trust Republicans. The FBI doesn't trust the CIA and vice versa. Half of Congress and a big part of the population do not trust the President. The State Department often doesn't trust the Pentagon. Nobody trusts the IRS. And so it goes. Government under a democratic system gets to be complex; in this intricate labyrinth of distrust, we decide how best to do what's right. It will be said, "Government intervention will undercut unions." For the unalloyed right wing, that may be quite true. But it is not true of the Office of Labor Management Standards which enforces the LMRDA. It is not true of the government action against racketeers in unions under the RICO suit.

Federal action against racketeers in unions opens the way for change. Even while remaining skeptical of government, union reformers should be alert to seize the opportunity.

Note: In submitting this subject for discussion, these comments are not intended to discuss once again the broader questions of workers' rights in their unions. Union democracy remains embattled even in unions with good, honest, but benignly bureaucratic leaders. That's another matter. It is relevant here essentially because it can be an effective instrument for combating corruption.

See also "The RICO Trusteeships after Twenty Years: A Progress Report," by James B. Jacobs, Eileen M. Cunningham, and Kimberly Friday

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