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This Day in Labor History: September 14, 1959

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On September 14, 1959, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Landrum-Griffin Act after actively lobbying for its passage. Officially known as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, Landrum-Griffin used union corruption as an excuse for a broad-based attack upon organized labor on issues completely unrelated to corruption. The passage of this bill was another major blow to organized labor in the early years of the Cold War that moved power away from unions and back to corporations.

There is a widescale public perception of union corruption. Mostly, this is false and a corporate promoted narrative to turn people off of organizing themselves to improve their lives. But with some unions, corruption was (and occasionally still today, is) all too real. In general, this corruption was concentrated in some of the AFL trades, mostly the smaller building trades unions but also of course in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Teamsters corruption is largely associated with Jimmy Hoffa. This is not wrong and Hoffa was certainly on the take himself, but it’s actually quite a bit more complicated that that. First, the IBT had major corruption issues before Hoffa took power. Second, the corruption reached deep into several sectors of the union. The Teamsters had real problems here and earned their reputation, although the problem is less severe today. The AFL version of the United Auto Workers (UAW-AFL–basically the offshoot of UAW locals angry over internal politics in the real UAW) had real problems. John Dioguardi, a high ranked member of the Lucchese crime family was named head of UAW-AFL Local 102 in New York. Distillery Workers Union executive Sol Cilento was indicted on bribery and conspiracy charges.

These sorts of problems got the attention of politicians. It is worth remembering that outside of union-dense areas, organized labor was extremely unpopular in the United States, giving politicians in the South, Great Plains, and West no reason not to go after unions. It also allowed politicians from the union-heavy areas to raise their national profile by showing they would buck unions at some risk to their careers. Anti-corruption hearings in Congress settled in the McClellan Committee, named after its chair, senator John McClellan, a Democrat from Arkansas. The McClellan Committee originally investigated corruption charges against both business and labor but soon shifted to a Senate committee devoted exclusively to digging into the dark side of organized labor. After the 1958 congressional election, in which Democrats picked up large gains in both chambers, conservatives struck back by raising fears of communistic and corrupt unions (never mind that the lefty unions were the ones most likely to not be corrupt and the corrupt unions were largely among the most conservative) would rule America.

Introducing the law was two congressmen–Philip Landrum, a Georgia Democrat, and Michigan Republican John Griffin. This “bipartisanship” that so many Beltway hacks long for today ignores the fact that the real control in Congress belonged to people who shared very similar conservative positions on many issues, regardless of party registration. Among the law’s features were mandating that unions hold internal elections, barred members of the Communist Party from holding union office for five years after they left the CPUSA, required that unions submit annual financial reports to the Department of Labor, and limit power to put locals into trusteeship, which is a way to undermine internal union challenges. Effectively, Landrum-Griffin used corruption as an excuse to extend the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Legislation could have dealt with actually corrupt unions rather than serve as a general attack on organized labor, but that was not the point for the legislators involved. They wanted to bust unions.

Organized labor as a whole vociferously opposed Landrum-Griffin. This isn’t because the AFL-CIO didn’t oppose corruption. As a whole, the federation very much did. It also kicked three particularly corrupt unions out of the federation, including the Teamsters. It’s because the bill’s authors used it as a broader attack upon unions, forcing them into reporting requirements that business did not have to adhere to. In other words, it was a major step in tipping a playing field only twenty years earlier evened for workers back toward employers. What on earth did communism have to do with corruption? Nothing of course, but it didn’t matter.

Politically of course, it was brilliant to force labor to oppose Landrum-Griffin because they then looked pro-corruption to the general public. Some senators who had made their name fighting union corruption were not happy that the bill attacked the heart of unions. That included John F. Kennedy, who had introduced his own anti-corruption bill. Said Robert Kennedy, chief counsel to McClellan, Landrum-Griffin went “beyond the scope of the McClellan Committee’s findings to affect the economic balance at the bargaining table by honest and legitimate unions and employers.” What made Landrum-Griffin beat Kennedy’s bill was President Eisenhower giving a national speech on September 3 to urge its passage. Congress soon did and Eisenhower signed the law on September 14, 1959.

A fascinating side note to the origins of Landrum-Griffin. David Witwer’s recent research that shows the public incident that led to its passage was largely fabricated. In 1956, the anti-union newspaper columnist Victor Riesel was blinded when the mob threw acid in his eyes. The story was that the corrupt unions it as revenge for his writing about the “underworld-Communist combine” in his column and to prevent him from testifying against union corruption. It was this act that led to the McClellan Committee. The FBI arrested UAW-AFL Local 102 head John Diogaurdi for ordering the hit. Dioguardi was absolutely a mobster running a union for personal profit. This general narrative of bad union thugs attacking hero Riesel for his brave crusade has remained largely unchallenged until recently.

However, Witwer shows that in fact, Riesel never wrote about Dioguardi or any of his operations. Instead, it seems Riesel was corrupt himself and had a financial arrangement with Dioguardi so that he would not write about the mobster. Union leaders’ testimony to the FBI shows that Riesel was shaking down the corrupt unions to keep their names out of his columns. Dioguardi and Riesel even partied together at mob restaurants in New York’s garment district. Witwer could not find out exactly why Dioguardi ordered the hit on Riesel. He suggests it may have had something to do with a dispute over the financial arrangements between the two in another shakedown–forcing business to pay up to stay union free.

All the big political players, including the U.S. Attorney, FBI, and the McClellan Committee, found out about Riesel’s double dealings and lies as he couldn’t or wouldn’t answer a lot of questions when they talked to him. But Riesel was too useful in the larger anti-union movement to bother with the truth mattering much. Riesel played the martyr until the day he died. Fascinating stuff.

This is the 117th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • matt w

    Thanks for this post! Just wanted to mention that you used the URI proxy for the Witwer link, so anyone who isn’t on URI’s campus won’t even be able to see the summary.

    • Jordan

      Yeah. This is the google scholar link if you have academic library access.

      The first page (and abstract) is here.

      (Well, I assume that this is what Loomis was referencing).

      • Those are different articles. I will try to fix for the one I referenced.

        • Jordan

          Ah ok, my bad.

          • Link should work now.

            • Jordan

              Awesome, thanks (and, yeah, definitely not the article I linked above).

  • This is my favorite LGM series. I always learn something when I read a TDiLH post. Thanks, Erik.

  • cpinva

    “What on earth did communism have to do with corruption?”

    pretty much everything, really. in the midst of the cold war, communism was THE major boogyman in the west, most especially the united states. communism was a corruption of everything that was good and wholesome; everywhere it took root, decay and rot soon followed. the very worst thing you could accuse an individual/organization of, was that they were communists.

    • Hogan

      That’s an elision of two definitions of “corruption.” If you think Communism was inherently immoral and destructive of good order, you could argue from analogy to the biological process of decomposition that it’s a “corrupting” influence; but that’s not the meaning of “corruption” being used in discussions of the Teamsters or the New York City longshoremen.

  • Jordan

    Great, great post, as always. I learn so much from these. Some comments:

    1) The “unions are mobsters/corrupt” thing does seem all over the place, even today. Much of this is corporate propaganda, as you say. I wonder if some of this is also because of mob fetishism? People have this fascination with the mob and its (continuing, alleged) power, and so “naturally” assume: duh, they run those dirty unions. Wrong?

    2) I’ve also kinda thought that some of this narrative gets the (past) direction of influence wrong. Many unions (though not all, as you note) were “corrupt”/whatever *because the mob threatened/extorted them*, rather than because the unions themselves were corrupt in any meaningful sense. Wrong?

    3) “What made Landrum-Griffin beat Kennedy’s bill was President Eisenhower giving a national speech on September 3 to urge its passage. Congress soon did and Eisenhower signed the law on September 14, 1959.”

    Bully Pulpit!

    4) Actually, are there good things to read about all this?

    Anyways, again, great post.

    • The collected works of Witwer, who I linked to in the article above, is probably the best place to go. He’s written a few books on these issues of corruption.

      • Jordan

        Shadow of the Racketeer?

    • The Dark Avenger

      If you read about true crime in America, there are many references to unions being in with organized crime, especially NYC and stemlike, a lot of unions were in bed with the Mob, usually for things like no-show jobs in the construction industry, or getting involved in public services that can be privately contracted for like waste disposal for commercial areas.

      The Purple Gang, now just a footnote in a James Bond novel, was said by some to have acquired the name because the quality of the meat sold in Detroit was degraded due to their control of the meat distribution in that area.

      Cleaners and Dyers War
      As the gang grew in size and influence, they began hiring themselves out as hitmen[13] and took part in the Cleaners and Dyers war. The Purples profited from the Detroit laundry industry unions and associations; they were hired out to keep union members in line and to harass non-union independents.[7] Bombing, arson, theft, and murder were the usual tactics that the gang employed to enforce union policy.[5][13] Abe Axler and Eddie Fletcher were reputedly imported from New York to take part in the scheme (other sources put their origins in Detroit) [5][9] In 1927, nine members of the Purple Gang (Abe Bernstein, Raymond Bernstein, Irving Milberg, Eddie Fletcher, Joe Miller, Irving Shapiro, Abe Kaminsty, Abe Axler and Simon Axler), were arrested and charged with conspiracy to extort money from Detroit wholesale Cleaners & Dyers.[13] They were eventually acquitted of all charges.[5]

      I think that corruption in the unions and elsewhere was the reason that Saul Alinksy insisted that any community organizers always had to account for their expenses to the penny. Any time there is a money stream, the impulse to dip ones’ hands into it becomes too tempting for some.

      • Jordan

        I mean, I’ve heard that too. I haven’t read much stuff I really trust about this, though, which is why I don’t know. Any recommendations you have, I’m all ears.

        • The Dark Avenger

          Any good history of the Mob/Mafia should cover it. I would suggest histories like the Valachi Papers, and biographies of such figures as Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegal, and Danny Greene as you can find on page 372 here.

  • Bruce Vail

    Boy, you sure let Bobby Kennedy off easy. Didn’t he write a book about unions called “The Enemy Within” or something like that?

    Bobby Kennedy liked union leaders like Cesar Chavez, that is to say, leaders who accepted their proper role as supplicants to the privileged class (and ineffectual in asserting workplace power). But a leader like Hoffa was dangerous and had to be destroyed.

    • Well, I originally set out to take a good dig at the Kennedys here, but then got sidetracked with what I thought was the better story. But yeah.

      • Bruce Vail

        Yes, and your own cite for the RFK quote goes on to say that JFK was able to amend Landrum-Griffin in the conference committee to his own satisfaction. So I would quibble with any assertion that JFK was a critic or opponent of the law.

        • witlesschum

          I’d say authoring a rival version is pretty strong evidence, no? And saying he was satisfied with an amendment seems like just politics.

  • Bruce Vail

    Landrum-Griffin, it should also be noted, is one of the most effective laws in protecting union members from having their dues money stolen or misused. The reporting requirements are irksome and often expensive, its true, but it allows the Department of Labor to monitor union expenditures and act to punish theft or misuse. You can look at DOL Office of Inspector General’s semi-annual reports to Congress to see that they continue to be active in this area.

    Interestingly, it’s probably true that the vast majority of corruption cases against union leaders arise from complaints by members of the same union. It acts a sort of a democratic check on the power of union leaders.

  • Murc

    Uh… hrm.

    Erik, I usually love your labor posts, but this one seems… I dunno. A bit thin in places it shouldn’t be?

    You talk a lot about how Landrum-Griffin was an attack on unions, and give a ton of clear and easy to understand sourcable background on the law, it’s backers, and the political environment surrounding it. But when you actually give examples of the specific parts of the law that were so bad…

    Among the law’s features were mandating that unions hold internal elections, barred members of the Communist Party from holding union office for five years after they left the CPUSA, required that unions submit annual financial reports to the Department of Labor, and limit power to put locals into trusteeship, which is a way to undermine internal union challenges.

    You list two things that strike me as unalloyed goods (unions should have internal elections, and if they refuse they should be forced to do so; they should be forced to make reports on their financials) one thing that was nakedly unconstitutional but tangential to the actual running of unions (although expecting a court to uphold the free-association provisions of the First Amendment for commies during the Cold War was probably unrealistic) and one thing that’s so recondite that even after a few hours of googling I’m not sure I understand why it was bad or even how it would work.

    Maybe you should have picked a list of things that were actually, clearly shitty about it? You know?

    It might just be me.

    • The list was a list of the things the law required. It was not implied that the list was all bad things about the law. Nor did I say that there were not positive things about the law. I did say that the law’s authors used the corruption issue as a broad-based attack upon all unions.

      • Murc

        That just seems like disjointed writing, tho. This is a post about why the law was mostly a shitty attack on unions, yeah? So when you actually get down to listing specifics, shouldn’t you… list the actual parts of the law that are attacking unions, instead of it being mostly stuff that’s either good, or tangential?

        … unless the larger point was that the law was largely banal but part of a larger framework of making small chips away at unionism, which just occurred to me, but if that’s the case it didn’t come across well, as you talk the thing up like it is the second coming of Taft-Hartley.

        • 1. I only have so much time to work on these. If I was getting paid to write them, that’s different. If some of the writing ends up disjointed, OK, unless people want to take up a collection to fund this series.

          2. It was the second coming of Taft-Hartley. It intentionally built upon T-H to limit union power. That doesn’t mean every single clause of the law was bad per se, but both sides in this debate saw it as building upon the previous law.

    • Moreover, as I stated, the problem with the law ultimately is that it forces unions to comply with financial reporting requirements that employers do not have to comply with. I’m completely fine with the solution to that being a far more rigorous regulatory framework on corporations.

      • matt w

        Yeah, my thought in response to Bruce Vail’s comment above (“one of the most effective laws in protecting union members from having their dues money stolen or misused”) is it would be nice if there were a law that was similarly effective in preventing wage theft, or bank fraud, or corporate crime in general.

    • witlesschum

      I thought it was completely clear. It’s an attack on union power, even if it might be a good thing in the abstract. In reality, it happened a country were people who were completely playing by the rules have been far more destructive than Jimmy Hoffa ever could have been.

  • Joseph Slater

    Re bad things the LMRDA did, from the union perspective, it also tightened restrictions on secondary activities by unions and added section 8(e) which banned “hot cargo” clauses. A “hot cargo” clause is a clause in a union contract in which the parties agree that the bargaining unit members will not be required to handle “struck” goods (goods produced by an employer whose workers are on strike).

  • RobertL

    Hmm, we’ve had a conservative government back in power in Australia for a year now.

    One of the first things they did was set up a Royal Commission into union corruption.

    Amusingly, these Royal Commissions have a history of blowing up in their faces and I thought it was interesting that in his opening remarks the commissioner pointed out that there are two sides to any bribe paid and that he would be looking at both of them.

  • Don Kensler

    Small correction to make – the congressman from MI was Robert Griffin, who was appointed to the Senate by George Romney, and was defeated by Carl Levin in 1978.

    • witlesschum

      Wow, I’ve had about seven months of breathing when Carl Levin wasn’t my senator. Those seven months weren’t that great, either.

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