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Modi’s India: Please Multinational Corporations, Exploit Our Workers

[ 24 ] October 2, 2014 |

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Above: The Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, i.e., Narendra Modi’s vision of the Indian economy.

I understand that workers in India need jobs, but I’m not sure that Narendra Modi going full neoliberal is going to build the kind of growth that will be good for India:

Responding to big business complaints that India has not done enough to open up its economy to foreign investment, and that its regulations limiting layoffs and plant closures are “onerous,” Modi declared “India is open-minded. We want change.”

The US business leaders subsequently sang Modi’s praises. GE CEO Jeffrey R Immelt told the Indian Express, “My interaction with him was outstanding. I am certainly looking forward to further investments in India as the climate for investments has switched to positive once again.’’ According to Indian press reports, Modi planned to signal to Immelt that his government is open to amending India’s nuclear liability law, which US energy companies have denounced because it could force them to pay significant compensation were they responsible for a catastrophic nuclear accident.

Regulations limiting plant closures! Why that might hold corporations accountable for their actions. Onerous indeed!

What does Modi have in mind to replace these odious regulations?

At the end of July, Modi’s cabinet cleared 54 amendments to the “Factories Act, 1948,” the “Apprenticeship Act, 1961” and the “Labor Laws Act, 1988.” Under these amendments, women would be eligible for night-shift work, the ceiling for overtime hours will be increased from 50 hours per quarter to 100 hours, and employers will no longer be liable to imprisonment for violating the Apprenticeship Act.

As a test case for the gutting of labour laws nationwide, the BJP state government in Rajasthan has pushed through amendments to the “Industrial Dispute Act”, “Factory Act” and “Contract Labor Regulation & Abolition Act.” These would raise the ceiling for the number of workers in a factory where employers can retrench workers without government approval from 100 to 300 and make it much more difficult for workers to form trade unions with collective bargaining rights.

The amendments to the Contract Labor Act would strip most contract workers of any protection under the labor laws, as contractors employing less than 50 workers will no longer be subject to its provisions. During the past two decades, Indian employers, including government-owned corporations, have vastly expanded their use of contract labour, so as to slash wage and benefit costs, circumvent restrictions on layoffs, and divide the workforce.

In the race to the bottom, I promise my nation will be at the bottom! Give it your best shot Bangladesh. We don’t mind if apparel companies kill 2000 of our workers. Multinationals, please come exploit us!

All of this is a sign of just how much power corporations have in dictating terms of employment today. Capital mobility is a powerful thing and the CEOs know how to use it.

This is also a good piece on Modi’s neoliberal beliefs
that should make him a good friend of corporate leaders if he keeps the anti-Muslim rhetoric to a minimum.

Violence at Work

[ 8 ] October 1, 2014 |

It’s hardly shocking that the difficult conditions of modern work would lead to a rise in workplace violence as people, who often have access to high-powered weapons, snap. The workers who experience the most workplace violence? Retail sales workers.

Resistance in the Pennsylvania Coal Country: Past and Present

[ 23 ] September 29, 2014 |

Last week, I gave a talk at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, titled “Resistance in the Pennsylvania Coal Country: Past and Present,” although in reality, I talked more broadly about Appalachia in the second half of the talk. Anyway, it was filmed and is here if you want to watch it. I can’t seem to embed it so click the link. I got pretty warmed up during the talk and really laid into the horrors of the coal industry.

Attacking Two-Tiered Contracts

[ 4 ] September 29, 2014 |

During the economic crisis in 2007, the United Auto Workers was forced to accept two-tiered contracts to keep factories open. These contracts created a second pay scale for new employees that paid them less than other workers. The potential for this to become permanent is quite scary. In the UAW’s failure to win a majority vote in the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant, the two-tiered contract was cited by union opponents as a reason not to join the UAW. Even if that was just cover for already existing anti-unionism, it was still quite damaging.

Luckily, the UAW, including rank and file workers, are working hard to fight back against the two-tiered systems as those contracts signed 5 and 6 years ago come up for renegotiation. Of course, employers have a number of tools at their disposal to pay workers less, including the use of subcontractors and the threat of capital mobility. So this is a hard fight but at least the resistance is real and there is hope that the system will end.

This Day in Labor History: September 23, 1969

[ 19 ] September 23, 2014 |

On September 23, 1969, President Richard Nixon issued the Philadelphia Plan, forcing building trades unions to allow black members into their ranks. Nixon did this believing that it would show him as a strong civil rights president without having to do very much to give in to the more radical demands of the civil rights movement. More importantly to Nixon, he saw it as a way to undercut organized labor, creating a coalition of African-Americans and Republicans against racist unions. Opponents of the new principle of affirmative action immediately sued to kill the new policy, but the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in its favor in 1971 and the Supreme Court rejected the appeal. Affirmative action was introduced into federal hiring practices for the first time.

A central tenet of the civil rights movement, and an underrated one in the popular memory of the movement, was equality at work. In the 1960s, the construction unions in Philadelphia, as they were nationwide, were almost exclusively white. These were good paying working-class jobs and also bastions of economic discrimination. African-American citizens in Philadelphia began organizing in 1967 to integrate construction work. This organizing eventually led to federal attention. In June 1969, a Nixon advisor announced the plan, including specific numerical goals, to the unions of Philadelphia. On September 23, Nixon made it federal policy through his secretary of labor, George Shultz.

The Philadelphia Plan required that 6 Philadelphia area building trades create numerical “goals” for integrating their locals if they wanted to receive federal contracts. White construction workers around the country opposed this idea. They did so for a variety of reasons. Overt racism drove many, but it’s also important to remember that the building trades had developed traditions of passing jobs down to family members. Setting affirmative action targets meant that for every African-American granted a job, someone’s son or cousin or nephew was not getting a job. They also thought they had worked hard to rise in the world and believed that this was the government letting a special class of people equal them without working. Of course, racism also infused these last two reasons, not to mention the mental gymnastics it took to talk about how you worked so hard to get your job compared to these blacks when it was your dad who secured it for you.

For the building trades therefore, being forced to integrate was seen as a direct attack on the white male enclave they had created. This hard hat anger at the overall tenor of social and cultural change became manifested in the Hard Hat Riot of 1970, an event that unfortunately created a stereotype of unions hating hippies even though this was just a couple of building trades locals in New York. In Pittsburgh and Chicago, construction workers held sizable anti-integration rallies. In the former city, 4000 construction workers rallied when the city government halted all contracts to negotiate with African-Americans demanding integrated work. AFL-CIO head George Meany strongly criticized the plan, siding with his building trades over the civil rights movement that always had a complex relationship with organized labor.

Southerners in Congress immediately attempted to not fund the program. Led by North Carolina senator Sam Ervin and West Virginia senator Robert Byrd, they hoped to kill it in its infancy and stuck a rider onto a bill funding relief for Hurricane Camille to do so. But the order survived after Nixon threatened to hold Congress in session over Christmas to pass the bill. Now, Nixon had little interest in strong enforcement of the plan. He certainly didn’t care about actually integrating these locals. Nixon used the Philadelphia Plan to defend himself when his administration’s civil rights record was attacked, as it often was. Nixon also hoped it would undermine union control over construction labor by creating non-union but integrated competitors to the unions. Many civil rights leaders saw through Nixon’s ploy, claiming he was doing virtually nothing here but to try and split the Democratic Party coalition. This was of course, correct. John Ehrlichman bragged about this very thing. And in fact, Nixon was angry that labor and civil rights groups had teamed up to defeat his nomination of Clement Haynesworth to the Supreme Court and splitting these two groups was a top political priority.

And in fact, real progress in desegregating construction work was very slow, in no small part because Nixon did virtually nothing to push the integration of construction after the Philadelphia Plan’s approval. In 1971, Nixon advisor Chuck Colson successfully weakened the plan’s enforcement and by this point, Nixon himself had no interest in the subject in the face of his coming reelection campaign and domestic political concerns about inflation. By 1971, Nixon realized the real political power was in white resentment, not civil rights. and that ended his interest in pursuing the implementation of the Philadelphia Plan. This move allowed many building trades and other conservative unions to support Nixon in 1972, with the AFL-CIO withholding support for George McGovern. Much had changed in three years.

When the courts did enforce integration, white workers hazed black workers and just refused to work with them. With this level of resistance, the federal government turned more toward voluntary desegregation programs without enforcement. Ultimately, the political will was not there to create widespread integration of the building trades. Yet the Philadelphia Plan did advance affirmative action as federal policy and so I guess Nixon deserves a certain amount of credit for this, even if he did it for crass political reasons. It brought the principle of specific numerical goals into affirmative action, the dreaded “quotas” conservatives of the 90s loved to talk about as they were largely rolling them back through the courts.

I drew on a number of historical works for this post, including Joshua Freeman’s article “Hardhats: Construction Workers, Manliness, and the 1970 Pro-War Demonstrations,” from the Summer 1993 issue of the Journal of Social History, Kevin Yuill’s Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action, Dean Kotlowski’s Nixon’s Civil Rights: Politics, Principle, and Policy, and Trevor Griffey’s “‘The Blacks Should Not Be Administering the Philadelphia Plan’: Nixon, the Hard Hats, and ‘Voluntary’ Affirmative Action,” in Goldberg and Griffey, ed., Black Power at Work: Community Control, Affirmative Action, and the Construction Industry.

This is the 119th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

This Day in Labor History: September 22, 1862

[ 100 ] September 22, 2014 |

On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slaves in all parts of the U.S. in rebellion free on January 1, 1863 if they did not rejoin the United States. While not a complete abolition of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation signaled slavery’s death knell and is one of the most important presidential acts in U.S. history. It also made taking away the labor system that led the South to secede from the Union away from its leaders, undermining the economic stability of an already beleaguered rebellion.

While Lincoln abhorred slavery personally, as president, he was very cautious about acting against it. There were several reasons for this. First, he had campaigned on the idea that slavery was recognized in the Constitution for the states and the real battle was in the territories. Given the intense hatred of Lincoln from the Democrats who were still a real force in many states after 1861, including the political powerhouse of New York, such a reversal of his campaign rhetoric would have been hard to imagine. Second, Lincoln was very nervous about what millions of free blacks would mean for the country. Could they live together in peace? Even into the war, Lincoln was toying with colonization schemes to send slaves back to Africa. Third, Lincoln’s biggest problem other than the rebellion itself was keeping the border states in the Union. Baltimore had to be placed under martial law while Kentucky had “neutrality” that needed to be respected. Freeing the slaves would have just stirred up more anger in those states and perhaps made it impossible to keep them from seceding. Finally, Lincoln consistently deluded himself, to the point of his death, that the majority of the white South really wanted to be part of the Union and so tried to give them incentives to rejoin. Freeing the slaves would have made that impossible.

On the other hand, African-Americans, north and south, knew what the war was about. While many in the North were trying to say it wasn’t about slavery per se, like southern whites, African-Americans never had any question of the stakes. Frederick Douglass and other northern black leaders urged Lincoln to immediately emancipate the slaves and organize black regiments for the Army. Perhaps more importantly, slaves themselves took advantage of nearby U.S. troops, fleeing to the military. Generals such as Benjamin Butler quickly recognized the potential of taking away the South’s labor force and turning that into a Union labor force. But Lincoln, nervous about the effects of making this an official policy on his plans to lure the South back into the Union, originally rejected the idea.

By mid 1862, Lincoln began to change his mind about the expediency of freeing slaves. The situation in the border states was more secure, with the ardent secessionists now significantly outnumbered by unionists. Congress pushed him on this, passing in March 1862 a law barring the military from returning escaped slaves to their owners. Still, Lincoln decided to avoid Congress and issue the proclamation as Commander in Chief, thus avoiding a tense debate and possible rejection. Lincoln wanted a major victory by Union forces before he issued it so it didn’t look desperate. Unfortunately, he had George McClellan as his commanding general, which meant that no major victories was likely. With the partial victory at Antietam a few days earlier as good as Lincoln was going to get, he decided this was the time.

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Currier and Ives print on Lincoln using the Emancipation Proclamation to crush the rebellion

The Emancipation Proclamation freed all slaves in areas of the South under rebellion on January 1, 1863. People criticize Lincoln today for the partial nature of the Emancipation Proclamation and for the fact that it provided immediate freedom for no one. For slaves in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware, not to mention the subjugated areas of the Confederacy like parts of Tennessee, slavery did not end at the beginning of 1863. The morally pure thing to do was to free all the slaves immediately. Certainly that is what Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison demanded. And yes, it mandated the Union actually win the war for the slaves to be freed instead of freeing the slaves it actually had control over. But the partial nature of the proclamation was political genius. No, it didn’t free anyone. On the other hand, it made the ending of slavery in the Confederacy official federal and military policy. And slavery simply could not survive in Kentucky if it was ended in Mississippi. Plus it gave a moral reason to fight the war, one with increasing importance as soldiers who might have been racist but had never personally witnessed slavery were outraged when they went to the South and saw the horrors of this labor system first hand. When combined with the doctrine of free labor that already drove Republican policy, the eradication of slavery becoming central to the war effort was both morally correct and politically savvy.

It’s not as if word about the Emancipation Proclamation immediately spread around the South. But as rumors leaked out, slaves began fleeing by the thousands to Union lines. By 1865, this would have a severe impact upon the plantation economy. Booker T. Washington remembered the day the Emancipation Proclamation became knowledge at his home:

As the great day drew nearer, there was more singing in the slave quarters than usual. It was bolder, had more ring, and lasted later into the night. Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom…. Some man who seemed to be a stranger (a United States officer, I presume) made a little speech and then read a rather long paper—the Emancipation Proclamation, I think. After the reading we were told that we were all free, and could go when and where we pleased. My mother, who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying, but fearing that she would never live to see.

On the other hand, Democrats were outraged. Horatio Seymour, running for governor of New York and the Democratic Party presidential nominee in 1868, called it, “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes of lust and rapine, and of arson and murder, which would invoke the interference of civilized Europe.” But in fact, Europe largely approved of the move, although the commonly held myth that Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation to keep Europe from recognizing the Confederacy is significantly overstated and was only a minor factor in its existence or its timing.

By June 1865, 4 million slaves would be free as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation.

We see the Emancipation Proclamation as a key moment in the African-American freedom struggle, and for good reason. But it’s also an absolutely central moment in American labor history because it was the decisive moment when the nation officially rejected the system of slave labor that had built so much of the antebellum country.

This is the 118th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

More on Police Unionism and Police Militarization

[ 47 ] September 20, 2014 |

An interesting conversation developed in my post from a couple of days ago on police unions and militarization. Unfortunately, a lot of it came down to what I see very often, which is people on the left supporting unionism in principle but then, when those workers take a position that these people don’t agree with, stripping them of their bargaining rights becomes the answer. The left appropriating anti-union right-wing rhetoric on workers they don’t like is not a good idea, whether BART strikers in San Francisco or police officers’ unions that take positions today’s progressives don’t like.

Joseph Slater had a couple of comments that I think are an important pushback against these ideas. Slightly edited, I want to present them in a front page post:

As someone who has paid a lot of attention to this area over the past few decades, a few observations.

(1) As Hogan at least implied, barring collective bargaining for police would not get rid of police unions or police union political activity. There is a First Amendment right for police officers (and most other public employees) to form unions and act as political advocates. Indeed, in states which don’t permit police to bargain collectively (and there are a number of those, because the First Amendment right to organize into unions does not extend to a right to bargain collectively), police unions still do lobby, often effectively.

(2) Speaking of the fact that a number of states do not permit police to bargain collectively, opponents of police collective bargaining might want to produce some evidence that police behavior, either on the ground or in politics, is “worse” (by their standards) in states that permit collective bargaining than in states that don’t permit collective bargaining: e.g., that the police in South Carolina and Virginia (where collective bargaining is prohibited) are doing better (by the lights of critics) than the police in Iowa and New Hampshire (where the police have collective bargaining rights). I’m not sure such a case could be made, but if you want to take away collective bargaining rights, you should be able to show how things are better where such rights don’t exist.

(3) The concern that police oppose, say, civilian review boards is addressed in public-sector labor law by consistent rules that limit the scope of bargaining for police about such issues. Public-sector labor laws routinely prohibit police unions from bargaining over civilian review boards, use-of-deadly-force rules, and similar policies that clearly affect the public interest. For example, there is a big case out of California on use-of-deadly-force policies squarely holding that police unions can’t negotiate about that topic.

(4) As others have said, critics of police unions seem to put a lot of faith in police management, which seems oddly misplaced in the context of “use of force” issues. It’s also oddly misplaced in the context of basic worker-rights issues, such as unjust discipline, abuse of overtime, and other basic workers-rights issues.

Bottom line / tl;dnr version: cops have interests *as workers* but society has an interest in restraints on the use of force by officers of the state. Collective-bargaining laws balance these interests by limiting what topics police can bargain about. Also, though, eliminating collective bargaining rights will not eliminate the rights of police officers to form unions and lobby for their goals.

One other point worth mentioning. Per Missouri state law, police unions in that state do *not* have the sorts of collective bargaining rights that police unions in most other states enjoy. So the problems in Ferguson — from over-militarization to plain old excessive force — are not attributable to union collective bargain rights.

I completely agree.

Work and Food Writing

[ 24 ] September 20, 2014 |

So this is kind of an interesting story about a big hop farm in Idaho. I read it because I like beer. But I also read it to see how work is discussed. And of course, it is discussed only in the most passing way. See here:

At the height of the picking season, which starts in September, hundreds of workers tend to the hops. During this year’s harvest, the picking combines and the massive kilns used for drying will operate 24 hours a day. These are boom times and Elk Mountain is thriving.

The farm’s business hasn’t always been so good. Just a couple of years ago, Elk Mountain was in trouble. In the 2000s, a global hop surplus led to brewers such as Anheuser-Busch, which started the farm in 1987, stockpiling excess hop pellets. They simply didn’t need any more hops. In the spring of 2010, Elk Mountain’s farmers had to rip out all but 70 acres of their hops rather than maintain a crop that wouldn’t be used. For people who had spent their whole adult lives growing hops, times were hard. No one had seen this coming.

Hundreds of workers. Who are these workers? Are they hop workers full-time? What are the conditions of labor on this farm? None of this is known. We can assume, and almost certainly correctly, that these are migrant workers, probably undocumented.

Does it matter for a post about a hop farm? Yes and no. The point of the piece is to talk about a giant hop farm. Yet I think it rather unfortunate to talk about workers in food as strictly background characters, effectively machines that we don’t have to think about in the process of creating our beer. But we know almost nothing of the labor that goes into our beer, whether it be Miller or our favorite local microbrew. What that labor looks like, who gets paid what, what the working conditions are in those hop farms and breweries–these are really important questions that need to matter–especially to self-described foodies who hope for some level of sustainable production. For no food system is sustainable that does not treat workers with respect.

Organized Labor and Police Militarization

[ 76 ] September 18, 2014 |

The AFL-CIO has come out pretty strongly against police militarization. Most of the unions seem fine with this. There is of course one major exception: The International Union of Police Associations. The IUPA is bickering a bit with AFL-CIO leadership over it.

And you know what? That’s fine. It’s the job of the IUPA to defend the interests of its members. In this case, that’s probably to have ridiculous armor and weapons. But it is the interest of the AFL-CIO to defend the American working class. Many of its unions are made up of the African-Americans and Latinos victimized by police violence. But the IUPA is doing its job here. We can choose to ignore it or oppose their position. I certainly am. But it’s OK that it holds that position. It is representing its members.

Huge Labor Victory in the South

[ 9 ] September 16, 2014 |

This is a major win for labor:

9,000 American Airlines passenger service agents, after a 19-year struggle, joined together today in a vote with the members of the US Airways CWA-IBT Association to form a new bargaining unit of 14,500 agents at American Airlines. It is the largest labor organizing victory in the South in decades.

Three-quarters of the agents work in Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Arizona and 2,300 are home-based reservations agents.

By an 86 percent vote, airport and reservations agents overwhelmingly chose representation by the Communications Workers of America-Teamsters Association in the National Mediation Board election; results of the vote were announced this afternoon. US Airways and American Airlines merged to form the New American Airlines in 2013.

The vote clearly shows that workers who can make a fair choice about union representation want bargaining rights. New American agents are concentrated in southern states, and work at diverse locations, including large and smaller airports, call centers and at home. Across every group, they voted for bargaining rights and union representation.

That the addition of 9000 members would be the largest labor advance in the South in decades is depressing, but such is the reality of modern America. This is a big victory and hopefully can lead to more.

Tribal Casinos and Labor Law

[ 79 ] September 16, 2014 |

Native American tribes are trying to use their sovereign status to avoid U.S. labor law in their casinos:

After the Saginaw Chippewa fired a housekeeper at the Soaring Eagle casino in 2010, the Michigan tribe found itself at the center of a national legal battle over the reach of U.S. labor law and the sovereign rights of Native American tribes.

The housekeeper, Susan Lewis, was fired for soliciting union support among workers at the casino in central Michigan. She challenged her dismissal before the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, which ordered the casino to reinstate Lewis.

The Saginaw Chippewa refused, saying the NLRB, which oversees union elections and referees private-sector labor relations disputes, had no right to meddle in tribal business.

Four years later the tribe is fighting the NLRB in one of three nearly identical court cases whose outcomes could be felt throughout the $28 billion tribal casino industry.

At issue are two long-held legal principles. One is the right of private-sector workers to band together and pursue union representation, as embodied in the 1930s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which the NLRB oversees.

The other is tribal sovereignty, which has been affirmed by Supreme Court decisions going back to the 1820s.

Tribal law is tremendously complicated and I am no expert. What I do understand suggests that with federal labor law, the tribes might have to comply due to their “domestic dependent nations” status as proclaimed by John Marshall. Were it state law, then they would have a much better case because state sovereignty over indigenous land is less clear. Plus, there is a long history of U.S. labor law already applying to workers on reservations, including OSHA.

But this is just the same kind of capitalist avoidance of basic rights for workers that Vegas casinos or apparel manufacturers or anyone else engages in. And the arguments are equally absurd:

But if the NLRB gets its way and unions move in, potentially raising the Soaring Eagle’s operating costs and eroding its profits, “the impact on the tribe and its governmental services would be, in a word, devastating,” said the tribe in a brief filed with the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The casino is “critical to the political integrity of the tribe,” the brief said. The tribe, which does not tax its members, receives 90 percent of its income from the casino.

Ha ha ha ha, what a funny joke. Or it would be if it wasn’t trying to seriously make this argument. This is the same overheated anti-union rhetoric we’ve heard from Henry Clay Frick, Walmart, and countless others. In many ways, this case is not all that dissimilar on principle from Israel/Palestine. Native Americans’ historical oppression does not give them the right to oppress others.

This Day in Labor History: September 14, 1959

[ 32 ] September 14, 2014 |

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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