The Labour Racket: How the American Mafia drove radicals out of the union movement
Labour racketeering has long been framed as something that was imposed on American employers in the 1930s. In reality, it took place with the approval of business owners, who were eager to suppress the growing power and militancy of the union movement. This arrangement formed the basis of organised crime’s entry into the legitimate economy during the midcentury, which would prove highly difficult to dislodge even after the decline of working-class radicalism.
Already, the practice of “slugging” had been common in America’s cities, which saw street gangs rent out their services to all sides of industrial action. These included Communist-affiliated locals of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union during a 1926 strike. Soon, several figures associated with its resolution were murdered, replaced by Louis Buchalter. This period saw open conflict in New York’s Garment District, with Communists battling the combined might of the union moderates, Mafia hoodlums and local authorities.
The radicals were squeezed out of the textile industry, or otherwise marginalised by this onslaught. However, worker militancy was by this point sweeping the nation. A powerful force in this was the United Auto Workers, an organisation with a significant portion of Communist organisers. This reflected the wider stance of the UAW, which was strongly left-wing and anti-racist. As a result, the Mafia failed to establish a foothold inside it. Instead, they chose to remain as sluggers, working directly for employers as opposed to both sharing a mutual interest in keeping the peace.
In contrast, anti-Communist labour racketeering was increasingly evident in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which had long been dogged by allegations of corruption. The biggest threat to longtime President Daniel J. Tobin came in 1934, with an unsanctioned strike by Local 574. Based in Minneapolis, the Local was affiliated with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, and was soon ejected from the IBT. This was not enough however, forcing Tobin to call on his allies in organised crime to destroy Local 574. This proved harder than expected, with both sides agreeing to a temporary truce, and the creation of the new Local 544. Yet this venture had made Tobin even more indebted to the Mafia, who came to wield greater influence in America’s largest private sector union.
Along with the Teamster’s strike, 1934 had also seen industrial unrest along America’s waterfront. On the West Coast, International Longshoremen’s Association organiser Harry Bridges had paralysed shipping with a massive strike. This won recognition for the ILA, whose corruption led Bridges to lead his members out of the union, creating the International Longshore and Warehouse Union instead. Their efforts to replace the ILA, especially in its base of Brooklyn, were met with violent retribution, which as usual was ignored by the state.
In contrast, a rare case in which the authorities successfully convicted labour racketeers was in Hollywood, with key figures sent down during World War Two. Even then, they served around three years in prison, going right back to their previous careers upon release.
By this point, the National Crime Syndicate was tightly interwoven into American society. Having formed a close relationship with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, they would go on to develop ties to military and foreign intelligence. A major part of this was exporting labour racketeering practices honed in the United States to hotspots around the world.
Back home however, things were slowly changing. With the passage of restrictive legislation and a general decline in union militancy, the Mafia went from useful problem-solvers to an unnecessary expense. Soon, Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa would be made into the face of the labour racket. Having risen through the ranks amidst the final push against the radicals during the 1940s, Hoffa had been in the thick of the fighting in his stronghold of Detroit. Imprisoned in 1964, he threatened to testify about union corruption. Initially, this secured his release, but as Hoffa began to make further demands, he disappeared. The hunt for his body was taken over by the FBI, which had been key to the defeat of Local 544. As such, they were determined not to find the body of Hoffa, who remains missing to this day.