April 16, 2006
Off the Shelf

The Spectacle of Labor at the Trough

ONE of the most revealing, and funniest, scenes in this exposé of union corruption concerns the Mason Tenders District Council of New York, which represents workers in some of the grittiest jobs in construction. The members make good money — $30 to $43 an hour, plus benefits. But in one job site after another in the 1980's, they were replaced by cheap unorganized labor. Where was the union?

At least until recently, says Robert Fitch in "Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise" (PublicAffairs, $28.50), it was controlled by crime families like the Genoveses and Gambinos. The "mobbed up" bosses were extorting payoffs from building companies in return for letting them hire nonunion labor.

Here's the funny part. The racket was so good, Mr. Fitch recounts, that some of the union bosses set up their own construction companies. Check out the conversation that occurred in Little Italy in 1989 (and captured on an F.B.I. wiretap) between an earnest, ordinary laborer identified as Carl, who tried to help the cause by reporting a nonunion company to labor officials, and his union field representative, one Al Soussi:

Carl: I give him the name of the company. He goes, "No, it's not union, but we're gonna get it unionized in a couple of days."

Al: What was the name of the company?

Carl: D-E-P, something like that.

Al: D-E-P's my company, [expletive]. What're you crazy?

Carl: No.

Al: Yeah, that's my company. I got the shake on 'em. What're you interferin' it?

Carl: No, I called —

Al: (Yelling) Yeah, yeah, you called the delegate on me!

Carl: How do I know?

Al: (Shouting) Why didn't you keep your [expletive] mouth shut?

According to Mr. Fitch, the American labor movement is shot through with rackets, corruption and union officials who are brazenly enriching themselves while utterly ignoring the plight of their members. In addition to numerous examples of mob infiltration, Mr. Fitch also cites a laundry list of cases of garden-variety theft. At District Council 37, a New York City local representing low-paid city employees, one official, Albert A. Diop, billed the union for his maid service and limousine. "Everyone takes a little from the kitty," Mr. Diop had offered, in 1983, as a defense for a fellow union executive, some years before his own conviction for stealing.

A particularly heartless example, from the late 1960's, involved the giveaway of Thanksgiving turkeys to hard-pressed union families. The birds had been pumped full of water to increase their weight, and dozens of union chiefs had bought them (with union funds) at inflated prices, then pocketed kickbacks. Such shenanigans seem to have been regularly exposed, but as the author documents, corrupt behavior has been notoriously hard to eradicate. In particular, the struggle to truly reform the Teamsters persisted long after Jimmy Hoffa.

The saddest feature of this saga of sweetheart contracts, rigged elections, pension raids and protection deals is the yawning gap it all exposes between union executives and the rank and file. One executive, whose salary came from dues paid by "low-wage baggers and checkers," pocketed $547,000 a year in compensation.

Mr. Fitch recounts many such examples. We have come to expect shameless avarice from corporate executives, but it would appear that labor bosses are no better.

The author, who nourishes a nostalgia for the labor movement's early days, says the leadership of the last 50 years tolerated and encouraged a racketlike labor structure.

Ever since the merger of two labor groups created the A.F.L.-C.I.O. in the 1950's, he contends, unions have been more concerned with protecting turfs and keeping out rivals than expanding their base.

"Under the U.S. fiefdom model, the point is to find a rich territory and occupy it," he writes. "Little incentive exists for the occupiers to extend the benefits of the union to low-paid outsiders."

Mr. Fitch clearly prefers the European model, in which trade unions have used the political process to win widespread social benefits. By contrast, he says, American unions have been mostly out for themselves. Though the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has contributed millions to the Democratic Party, the marriage has hardly borne the political fruit — national health care, for instance — that workers might want. A result has been steady shrinkage. Today, only 8 percent of private-sector workers carry union cards.

Mr. Fitch plays down the familiar explanation for the decline of unions — that in a global economy in which American workers compete against Indians and Chinese, Haitians and Hondurans, unions have lost their bargaining power. Rather, he says, union corruption "explains why the American labor movement fares so poorly in the vital tasks unions are designed to perform."

I have two problems with this. Mr. Fitch admiringly cites the rise of the welfare state in Europe, with its laws mandating minimum vacation time and shortened workweeks. He does not cite the cost that Europe has paid in higher unemployment, lower growth and social stagnation. Does he really think that Americans — even American workers — envy the French?

Second, although Mr. Fitch repeatedly asserts that corruption matters, he doesn't convince us that even honest unions could reverse the tide of shrinking membership. As he seems to concede toward the end, the choice facing unions today is either higher wages or more members — not both.

Finally, though Mr. Fitch's passion for his subject is admirable, the examples flow too fast, the chronology is lost in a jumble of forward- and backward-glancing flashes, and the prose is simply overripe. In one pagelong sequence, Mr. Fitch compares American labor bosses to Russian czars, Somali warlords, Afghan warlords and Gothic invaders in "the seventh-century Merovingian state." Just what I had been thinking.

LATER, he frets that while there are "dozens of books in print about Egypt's pyramids," there is not a single one about the temples that used to serve as union meeting halls in the United States. He doesn't really want to compare the bricklayers union to the pharaohs, does he?

No matter. For anyone who still clings to an idealistic vision of the labor movement, or is interested in some novel prescriptions for reform, I would skip the pyramids and try this book.

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