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H.W. Benson

Unions, Racketeers and Senators

Background, Motives and Effects of Labor Hearings

(Summer 1957)

From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 3, Summer 1957, pp. 161–169.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There has been no sudden eruption of racketeering in the labor movement. The tale, dripping with crime, deceit and betrayal, and rehearsed at the Senate hearing was known in outline and sometimes in detail for a long time. It reaches back many years in a long uninterrupted line, sometimes new names, less often new methods. Yet, the discovery of what everyone knew becomes the occasion for the first big national, public investigation of unions; the first attempt at an “exposé” of organized labor.

Every period in our country’s recent history has had its own celebrated investigations, each corresponding to some strong current of public opinion: investigations of monopoly, recording widespread resentment against domination of economic life by big business; of munitions makers, reflecting disillusionment with the first World War and a distrust of the pious slogans that were used to justify it; of violence against labor and the denial of the right to organize, revealing sympathy with labor’s underdog struggle against a ruthless enemy; and most recently, of Communism, flowing from a hysterical fear of Russian power and a feeling of utter helplessness before its social appeal. And now, the Senate labor hearings.

There is no doubt that the revelations of widespread corruption provided a setback to unionism; every union reports the same thing: resistance to organization has risen; it is almost impossible to join new shops. Yet, in the end the union movement will regain all that was lost, and more. The 1929 crisis and with it the investigations of the sordid machinations of big business finally destroyed the dream of a “business government” and implanted in the American people a permanent distrust not of capitalism as a system but of the capitalists as a governing class. Business man’s rule was repudiated. But there can be no corresponding repudiation of unionism now. For unionism today enjoys the fierce loyalty of millions. Union consciousness is deep and ineradicable, instilled in America’s working class after 25 years of organization and strikes. In the end it will be reinforced by getting rid of crooks and grafters – something that has just begun.

But is is the very strength and influence of unions which now brings them under public scrutiny. With the ability to affect the lives of the whole population comes a new responsibility: to use this power to further peace, democracy, rising living standards for all. Is labor using its mighty power for good or for evil? That is the question that arises in the minds of all. One answer, or at least the shadowy outlines of a mood, can be summarized this way:

“Big capital has its evils and they had to be curbed. Now Big Labor has its evils and we must curb them too.”

Such is the mood which makes the hearings possible, a mood which ranges all the way from outright hostility to labor, to resentment and misgivings, down to friendly criticism from its friends. Mixed together are opposition to the legitimate labor activities by its enemies, pique at labor’s ability to shut down industry, fear that high wages have something to do with prices, resentment of the unions political power, suspicion of its “communistic” purpose, hostility to closed shops. It is not a question of the justice or validity of any of these reactions; the fact is that they exist.

Joseph Loftus, comments in the New York Times:

“Labor’s decline in the public esteem is traceable to more than criminal acts. There are contributing factors, from unethical (though legal) practices to bad manners; a disregard of the fact that the labor movement received public support as a force for social justice not as a business. This view happens to be held quite widely among the friends of labor, even those on the inside.”

He goes on to quote The Practice of Unionism a recent book by Jack Barbash, staff member of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department who says:

“I find it more difficult to defend what may well be an inevitable outcome of ‘bigness’ – a bigness perhaps made necessary to cope with the bigness of the problems. I miss most of all the kind of personal humility – a consciousness of doing God’s work, as it were – on the part of many union leaders, that, for me, is a necessary quality of human movement, whether it is a labor movement or any other kind.”

The Carpenter paraphrases a speech by Andy Beimiller, AFL-CIO legislative representative:

Labor is no longer the underdog. The day when we could automatically expect some sympathy from liberal jurists or politicians or public figures is long since gone. The general public no longer sees those of us who work in the labor movement as champions of the oppressed and exploited. The union members of today enjoy working conditions as good or better than most white collar workers and even some professional people. Under the circumstances, the climate of sympathy for labor that existed even 15 years ago is gone. What we win from now on we must win by merit and merit alone.

The sooner we face that fact, the better. Here then is the liberal-laborite calling labor to account. What he does in his way, millions do in theirs. In politics, the unions come forward as a force that speaks for social justice but acts with prudent expediency, as it ties in with suspect elements. In civil rights they call for equality but act with gingerly caution. Despite all defects, however, it is plain that their motives, at least, are the best. But in the sphere of racketeering, their arrant neglect has been especially damaging and it is for this that they are first called before the bar of public opinion.

>THOSE WHO PRESSED MOST INSISTENTLY for the investigations were the extreme right-wing elements who want to undermine the prestige of the union movement at the very least and at best, to curb its political and social rights. Unionism is basically a progressive, democratic social force; in their distorting mirrors, the rock-ribbed conservatives see it as nothing short of subversive, an unpredictable assemblage of rabble that must be quelled and controlled. For them, the look at racketeering is merely a convenient start ... but not as a dirty maneuver or dishonest trick. All unionism, to them, has the aspects of a “racket” which merely takes on different forms, some legal and some illegal. In every strike, in every big wage boost they see the workings of “labor monopoly” forcing its will upon helpless employers. Morally, it is hardly more legitimate in their eyes for labor to “extort” higher pay from their employers than it is for a thug to extort “protection” money from his victim. In fact, they would admit that in some ways the thug is less dangerous to them; he only threatens an individual while the honest labor leader, a dangerous radical, threatens our whole way of life. Even Senator Ives of New York, a "modern" Republican, declared that the way to deal with irresponsible labor leaders would be to put unions under the anti-trust law ... echoing the opinions of his fellow Committee member Mundt who is a not-so-modern Republican.

But it would be misleading to interpret the hearings simply as the product of a plot by reactionaries to knife labor. After all, the crude rantings of political scissorbills are no more of a novelty than the labor rackets they choose to discover. At other times, they might have been laughed to death; at least, ignored; or denounced in chorus by liberals, laborites and plain realistic politicians with a feel for what is expedient. If they can have their way now, at least to the extent of getting their show on the road, it is because everyone senses somehow that the issues raised cannot be swept under the rug; that public opinion, that elusive guide to aspiring politicians, is ready for a thorough airing of the inner life of union leadership.

It is upon this background that the unions confront the Senate hearings. The motives of the bourgeois right-wing conservatives are transparent enough: to prepare public opinion for restraints on unionism. Knowing that, however, what are the unions to do? They might denounce the committee as anti-labor and refuse to appear before it. That might have sufficed when the labor movement appeared weak, on the defensive, and fighting for elementary rights; then, it might have aroused sympathy by a refusal to submit to investigation. Perhaps. But now the labor movement is powerful; it proposes not merely to defend the living standards of its membership but claims the right to influence all social policies, domestic and international. Such a force cannot claim exemption from public scrutiny and to do so would play into the hands of those who are in ambush against labor. To the Committee, the official labor movement has, in effect, replied: if you uncover criminal activities or even unethical practices within the labor movement we will act against them; but we warn against trying to smear labor and we will fight all laws against our legitimate rights. With this in mind, Reuther has challenged the Committee to call representatives of the UAW before it, but so far in vain.

There are some who argue that Dave Beck and his similars who refuse to testify, pleading the Fifth Amendment, are standing up to the witchhunt against labor. From this curious premise, it follows that union militants should busy themselves with a public campaign to defend Beck against his Senate inquisitors: meanwhile, they reserve some of their most thunderous blasts of reverberating wind against Reuther and Meany for “capitulating” to the employers by acting against Beck! This is a novel twist. For decades, union progressives have demanded action by the labor movement against crooks and have been withering in their criticism of the complacent labor officials who passively tolerated the rackets. At last, with labor unity it has become possible to push for a real campaign to clean out the grafters. At this juncture, it is suggested, we must rise to defend Beck’s right to conceal his sordid record. It is the incredible conclusion of a contorted policy.

But what of the Fifth Amendment? In the Daily Worker Sept 8, George Morris writes, “progressives would far sooner accept the position of the Teamsters on the Fifth Amendment than Reuther’s although not overlooking the fact the former’s leaders use the Fifth to conceal corruption.” He appears to draw a parallel between the use of the Fifth by those charged with “communism” and by those who refuse to answer charges of racketeering. But it is the difference, not the similarity, which is decisive. The communist or former communist appeals to the Fifth for protection against persecution and prosecution, against jailing or blacklisting for his political opinions and activities. He truly faces a witchhunt. But the racketeer, not in theory but in plain simple fact, uses the Constitution in general and the Fifth Amendment in particular to ward off legal punishment for ordinary crime. That is his right; it is necessary to protect that right in order to protect innocent men. That is one thing. It is quite another to portray him as the innocent victim of a witchhunt. Beck uses the Fifth Amendment to dodge an investigation of his unusual practices as union president. Shall the labor movement itself demand an accounting from him or shall it demand that the Senate Committee cease its “persecution” of him. That is what the whole argument boils down to.

It has been widely stated that AFL-CIO policy demands the automatic removal of any union official who resorts to the Fifth Amendment. But this is simply not so. By now the policy is clear: the right to take the Fifth is recognized; but any union official charged with personal corruption who refuses to testify on the basis of the Fifth Amendment must explain his action to his union. The union must investigate why he took the Fifth. If he did so for legitimate reasons, it takes no action; if, however, it concludes that he did so merely to cover up for crimes, he must be removed. It is a policy that is designed to protect the union against the racketeer as a union official while conceding his right to take the Fifth as an individual.

We are dealing not with labor officials who are being hounded for their defense of the workingman but with grafters who use the labor movement as a base of operations for private rackets. Let that fact be clear to all.

>RACKETEERING IS NOT SPREADING inside the union movement. The clatter and clamor comes from the crash of the racket principalities. It will take a long time to eradicate them completely. But they are on the way out.

One reason why the Senate Committee can proceed with ease against crooks in the labor officialdom is because they had already been isolated in the labor movement. The Hoffas, and their lesser known imitators, still have influential, if silent, allies but they can no longer find refuge behind the banner of legitimate unionism. Yesterday, they might count upon the official AFL speaking up on their behalf but today they stand alone. That was one of the first achievements of labor unity. In the September issue of The International Teamster Dave Beck appeals to the spirit of Samuel Gompers.

“In effect, Samuel Gompers was enunciating at El Paso a doctrine of freedom for the individual union member. He was telling that convention that democracy must reign in the labor movement to make it effective; that autonomy and home rule are the cornerstones of its strength and the hallmark of its endurability.”

Not long ago, Beck’s appeal to “autonomy” would have won him nods of sympathy. But no one listens any more.

The CIO was launched in the struggle against grafters, thugs, racketeers, corruptionists, bosses’ agents and plain bureaucrats and had to triumph over them. In many ways, the idealism and political consciousness of the CIO declined as its influence rose and its scope widened to include new millions. But one achievement was permanent. It brought into existence a new socially conscious type of unionism free of corruption and so it remained. But once the boundaries of its domain were staked in its early victories, it remained constrained within its borders. The AFL crafts remained dominant in their own spheres and grew more so as the labor movement as a whole rose. Where rackets were entrenched they remained, spreading into some of the more powerful AFL unions; the independent CIO was unable to carry the fight into the old established unions and was impotent before entrenched rackets within them.

The AFL remained basically united in its battle to contain the CIO. Except for the Ladies Garment Workers Union, the racket-ridden outfits were left in peace by the AFL majority. In fact, in the struggle against the radical CIO, racketeers infiltrated the AFL. In the ILA, Joe Ryan built a machine of thugs under the cover of defending the AFL against “Communism.” On the West Coast, the Beck machine became respectable in the fight against Harry Bridges. In the Teamsters Union, the entry of thugs was facilitated by the prosecutions of Trotskyist Teamster leaders in Minneapolis under the Smith Act: with the help of the government, the Midwest teamsters were turned over to the mercies of a rotten machine which was installed firmly in power. When Minneapolis teamsters tried to join the CIO in an effort to save union democracy, they were blocked, again by government intervention. The rise of racketeering in labor undoubtedly has its deep sociological causes and explanations, like everything else. Concretely, however, it is linked to the fight of the right wing in the labor movement against progressives and radicals.

But the same historic factors that in one burst had created the CIO slowly made their impact on the AFL. As unionism expanded it was thrust into politics. Its arena was no longer some out of the way crossroads but the stage of national life. During the war, laws were proposed, some passed, to curb union freedom; after the war, unions fought to solidify the gains of the past decade. But big business campaigned to illegalize some traditional union practices winning their greatest success in the Taft-Hartley Law. The AFL had to be transformed. The propaganda of anti-unionism was feeding upon its defects. It was easy enough to make the plunge into national politics by endorsing Adlai Stevenson. But did the Federation come into court with clean hands? Millions of Negroes knew that it tolerated Jim Crow; millions knew that it tolerated racketeers. Something had to be done. But little was possible given a balance of power where racketeers controlled big unions and could count on the moral aid of conservatives against interference in their corrupt affairs.

It was the impulse for change inside the AFL which made unity with the CIO possible. Merger was a victory for the CIO; we see it now far more clearly than a year ago. In one year, the powerful Teamsters Union which had treated its fellow AFL affiliates with scorn, which raided and broke strikes with utter contempt for labor opinion ... this officialdom was reduced instantly, at the merger convention, to a position of cautious defense. With unity the balance of power shifted; the racketeer elements were reduced to a hopelessly minority position. The stage was set to move against them.

Before merger, Meany quizzed United Textile Workers leaders on corrupt practices. It came to nothing and he was ignored. Later, he succeeded in expelling the racket-ridden International Longshoremen’s Association but couldn’t give it the coup de grace. The ILA, he discovered, was aided secretly and publicly by powerful forces inside the AFL, above all by New York State AFL leaders and Teamster local officials. (And in the end by John L. Lewis and Joe Curran of the National Maritime Union.) Ironically, it was Dave Beck, none other, as a member of the top AFL longshore committee, who was assigned to help clean up the New York waterfront for the AFL. That was just a few years ago but it seems longer.

However, it came too late; it was too slow. Even now, with everything that is being done by the Executive Council it is belated.

The official leadership deserves rebuke, not because it refuses to defend crooks at the hearings; not because it demands an accounting by those who refuse to answer questions about corruption; not because it uses every public revelation as a club to smash the rackets; not because of what it is trying to do now; but for what it has not done and for what it refuses to do even now.

The top leadership employs the slow, tedious official action from above to clear labor’s good name. That is in order. But it is not enough. It is not enough to expel the Teamsters’ union – it is necessary to rescue more than a million Teamster unionists from the control of the crooked leaders. And that cannot be done so easily, if at all, merely from above.

How have racketeers managed to hold on? A favorite explanation of those who are cynical about the capacities of union members is that the ranks take no interest in decent unionism so long as their ordinary human and animal needs are satisfied. But in every racket-ridden union, men have been fired, terrorized, expelled, killed for fighting against crooked union dictators. Usually, they and their rank and file supporters were alone; ignored, like Peter Panto, ILA rank and file leader whose scarred body was dug out of a New Jersey ditch – no big campaign, no fanfare, no inner union investigations. To fight the rackets from below, when they may be tied in with government officials or police, without whose collusion they could not continue, requires more than good citizenship. It calls for real personal courage; for facing death to self and loved ones. The CIO found thousands with such courage; everywhere and always there are others like them. But men are not heroes without inspiration. To take such risks they must feel deeply that it is really worthwhile; that they are not alone; that their actions are respected and spurred on by those whom they in turn respect. But that is what they do not find.

Our union movement, our labor leadership, since the CIO, have never called upon the ranks to rise, never given moral aid or encouragement to them, never urged ordinary unionists to organize inside their own unions against bureaucratic officials; never defended them against terror and expulsions. Never. Even when the CIO expelled the CP-controlled unions, Phil Murray would not call upon the ranks of these unions to organize against their leaders. No. Quite the opposite. The mood, the code has been that there is something illicit in any movement of the ranks against their leaders. When Reuther, even as president of the UAW, led a rank and file struggle against the majority of his Executive Board he had to do it against the opposition of Phil Murray.

It is this lack of a democratic spirit; this essentially bureaucratic approach that is indubitably the worst single feature of American unionism and it is this that has permitted racketeering to rise. The labor movement is paying for it today in a giant public spectacle.

But so far this is only one side of the story. The unions are on the defensive. Yet, the racket exposures will create a vexing problem for those who are dancing with delight at labor’s discomfiture. For, in the end, labor will emerge free of crooks. What then?

>HENRY FORD IS NOT HAPPY OVER the type of labor leader he confronts at the bargaining table. In this, he speaks for big business whom he aptly symbolizes and for those ultra-right wing politicians who represent it; precisely for those who are eager to use the hearings against unions. In a recent exchange with Reuther, Mr. Ford observed, “True labor leadership today would consist, it seems to us, in labor leaders resisting pressures from whatever source, for excessive and inflationary wage increases. It would consist in union leaders acting for the common good and refraining from the use of the extraordinary leverage and monopolistic power of today’s big industrial labor union. We commend this course of action to you.” But where to find such leaders when the choice is so very limited. Mr. Ford and his friends have to pick their lesser of two evils.

The big line of division in the labor movement at this juncture is between Reuther-Meany, on the one hand and Beck, Hoffa et al. on the other. It was Reuther and Meany who made labor unity possible and with it a drive against the corruptionists. It was not only the crooked elements who felt uneasy but that whole layer of conservative officials who view any stirring and change as suspect.

Walter Reuther is rising more and more as the ideological leader and symbol of the modern American labor movement whose union, the progressive-minded UAW, gives him a prominent public platform. He has strayed away from the socialism of his youth and compared to his own views of yesterday, his outlook has become moderate and liberal. But measured against his contemporaries in public life he appears radical indeed and speaks for a radical kind of union. True, he professes his admiration for the virtues of capitalism; and periodically, he and his adversaries engage in lofty disquisitions on the mutual interests of labor and management, social engineering, and mutual cooperation. Regrettably, these philosophic discourses break down in fits of vituperation and invective. Trust in a permanent state of fraternity between labor and capital is as vain as a hope for the end, under capitalism, of the class conflicts which have produced a Reuther. As the representative of modern unionism, he agitates and presses continually for new social gains. His confidence in our social system is displayed by insistent demands upon it: steadily rising wages, lower prices, guaranteed wages, full employment, shorter hours. And he wants a larger role for labor in politics. He presumes to speak out for a democratic foreign policy, for peace. He expects so much from capitalism that its authentic representatives, the capitalists, become uneasy. Latest of all, he demands an immediate reduction of car prices and when the auto companies reject this simple formula to cut inflation, he denounces them as conscienceless, selfish, irresponsible monopolies. Worse: he criticizes their profits. His lectures on the glories of free enterprise scarcely make up for all this. It is very vexing and we can understand Mr. Ford’s desire to meet a labor leader with a somewhat different approach. But, increasingly, labor’s progressive wing gathers around Reuther as it did when he won the presidency of the CIO.

If business would like an alternative to Reutherism, they are not alone. In a few years, there have been several attempts to mobilize and organize a more conservative section as a counterweight to growing influence of labor’s progressive wing. Dave Beck, Dave McDonald, and John L. Lewis went through mysterious motions of setting up some new outfit. They promptly forgot when the AFL and CIO united. The Hod Carriers, Carpenters, Teamsters and Operating Engineers formed a joint committee to protect their common interests but without noticeable effect on the balance of power. Building Trades Councils work together with Teamster locals to sabotage the merger of AFL and CIO local councils. But every effort to organize labor’s right wing into an effective force has foundered. Most dismal was the fiasco of the invention of Dave Beck.

It sounds farcical now but not long ago a new star was rising. It was a man of social vision, a new type; a real American who was elbowing Reuther aside; he was a labor leader’s businessman and a businessman’s labor leader combining in his own person the common interests of labor and capital; a millionaire in his own right; a man who could parlay a few thousand dollars into a huge personal fortune. His exploits were recorded in admiring detail in the leading periodicals. It was a full scale effort to invent a new conservative labor leader as a buffer against Reuther. That was Dave Beck before it was discovered that his peculiar talent lay in borrowing union money without notice or interest and in profiteering from a trust fund he handled for his pal’s widow. And, assorted rackets, too. Even then, one Senator would not give up the attempt to manufacture a rival to Reuther. In a Chamber of Commerce speech, Goldwater said that Reuther and the UAW “have done more damage to freedom than the peculiar financial transactions of Dave Besk.” But his transgressions were too crass.

When Beck fell there was Hoffa. For one strange moment it seemed as if even he was being groomed to supplant Reuther. When he appeared for the first session of his hearing before the Senate committee, he was treated with proper deference. He was encouraged to expound his broad philosophy of labor relations and when he had finished lecturing, Senator Goldwater was inspired. For the full flavor, we quote from the New York Times account:

“Senator Goldwater asked some questions too and got along fine with the witness. ‘We have labor leaders in the country – labor leaders who would like to get control of the teamsters’, the Arizonian said. The colloquy veered to unionism and politics as Hoffa said he was not going into a room and be told what to do ‘without consulting my members.’ In a related context a moment later, Senator Goldwater remarked, ‘riding in the clouds is an individual who would like to see that happen. I am very hopeful your philosophy prevails.’”

It was Reuther whom the Senator disliked.

Later, Hoffa met Senator Ives at lunch. Ives told him “You’re a good witness. I may disagree with you on a lot of things but I think you’re honest.” It was a remarkable testimonial for a man whose fame was to be far more ephemeral than Beck’s. A day later, his “philosophy” was examined in sordid detail. Exit Hoffa as a great new labor leader! The difficulty for Goldwater and his friends lies in this: the very elements in the labor leadership to whom they look with respect turn out to be allies, at least, of racketeers. Beck boasted of voting for Eisenhower. Hutcheson of the Carpenters, now in difficulties over land deals in Indiana, is a well known Republican. On a lower level, Hoffa’s New York aide, John O’Rourke, served as labor adviser to Thomas E. Dewey when he ran for president and for governor of New York. Hoffa started out as a Democrat but the exigencies of politics drove him toward the Republican Party. In Michigan, he supported Republican Homer Ferguson for Senate; Republicans nominated a Hoffa lieutenant for membership on the state Board of Education in 1957 and a Republican appointed Hoffa himself to membership on the Wayne County [Detroit area] board of supervisors. And in November 1953, a Congressional investigation of Hoffa ended mysteriously when pressure came from high sources in the Republican Party to end the probe.

>FOR ITS PRIME MOVERS, ONE unhappy by-product of the hearings has been the public exposure and weakening of labor’s ultra-right wing. Soon Mr. Goldwater and his friends would like to turn to other things; but it is not easy. They are interested not so much in exposing the Becks as in reaching the Reuthers. They want to know whether workers are coerced into joining unions; they want to know whether unions violate the Taft-Hartley laws by boycotts, as at Kohler; they want to know if it is illegal for unions to support candidates for office; they want to know if labor causes violence as at Perfect Circle (where strikers were shot by scabs from within the plant). They want to know? Not exactly. For they are already convinced that labor is responsible for these “crimes” but they have to try to convince others. Let them try! They will be amazed by what follows.

Meanwhile, they make their start by exposing not the labor movement but its rotten elements, the crooks and grafters. The racketeers are on the run; the unions will get rid of them in one way or another and will be strengthened by it. Perhaps some new laws will make organizing more difficult but no one can wipe out the power of modern unionism. In the end, labor’s antagonists will hit up against that force which makes unionism invulnerable and which guarantees the end of racketeering: the union conscious millions who constitute the organized working class.

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