Labor Pains

Labor Pains

Robert Fitch’s Solidarity for Sale exposes corruption as the cause of the current crisis in American labor.


Midway through his new book on corruption in the American labor movement, Solidarity for Sale, Robert Fitch tells the story of one of the most famous anticorruption crusaders of all time: Martin Luther. It was, after all, outrage at corruption–priests who charged parishioners for indulgences, living large while making sinners pay for false redemption–that prompted Luther to nail his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg. His critics charged him with harping on petty sins, insisting that the priests he assailed were exceptions to the rule. But Luther knew better. As Fitch puts it, “Neither the sale of indulgences nor the commerce in Church offices served as Luther’s ultimate target. These were not ‘abuses’; they were inevitable expressions of an institution that he charged was corrupt in its essence.” His real target, in the end, was not a few bad pennies but the entire structure of the church. And the result was no piecemeal change but the Reformation.

Solidarity for Sale aims, in a way, to be Ninety-Five Theses for the American labor movement. The book is not so much a history as an exposé. Virtually every page contains revelations of vote fraud, election theft, payoffs, sweetheart deals, Mafia infiltration, pension fund looting and political betrayal, and it is populated by characters with nicknames like Diamond Joe, Dago Mike and Big Jim. But Fitch is a social critic as well as an investigative journalist, and his target is larger than a few wiseguys: He seeks to demonstrate that, like the church before the Reformation, American unions are rotten at the core, and that with few exceptions they have been this way virtually since birth. The crisis of American labor today reflects the corruption at the heart of the movement, if not its original sin; to rebuild unions, Fitch suggests, we must start all over again.

Fitch has a long career as a political reporter, going back to the late 1960s, when he worked for Ramparts magazine. Unlike his fellow Ramparts alum David Horowitz, who today denounces his former comrades as terrorist sympathizers, Fitch has consistently defined himself as a man of the left. He never went into academia full time, instead pursuing a career as a freelance journalist; the body of Solidarity for Sale is based on reporting he did at the Village Voice. (Full disclosure: He is also an old acquaintance of mine, although we haven’t spoken for years.)

The question driving Fitch is the same one famously posed in 1906 by Werner Sombart: Why is there no socialism in the United States? The answer, for Fitch, is corruption–no other labor movement has been as infested with corruption as that of the United States. As a muckraking reporter, Fitch has always highlighted the role of individual elites and institutions in making history, as opposed to the grand, sweeping trends favored by academics. His analysis of the deindustrialization of New York City, for example, in his book The Assassination of New York, emphasized the role of Rockefeller real estate interests in seeking to remake downtown Manhattan as a playground for consumerism, over more abstract invocations of globalization and technological change. Similarly, in Solidarity for Sale, he blames the weakness and impotence of today’s American labor movement not on political backlash, global capital or international competition but on the choices, actions and structures of unions. “The fundamental actors in American labor are institutions–the unions themselves,” he writes.

The end of American labor, Fitch argues, lies in its beginning: the birth of the American Federation of Labor in 1886. The rise of craft unionism in the late nineteenth century meant the development of a unionism that was inherently exclusionary, as the crafts refused to organize unskilled (or black, or female) workers. Labor leaders like the AFL’s Samuel Gompers opposed public health insurance plans and even eight-hour-day legislation. “If we can get an eight-hour law for the working people, then you will find that the working people themselves will fail to have any interest in your economic organization,” he predicted in 1914.

What’s more, in industries where employers were small and craft unions strong–as in construction–the unions could control who got jobs. Where other historians have seen job control unionism as a sign of labor’s strength, or of pride in craft, Fitch argues that it created a culture of deferential, humiliating subservience, since workers’ ability to earn their daily bread depended on the good graces of the business agent. The AFL unions proved susceptible to Mafia corruption, Fitch suggests, precisely because job control unionism established this culture of loyalty and fear. “Notwithstanding the muscling-in era of the 1920s and 1930s, the Mafia has been able to capture and maintain control of trade unions less through overt violence than through their mastery of the politics of job trust unionism,” he writes.

What house of labor could be built on such a fragile foundation? Today, Fitch sees a labor movement that is incapable of either organizing workers or representing them effectively. In some cases, corruption refers to the mob infiltration of unions. The Laborers are “totally mobbed up,” routinely making deals with employers to hire nonunion labor and pocketing part of the difference between union and nonunion wages while merrily looting the pension fund. (Fitch argues that such collusion with employers is more widespread than simple extortion.)

But even when the Mafia isn’t directly involved–and it isn’t in most of the unions Fitch chronicles–Fitch sees a labor leadership more interested in enriching itself than in improving its members’ lives. He argues that AFSCME District Council 37–which represents New York City’s public sector workers–is rife with petty theft and vote fraud. (“Everybody takes a little from the kitty,” he quotes one union officer saying.) UNITE has taken payoffs to not enforce contracts at sweatshops in lower Manhattan. Teamsters reformer Ron Carey–“the most glittering mirage yet to deceive the travelers in labor’s increasingly parched desert”–stole union funds to pay for his re-election campaign (Fitch largely discounts Carey’s 2001 acquittal in the case). Self-serving labor leaders take weak political positions; like the AFL under Samuel Gompers, neither the AFL-CIO nor SEIU calls for national health insurance. Fitch argues that the structural problems of American labor–its culture of insularity and subservience–cannot be solved by new leadership. Indeed, one of his abiding themes is that the labor movement has historically proved impervious to reform: “Call it the Roach Motel syndrome. The leftists go in but they don’t come out.”

Fitch would like to abolish union shop contracts (which mandate that all workers at a given employer must join the union–workers typically vote on this provision in their first contract) and overturn the legal provision giving a union that wins an election the exclusive right to represent workers at a given workplace (the law was initially passed in part to fight company unions). Without these crutches, unions would lose their “monopoly,” and healthy competition would revive the labor movement. Fitch’s literary style, never what one would call restrained, becomes an all-out jeremiad in the closing pages of Solidarity for Sale. “No amount of ‘democracy’ can alter the fact that the AFL-CIO is rooted in compulsion, exclusion and monopoly,” Fitch insists. “Forced labor is slavery; forced marriage is concubinage; forced sex is rape. Few acknowledge that forced unionism–unionism without consent–is despotism.”

Union corruption is a difficult topic to write about, and Fitch deserves credit for his investigative zeal. Mobsters aren’t known for their candid interviews or well-kept archives. Beyond this, employers have sought to tar unions with accusations of corruption ever since the earliest attempts to organize. Sorting out allegations from reality is tricky, especially since any exercise of working-class power can seem to employers like a corruption of the marketplace and of the natural order; they see collective bargaining, in the words of libertarian economist Ludvig von Mises, as “bargaining at the point of a gun.” Finally, unionists themselves sometimes deny real corruption even when it exists, insisting that they are the victims of trumped-up employer charges. Nostalgia, machismo and sentimentality can lead union supporters to simply deny real wrongdoing in the face of all evidence.

But despite the facts Fitch unearths, Solidarity for Sale offers too sweeping an indictment to be persuasive. Although he emphasizes job control unionism, most of the unions he discusses (other than the Laborers and in some instances the Teamsters) don’t actually work this way. In New York’s public sector or even the garment factories, the boss, not the union, decides who works. At times Fitch’s habit of dropping crime family names and his descriptions of labor leaders–who we are repeatedly told resemble “Afghan or Somalian warlords”–seem designed for shock value rather than analytic precision. His focus on the union shop might have been lifted from the campaigns of the National Association of Manufacturers during the 1950s, which sought to associate monopolies with unions in the public mind, or perhaps from the National Right To Work Committee. It’s worth observing that the connection between union shops and corruption is far less clear than Fitch suggests. Industrial CIO unions like the UAW also fought hard to win union shops without succumbing to the same kind of corruption. Would outlawing the union shop lead to the rebirth of labor? Currently twenty-two states have Right To Work laws, making the union shop contract illegal. While some of these states (most notably Nevada) have seen union membership grow in recent years, places like South Carolina and Arizona are not exactly hotbeds of labor militancy.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Solidarity for Sale is that it is very difficult for the reader to tell where decay actually exists because Fitch sees it everywhere. What is the real extent of union corruption? How many locals a year face charges? And isn’t there something about portraying the entire movement as fraught with thieves that demeans the daily difficulties faced by people who strive to organize and represent workers? The past twenty years have seen extensive struggles against organized crime and corruption in unions like the Teamsters, SEIU and HERE, through the combined efforts of the federal government and internal movements for union democracy. Fitch implies that these have all failed miserably. But there are several recent books–like historian David Witwer’s account of corruption and reform in the Teamsters union, the autobiography of Herman Benson, founder of the Association for Union Democracy, and NYU law professor James Jacobs’s Mobsters, Unions, and Feds–that have tried to take stock. These authors see the fight against union corruption as an integral part of the story of American labor. Instead of arguing that American unions are structurally doomed, they give a sense of the ebb and flow of conflict within unions, and a sense of why anticorruption measures have sometimes been able to succeed. And while not being rosy about corruption, they help the reader to grasp the hope that the labor movement still embodies for millions of Americans, the reasons that despite all the many failures of the past 100 years, people still want to join unions and will sometimes risk a great deal to do so.

Oddly absent in Fitch’s bleak account is the power of business in America. After all, employer violence, legal obstacles to organizing and the constant fear of reprisal from the boss have deterred untold numbers from union activism. And this, in turn, has helped create a climate in which corruption could flourish. But like so many veterans of the 1960s, Fitch seems in this book to have turned away from analyzing the powerful. Instead, his rage at the political direction of the United States is focused inward, at labor itself. The result is a book ostensibly written for union supporters that seems designed to alienate most potential readers in the world of labor. The hermetic treatment of the labor movement–as though it evolved in isolation from the struggle with business–the melodramatic language about monopoly unionism and the occasional lapses into Godfather stereotypes are the exact opposite of what a book on a topic as serious as union corruption needs. Even Luther, when he nailed his theses to the cathedral door, was thinking about how to win followers to his vision of the Gospel.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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