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Mob Rule: A Review of “Mobsters, Unions and Feds”

Bennett Baumer Nov 19, 2006

mobMobsters, Unions and Feds: The Mafia and the American Labor Movement by James B. Jacobs

NYU Press 2006

From Jimmy Hoffa to the building trades in New York City, the Mafia built its power base in the labor movement, using union funds and industry clout to fatten themselves at the workers’ expense. In Mobsters, Unions, and Feds, NYU professor James Jacobs examines how RICO anti-racketeering laws and trusteeships of unions can turn corrupt unions into functioning bodies. While many romanticize the Cosa Nostra, Jacobs takes away that mystique with case histories of various unions in which workers always lose out. One of the most common rackets are sweetheart deals between corrupt union officials and management. Here’s how they work: Mafia members or their associates in control of the union laxly enforce the contract and allow non-union workers to earn less on the job. The mobbed-up labor officials receive kickbacks and the bosses maximize profits by paying below the union standard. In other cases, the mob just robs health and pension funds as well as union coffers. The most famous case is Hoffa’s use of the Teamsters’ pension fund to build Vegas casinos in the 1960s and 70s.

Union members are often fearful and powerless to confront entrenched Mafia leadership and thus Jacobs focuses on how the government can use the law to combat corruption. His focus on the legal aspects, however, reads more like a court document than mob exposé. Four international unions: the hotel union (HERE), Teamsters, Laborers and the International Longshoremen Association have undergone racketeering cases and court-appointed trustees that oversaw the union’s affairs and called new elections to eliminate corruption. However, the feds’ history in strike-breaking and gutting labor protections creates suspicions that too often lead union members back into the arms of corrupt leaders. Jacobs mentions these concerns, but does not give any labor history to explain workers’ suspicions.

Jacobs is clearly a labor guy who believes trusteeships are the best bet to rid the mob from the labor movement. Such systematic measures, however, do not adequately address strongman corruption. Should we believe that no one at the New York City Central Labor Council knew about Brian McLaughlin’s thievery? Or perhaps the same tactics mob chiefs use to instill fear in the membership were used by McLaughlin.

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