Politics & Policy

Organized Labor, Organized Crime

The link between unions and the mob is far from broken.

With its arrest of more than 100 alleged mobsters in New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island on Thursday, the FBI made it crystal clear that the Mafia, while a shadow of its former self, is still a significant force in much of the country. The grand-jury indictments — which read like a Sopranos episode, with nicknames like “Lumpy” and strip clubs called the Satin Doll and the Cadillac Lounge — accuse the arrestees of crimes ranging from murder to selling untaxed cigarettes, going back several decades.

And just as organized crime hasn’t disappeared since the days of On the Waterfront, organized labor hasn’t managed to sever its ties with the Mafia. The indictments allege that the mob corrupted Cement and Concrete Workers Union Local 6A (which is headquartered in Flushing, Queens), taking from its honest members “labor union positions, money paid as wages and other economic benefits,” as well as the right “to free speech and [a] democratic process in the affairs of their labor organization.” Named in the indictments is Ralph Scopo Jr., a former head of the union. His father ran the organization’s district council and was convicted of racketeering in the 1980s, and his son (who was not indicted) runs the union now.

Also among those indicted are Albert Cernadas Sr., who stepped down five years ago as executive vice president of the International Longshoreman’s Association and head of ILA Local 1235, as well as the son of the man who replaced him at 1235, Edward Aulisi — prosecutors say Aulisi was recorded promising continued payments to the mob after Cernadas left. The current president of 1235, Thomas Leonardis, was indicted, as was Nunzio LaGrasso, vice president of ILA Local 1478.

Union corruption is only one part of what the Mafia does. But it’s important to recognize that our laws facilitate it, as I detailed in Labor Watch at length last year — and as even some pro-labor leftists have acknowledged.

Unions’ power comes from the federal government’s guarantee of monopoly bargaining — that is, when a workplace elects a union, the union has the right to negotiate for all the employees, including the ones who voted against it or would rather negotiate with the employer directly. In the 22 states with right-to-work laws, workers can protest by refusing to join the union or pay dues, though they are still bound by the union contract. By contrast, non-right-to-work states — which include New York, New Jersey, and Rhode Island — reason that it is unfair to allow workers to free-ride on union efforts this way. So, they permit “union shop” agreements, which make dues payments a condition of employment after a certain period of time.

In addition, it is quite difficult to get rid of an existing union, or even to replace it with a competing one. This creates a situation in which the organization is guaranteed a consistent cash flow no matter what it does. Adding to the cash is the fact that unions often handle pension and benefits funds — despite evidence that employers do a better job at that task.

These laws were passed with the intention of strengthening unions, but as liberal journalist Robert Fitch argues in his excellent book Solidarity for Sale, they may have weakened unions by engendering corruption and laziness. When it is difficult for workers to reject or replace a union, there is an immense temptation for union officials to sit back and enjoy the dues payments — or stand up and steal from the pension fund. Some of Fitch’s proposed solutions sound like an American conservative’s dream — he would end monopoly bargaining and the union shop, for example. (Others, not so much: He would forbid employers to resist unions or hire replacements when workers strike, and would form “works councils” that give employees a say in how business owners run their companies.)

Of course, union corruption is already illegal, and as we saw with Thursday’s bust, law enforcement isn’t ignoring the problem. Sometimes, unions are even put under RICO trusteeships — that is, under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, the federal government takes them over temporarily to expel mob influence.

However, these trusteeships aren’t particularly effective, and it’s difficult for the government to monitor unions if little transparency is required of them. Of the 20 trusteeships that legal scholar and sociologist James B. Jacobs evaluated in Mobsters, Unions, and Feds, he found only seven to be qualified or clear successes. And while Bush 43’s labor secretary, Elaine Chao, implemented rules forcing unions to disclose the names of anyone who received more than $5,000 in union funds, the Obama administration wasted no time in dismantling her progress.

Ideally, the federal government would end its legal guarantee that established unions can represent workers without their consent, or, at the very least, more states would enact right-to-work laws. But failing that, the Republican House should use the recent arrests as evidence that the current administration was wrong to roll back union transparency.

— Robert VerBruggen, an NR associate editor, runs the Phi Beta Cons blog.


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