Big Labor: History of Corruption, Part I


The Industrial Revolution in the 19th and 20th centuries created a sweeping era of new ideas, inventiveness, and employment opportunities. Steam engines, transportation improvements, textiles all had rapid growth with new machinery and ability to mass produce. This growth was the beginning of new laws, of new methods, some very necessary changes to our way of life, and some not so beneficial like the beginning of organized labor unions.

With the Great Depression, unemployment had one in four out of work, many adults were more than willing to take any job, even jobs normally reserved for children, and at children’s wages.

At the time, President Franklin Roosevelt had been working on a federal minimum wage bill (National Industrial Recovery Act) as part of his “New Deal.” But in 1935, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. So, he turned to his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, and said

“What happened to that nice unconstitutional bill you tucked away?”

As with most bills, it took some effort and rewriting before it was finally passed.              

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, better known as the Federal Wage and Hour Law. The Act was declared constitutional in 1941 by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Act set a work week of 40 hours, with a minimum wage of 40 cents per hour. It prohibited child labor under age 16 while allowing minors 16 and over to work in non-hazardous occupations. The Act set 18 as the minimum age for work in industries classified as hazardous. No minimum age was set for non-hazardous agricultural employment after school hours and during vacations. Children aged 14 and 15 could be employed in non-manufacturing, non-mining, and non-hazardous occupations outside of school hours and during vacations for limited hours.

By the mid 1930’s, unions were becoming a major player in the changes on the political scene. For example, in 1935, Roosevelt signed the National Labor Relations Act (Wagner Act). The new law allows for unencumbered union organizing efforts, fairness in their elections, and the right to collective bargaining. This ushered in a huge wave of new union members, thus providing unions more money from dues, and more political clout.

From the late 30’s to mid 40’s, over 20 strikes, altercations with police (1937 Memorial Day Massacre in Chicago and 1938 Hilo, HI Massacre) to even the Governor of Minneapolis declaring martial law and calling up 4000 National Guardsmen to end violence after a police shooting during a Teamster strike in 1934. These were typical headlines in the news.

In 1943 Congress passed the Smith-Connally Act over Roosevelt’s veto to allow the government to take over industries vital to the war effort that were either under strike or threatened by

strike activity. It also made union contributions in federal elections illegal. This was the first curb the unions had felt since 1938.

From 1943 to 1949 there were at least 17 strikes. The United Automobile Workers and the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) voted to expel eleven unions (almost 1 million members) from their rolls due to supposed communistic influence.

The popular public opinion that the unions had enjoyed in years was beginning to wane. The violence, the interruption in commodities being available and general upheaval had taken its toll. And with the public’s disapproval, so followed most of the lawmaker’s as well.

In 1937, congress passed a bill called Labor Management Relations Act, also known as the Taft-Hartley Act.

Intending to rein in the unions, the new law contained:

  1. The government was empowered to obtain an 80-day injunction against any strike that it deemed a peril to national health or safety.
  2. Prohibited jurisdictional strikes and secondary boycotts.
  3. Prohibited wildcat strikes. 
  4. Made closed shops illegal. 
  5. Required a majority vote by employees before allowing the union shop to be created. 
  6. No contributions to federal political campaigns. 
  7. Union officers required to provide financial information and affidavits attesting they are not Communists.

 President Harry Truman, immediately vetoed the bill, stating:

“The Taft-Hartley bill is a shocking piece of legislation. Under no circumstances could I have signed this bill. The bill is deliberately designed to weaken labor unions.”

However, it passed in the house, overruling the president’s veto. Interesting to note, during his time in office, Truman used this law twelve times- halting potential strikes.

lincoln thumbThe 1950’s brought in a new era, less striking but more infighting between the unions themselves; so much so that the AFL (American Federation of Labor) and the CIO (Congress of International Organization) made a pact between themselves to try to not lure members from each other.

But by 1955, these two unions finally merged together, forming the AFL-CIO, with over 15 million members. Not long after merging, the AFL-CIO decided to push out the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Bakery Workers, and Laundry Workers due to corruption.

Racketeering, misappropriation of dues, and outright assassination attempts weren’t uncommon.

Walter Reuther,  the president of the UAW (and briefly the CIO) had several attempts on his life, including an attempted kidnapping. Walter and his wife died in suspicious plane crash years later. It was the second plane crash he had been in. His brother, Victor was just as unlucky with an assassination attempt as well.

Corruption and unions became intertwined indelibly by this point.

One of the more shocking assaults of the time was to an investigative reporter, Victor Riesel. His main focus was labor union issues, with a particular interest in racketeering and communist leanings. His writing and radio shows led to legislators taking a harder look at labor leaders. For his efforts, Riesel was blinded with acid to the face, and permanently blinded.

The attacker was found, and the hit was traced back to the Genovese crime family.

Unfortunately, the attacker himself was murdered before going to trial. This attack was the tipping point.

Next in this series, I’ll go into further into corruption, Organized Crime, and the nefarious activities of Jimmy Hoffa to Barack Obama.