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Ethics and the Unions - Part 1

Ethics are the morals, the concepts, and ideals which we live by. The progress of a society cannot be measured solely by the extent of its technological development. Economic realities, are of course, fundamentally important But if the ethical values of a society do not measure up to its technology, this very technology may well become an instrument for mass suicide the paramount problem in this atomic age, is to a very great extent, an ethical one.

Within the labour movement, there are, broadly speaking, two main tendencies that are as far apart as two worlds--the world of the slave who yearns to be free and the world of the master who wants to keep him in chains What is right for the master is wrong for the slave. One is conservative and opportunistic while the other is revolutionary and dynamic.

The ethics of the labour bureaucrats are those of the depraved business community of which they consider themselves a part. With its huge membership, its bulging treasuries and its political influence, business unionism, as represented by the AFL-CIO is an unhealthy movement. Since its officialdom are the de facto masters and not the servants of the membership, it is essentially an anti-working class movement.

There was a time when the American labour movement was inspired by a noble, revolutionary idea; the emancipation of the workers from wage slavery. Unions were inspired by the vision of a free, cooperative commonwealth dedicated to the happiness and free creative development of every human being. Labor was most militant when invigorated by these ideals Its ethics were those of a revolutionary movement striving for a better world. These ethics and these ideals are as valid today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

The contrast between the revolutionary labour movement and the capitalist defenders of "business unionism" becomes apparent when we compare the attitude of the IWW and the business unionists The Preamble to the Constitution of the Industrial Workers of the World reads;

The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.

Between these two classes a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.

We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever growing power of the employing class. The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.

These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.

Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wage system."

It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.

The self-identification of the business unionist with the rest of the capitalist system was affirmed by Samuel Gompers, a founder and (except for one term) perennial President of the AFL. In 1894, Gompers declared that 'socialism is economically, socially and industrially wrong - an impossibility" In 1900, Gompers helped found and later became vice-president of the National Civic Federation, an alliance of labour leaders, industrialists and bankers dedicated to cooperation between the workers and their employers for the preservation of capitalism

Gompers' successor as President of the AFL, William Green declared in 1935, that:

the majority of the employers sincerely and honestly wish to maintain decent wage standards and human conditions of employment . . . they do not want the exploitation of labour or the consuming public and are influenced in all their dealings by a spirit of fair dealing and fair play . . .

This attitude was reaffirmed in the constitution of the AFL It was also expressed by David Dubinsky, President of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) (now deceased), who told reporters of the New York Times (June 9, 1957 that ' labour needs capitalism like a fish needs water.

The American labour movement as it exists today, is the result of the interaction, over many decades, of business unionism and revolutionary unionism. Its major defects stem from the former and its constructive tendencies come from the latter. It is necessary to examine the revolutionary syndicalist tradition of the American labour movement, the better to understand the path that must be followed for its regeneration and further progress (Note the term "revolutionary unionism" is meant to denote dedicated radicals openly committed to the overthrow of capitalism and establishment of a free, classless and stateless society. The term also includes unconscious radicals whose acts of rebellion--direct economic action, wildcat strikes, slowdowns, etc.--threaten the stability of the system).

Corrupt Unions

The main business before the second convention of the AFL-CIO (1957) was the expulsion of corrupt unions and adoption of a "Code of Ethics." Events at the convention demonstrated that the very nature of such a movement made it incapable of correcting its organic deficiencies or performing even the few constructive tasks that it set for itself.

There is every reason to believe that the accusations of the Senate Investigating Committee, exposing corruption in the Teamster's and other unions, were true. As far back as 1937, the Teamsters union, then under the administration of Dan Tobin, was considered one of the most corrupt in the country. It was the main support of racketeering in the trucking, laundry, poultry, and in the cleaning and dyeing industries. Dave Beck (Teamster president at the time of the Senate hearings) was trained by Dan Tobin, who appointed him as his successor.

But the Teamsters were not alone in this corruption. In 1932, the AFL admitted that twenty eight of its Chicago unions were controlled by gangsters of the Al Capone type. Of the fifteen members of the AFL Executive Board in 1937, six of them headed admittedly corrupt unions. The colossal corruption in the building trades was common knowledge. Racketeering and corruption were greatest in the very unions, that in numbers and resources, constituted the backbone of the AFL--the Teamsters and building trades.

The Teamsters union was in the AFL for fifty four years. Without its support no one could sit on the all-powerful Executive Council, nor could George Meany, himself a member of the plumbers building trades union, have become president of the AFL. It is inconceivable that Meany was unaware of these facts. Meany pretended that he was "shocked" by the scope of the rackets. (Note: Nor has this changed with Lane Kirkland, Meany's personally appointed successor.)

Only when its hand was forced by the labour-baiting Senate Investigating Committee did the AFL-CIO create its "Ethical Practices Committee." It should be obvious that the labour bosses are afraid to do more than scratch the surface. They shrink from undertaking a thorough, honest investigation of the American labour movement, because such an investigation would prove that business unionism is rotten to the core and that the AFL-CIO as a whole, must share responsibility for the notorious character and conduct of the accused unions.

What the Code of Ethics does NOT mention is more important than what it DOES. Nothing is said about narrowing the gap between the swollen salaries of many union officials and the low wages of the duespayers. Nothing is said about the making of binding, long term agreements with the bosses without a referendum of the membership. Nothing is said about the power to call or forbid strikes or the general attitude of "buddy buddy" between the bosses of the unions and the bosses of industry. Nothing is aid about the endorsement of political candidates or support of the imperialist policies of the state.

It is little wonder that such spokesmen of big business as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal enthusiastically praised the AFL-CIO Code of Ethics as a model of "labour statesmanship". This is a capitalist code. It is unethical for labour, because its ethics are the ethics of capitalism.

"Ethical" Business Unions

Not all American unions are totalitarian or infested with racketeers and other corrupt elements. A few unions such as the International Typographers Union, can be considered free of this taint. The United Automobile Workers (UAW) and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) do not compare with the typographers in this respect, although they do meet the standards set by the AFL-CIO Code of Ethics. But the problem is really much deeper, since the concept held by even the best leaders of the best unions is not a genuine working class ethical concept. These leaders, almost without exception, identify themselves and their interests with the business and bureaucratic world around them. Erring union leaders have often been urged to emulate the alleged high ethical standards of these unions. For example, The New York Post (May 1st, 1957 carried the following dispatch:

. . Lamar, Missouri The white frame house where President Harry S. Truman was born on May 8, 1884, was purchased yesterday by the United Automobile Workers which plans to make it into a shrine....

The gentleman who gave the order to drop the first atom bomb in history on defenceless civilians; who, in a sense, inaugurated the period of greatest danger and insecurity ever known, is thus honoured by the leadership of the UAW! What are the ethical implications of such expenditures of union funds?

A headline in the October 1957 issue of the Auto Worker, official organ of the UAW reads:

. .PROPHET OF CAPITALISM - Blackpool, England: Newspapers of every shade of opinion agreed that Reuther had aroused a normally unemotional audience to cheers with an exposition of the virtues of American private enterprise in contrast with British Socialism.


In the same issue of the Auto Worker there appeared the digest of an article by Monsignor Higgins which had originally been published in a Detroit Catholic periodical. In this article, Higgins went out of his way to defend Reuther against the charge that he was a socialist. He demonstrated that Reuther's policy of peaceful coexistence between "management," government and labour was good Catholic labour doctrine. The charge that Reuther was a socialist is unjust and Reuther deserves the respect of every Catholic priest and layman.

Another example: In 1957 the New York Post published a series of biographical articles on David Dubinsky. The fourth article in the series reveals that Dubinsky had been APPOINTED Secretary Treasurer of the ILGWU in 1929 and President in 1932, having held both these posts ever since. The Post interviewer recorded his conversation with Dubinsky on this point:

. . . I asked Dubinsky whether he was not troubled, at least philosophically, by such concentration of power. It is characteristic of him that he was completely untroubled. 'Sure', he concluded, '. . . with a crooked President, it is good to have an independent Secretary Treasurer. But in an honest union, what's the problem?'

. . . he had a similar lack of anxiety about the ease with which the General Executive Board can discharge local officials. Every paid official, prior to assuming his duties, has to submit resignation to International headquarters. One need not be a legal expert to see that this provision could easily be used to victimise a dissident faction of the union . . . 'Can it be misused?' 'Sure. I concede the point. I'm not worried about my successor. . .' [Obviously, Dubinsky implied that he would designate his successor and see to it that he will abide by his standards.]

The alternatives to democratic self-rule - in unions as well as society at large - is the dictatorship of a minority. Every leader is a potential dictator, and once they get sufficient power, they will not let it slip from their hands. They build a "machine" to help them stay in office. No matter how bad a situation may be, the leaders do not want the members to do the house-cleaning, as they might go "too far" and sweep THEM out of office.

The relations between the members and their leaders in these centralised business unions is a disrupted, unhealthy one. In the beginning, when a union is young, this may not be noticed; the seeds of degeneration need time to sprout and grow. Gradually, the union develops something resembling a military-type caste system. Any organization in which decisions are made at the top, and obeyed by the ranks below, transmitted through a chain of command, as in an army, is essentially totalitarian. It is not a true community of labour, which implies an association of equals making decisions and carrying them out jointly.

Union leaders themselves are neither better nor worse than other people. They may have the best intentions, even idealistic. Reuther, Dubinsky and so many others were once socialists, but the exercise of power over others corrupts and erodes their personalities. The original leaders may still retain a modicum of honesty and principles, being emotionally attached to the rank-and-file from which they have lately emerged. But as time goes on they--or in any case their successors--become decisively influenced by the company they keep. They enter into friendly relations with the employers and unconsciously absorb the ethics of capitalist society. Very few individuals can resist the temptations of power and prestige, and those few, never become good business unionists.

As the original leaders die or retire, they are succeeded by professional careerists and union politicians who are promoted from the lower ranks of the bureaucracy or brought in from the outside. These newcomers are even further removed from the workers on the job and are still more cynical. The process of degeneration continues until it is interrupted or broken by a revolt in the ranks. These facts, surprisingly enough, were confirmed in 1957, by a no less high union official than Lewis Hollander, President of the New York CIO and Manager of the Joint Board of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers (deceased), a "progressive" business union:

In many unions there is little sign that the leaders are even trying to maintain contact with the membership. Some seem to feel that the union contract and the compulsory check-offs of union dues have made it unnecessary for them to know what the members want and need . . . too many such leaders live in a world apart, a world in which the badges of achievement are high salaries, expensive automobiles, membership in country clubs and other appurtenances of wealth.

This helps to explain why the attitude of many workers toward the leaders of their unions is similar to their attitude towards the President in the White House, the Governor of the State, the Mayor of the City or the Boss in the Office. The fact that millions of workers are indifferent to the affairs of their organisations, which involve their livelihood, shows how deeply the corruption in our society has penetrated. Bakunin's observations on these points, though written over a century ago (1871), remain timely:

. . . even the best of men are rendered corruptible by the temptation of power . . having convinced themselves that what they like, is what the membership wants and needs . . . the leaders become despots, even while deluding themselves that they are actually working for the benefit of their victims. .

. . .this illusion has particular unfortunate effects on the morality of the leaders themselves. . they become permanent chiefs whose power is sanctioned by what they falsely regard as their useful services and the length of their tenure in office .. it is clear that the absence of opposition and control becomes the source of. . .depravity for all individuals vested with social power . .because of their ignorance and servile habits . . when they patiently endure humiliation . . . the masses themselves create their own exploiters (Bakunin on Anarchy, p. 244, 245).

Corruption in Unions

Institutionalised corruption traces back to abuse of power by business agents or "walking delegates" in the 1880s (mostly in the building and other trades). These full-time representatives conducted the business of the union in scattered workplaces, which shifted as temporary jobs were completed. The business agent processed grievances, saw to it that employers abided by union agreements and did not employ non-union workers, helped organise non-union shops, etc. Actually, despite claims to the contrary, the business agent was not needed. He was a parasite who usurped the power of the workers on the job. Their shop-stewards on the job performed the business agents functions far better than he, without the built-in opportunities for self-enrichment and lust for power which the post of business agent made possible. On this point, John Hutchison's "The Imperfect Union" is worth quoting:

the position of the business agent was inherently powerful He was usually the chief executive of his local union, vested with considerable personal authority He was an employment agent of his members, and if his local union was well-organised, controlled the labour supply of the employers . . he was the chief interpreter of labour-management agreements. Most of all, he was empowered to call strikes without seeking the consent of the members in some cases, union officials collected strike insurance from compliant or fearful employers in return for labour peace . there were always employers anxious to bribe, and union officials strong enough to extort. . .

In the building trades the corrupt business agent's machine - rewarding friends and punishing enemies - ruled their respective local unions in much the same manner as graft-ridden Tammany Hall politicians ruled New York and other cities.

For example, the dominant figure in the New York building trades was Samuel J. Parks. Parks was chief business agent for the Structural Workers Union. Until his death, Parks remained on the payroll of both the union and Fuller Construction Co.

In the case of the Hecla Iron Works, Parks demanded $2000 graft. When Hecla refused, Parks called the 1200 workers out on strike, declaring that the strikers will go back to work . . when you pay Sam Parks $2000 . . . you've never done anything for the walking delegates . . "

When Parks was arrested the House Smith's union passed a vote of confidence in him and authorised payment of $1000 for legal expenses. The New York City Chief of Police bailed him out.

Early in the 1890s, the Chicago Trade and Labor Assembly was taken over by a group ' . . . of self-seeking men who made the word 'labour leader' synonymous with 'crook' and 'grafter' (Hutchison) William C. Pomeroy, Business agent of the Chicago Waiter's Union dominated the Chicago Federation of Labor. In return for bribes he broke strikes.

Simon O'Donnel, former President of the Chicago Building Trades Council, collected "strike insurance" from construction companies and employed murderers, sluggers and bomb throwers to enforce his demand for money.

Gangsters "Dopey Fein," Buchalter, and Shapiro extorted protection money from both the clothing union and employers. The gangsters employed two hundred and fifty "collectors" and extorted five to ten million dollars a year for "protection."

Joseph A. Ryan, President of the International Longshoremen's Union (now retired), extorted 20% of workers' wages in kickbacks as a condition for employment and operated a lucrative loan sharking racket. All this, and more, was done in collusion with the employers and politicians.

In the 1920s and 1930s George Scalese, the notorious gangster and racketeer - a former pimp - for some time Vice-President of local 272 of the Teamsters Union, infiltrated and in many instances dominated garage and auto washers locals, retail clerks, beauty shop workers, Italian butchers and laundry workers locals.

Max Block, President of Local 342, Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher's Union and the District Council of New York and New Jersey, misappropriated millions of dollars from welfare funds. He and his brother, appropriated $95,000 to themselves for annuities and also became part owners of a number of food stores. Block spent $5000 of union funds for a wedding gift to his daughter, $9,362 for trips to Florida for himself and his wife. He stole $26,765 for "expenses" which he could not account for.

The racket ridden International Union of Operating Engineers, forced members in two locals to kickback 5% of their wages in addition to dues. Only 46% of the 240,000 duespaying members were allowed to vote. Hutchison remarks that . . . literally millions dollars vanished from the treasury reappearing in improved living standards for the big wigs .

William E . Fay, the Vice-President of the Operating Engineers Union was jailed for extorting $365,000 from employers. While in jail he and his wife received almost $100,000 from the union. Through business deals with employers he became wealthy renting machinery to contractors. The career of William E. Maloney is, if anything, even more lurid than Dave Beck's (racketeering President of the Teamster, followed in office by James Hoffa). Sid Lens's detailed account of his career is, in part, well worth quoting:

Maloney began his career in Chicago as a pauper and retired at the age of 72 under pressure of the Senate Rackets Committee and the AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Code Maloney owned a huge estate at Elk Grove, Illinois, complete with a colonial house, swimming pools and stables. He had at his disposal a $35,000 yacht supplied by the union and maintained at a cost of more than $12,000, three Cadillacs and one Chrysler Imperial and a Washington apartment in addition to his own mansion, all paid for by the union. The union also paid his dues at the racetracks, gave him a variety of other expensive gifts, and even shoes, shirts, and baked beans!

Maloney's whole history is inter-linked with gangsters and gangsterism In his climb to power he was aided by hoodlums such as 'Three Fingered' Jack White, Charles Fischetti, George "Red" Barker and similar people. With their help, he was able to form Local 150 in Chicago, terrorise its dissidents and keep the Local under his trusteeship for twenty nine years. Those who opposed him were either frightened out of office or killed (Crisis of American Labor, p. 105-106).

Welfare and Pension Fund Racket

Even the sketchiest outline of corrupt practices in unions must include the rifling of welfare and pension funds by unscrupulous officials in league with professional criminals. Both the quotes and information on this point is gathered from Walter Sheridan's detailed work, "The Rise and Fall of James Hoffa":

When James Hoffa, President of the Teamsters Union was one of the trustees of the pension fund, millions of dollars were loaned by the Fund for high risk ventures, many of which culminated in foreclosures. Millions of dollars were poured into hotels and mob controlled gambling casinos in Las Vegas. Other underworld figures profited from The Fund by receiving loans themselves or being cut in on the substantial cash kickbacks that were a condition of many loans It was the biggest slush fund in history, used by Hoffa as a power vehicle for the benefit of himself, his associates and the mob. .

Hoffa was indicted for defrauding the pension fund of almost two million dollars. In collusion with Allan Hoffman, whose New York State insurance license was revoked, Hoffa shared almost one million dollars in commissions Vaughan Connolly, a former owner of the Everglades Hotel in Florida, received a four million dollar loan for the Pension Fund for which he kicked back ten percent to be split between Hoffa and his lieutenant, Dranow.

A twenty eight count indictment (June 4 1963) revealed that Hoffa and others obtained by fraud, fourteen loans totalling twenty million dollars, from which they diverted one million dollars for their personal benefit. Legal expenses to defend Hoffa were paid by the union.

Gangster James Diogardia received a $900,000 "loan" from the Pension Fund. The Secretary-Treasurer of the Laundry Workers Union, Jimmy James and other union cheifs, in collusion with insurance broker, Louis Saperstein, embezzled over one million dollars in welfare funds.

Hoffa's predecessor, Dave Beck arranged a million and a half dollar loan to the Freuhauf Trailer Company. Freuhauf reciprocated by "loaning" [kicking back] two hundred thousand dollars to Beck, buying him a boat, providing him with a car and chauffer and paying for a six week tour in Europe for Beck's niece and her travelling companion.

Between 1954 and 1957 Hoffa took over $85,489 from a Detroit Good and Welfare Fund and gave it to the wives of four teamster officials in jail for extortion, and another $30,000 for their legal fees $54,000 was spent to defend Gerald Donnelly of Minneapolis Local 548 convicted of extortion and dynamiting. Hoffa used his influence to get a charter in the Hotel and Restaurant Union for Sam Feldman, a safecracker, after he was released from jail.

In one welfare fund, more than $900,000 disappeared without trace. In Teamster Local 895 there was no money in the welfare fund even though $250,000 had been collected from employer contributions. United Culinary, Bar, and Grill Employees, Local 923, paid two union administrators almost as much in salaries as in total benefits to members.

[Postscript: James Hoffa was murdered by his former gangster allies because he wanted to recapture his lost leadership of the Teamster Union.]

Corruption In The National Maritime Union: Joseph Curran.

Joseph Curran, one of the chief organisers of the NMU in 1936 and still (1969) its only President, began his career as a boatswain (foreman). A good speaker, active in the 1936 strike, and well liked by the seamen, he was elected President of the NMU by the Communist Party, which controlled the rank-and-file electorate.

After ten years, during which time Curran faithfully followed the Communist Party line (without whose support, he could not remain in office), Curran expelled his Communist Party allies and amended the constitution of the NMU to read:

. . . anyone who subscribes to, supports, sponsors, or otherwise follows a course of action demonstrating membership in or adherence to the policy and program of the Communist Party or any other totalitarian or subversive doctrine shall be expelled from the NMU . .

From a revealing exposure of Curran by M.A. Varick, for twenty-nine years a member of the NMU, we extract the following:

  • Joseph Curran may well rank as the most corrupt figure in the top labour bureaucracy.
  • His name is hewn in the rock of the seven million dollar building and annex of the Joseph Curran Building (national office of the NMU)
  • Curran owns a winter residence in Boca Raton, Florida and a summer residence in Dutchess County, New York.
  • NMU Patrolmen (business agents) originally elected by the members are now appointed by Curran.
  • The Patrolmen concentrate on collecting dues ($120 a year). In addition, the men are bulldozed to buy "fighting fund stamps" at five dollars for each stamp. The money has been used to pay ten thousand dollars for a university banquet honouring Curran, plus another five thousand dollars for a schoolroom named after Curran. One hundred dollars a year is extorted from pensioners on threat of withholding their pension checks. The five hundred thousand dollars extracted from this source found its way into the pockets of the officials.
  • The leaders of the Curran machine park their NMU limousines in the building's underground garage and take a private elevator to their luxuriously decorated offices . . . (New Politics Quarterly, Summer 1967).

[Postscript: Joseph Curran is presently retired and living in his ultra-luxurious Boca Raton Estate in Florida.]

Next page: Ethics and Unions - Part 2