Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor. David Witwer. University of Illinois Press, 2009. 336 pp.
The connection between organized crime and organized labor has long been a subject of contention among scholars of the history of the United States. The most recurrent narrative involves good men who rise through the ranks of labor only to be seduced by power and money, leading them to pair with ruffians. While the membership suffers and business owners tremble with fear, criminal enterprises are allowed to fester while an inert and ineffective government fails to curtail this menace. Only through the grace of crusading outsiders, such as journalists, will the corruption meet its end.
While this is a simple and understandable narrative, the truth is often more nuanced. In his work, Shadow of the Racketeer, David Witwer painstakingly reveals each and every subtle twist and turn of scandal within the organized labor movement of the 1930s and 1940s. His book reveals hidden truths as to the depth and breadth of the scandals, the complicit agreements between businesses and shadowy figures and the ways in which some labor unions became corrupted. He also outlines the rise and decline of Westbrook Pegler, a Pulitzer Prize winner who exposed several key scandals in organized labor, only to find himself trapped in a repetitive narrative of which he could not let go.
Witwer, an associate professor of history at Penn State Harrisburg and author of Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union, begins his book with the introduction of Pegler and his movement through the ranks of journalism. Pegler’s pairing with publisher Roy W. Howard and his ability to crusade against perceived injustices helped grow his fame and draw attention to his favorite target: corruption in organized labor. Pegler’s position that all unions had abused members and were corrupted by dishonest leaders became part of the national discourse. Further-more, as Pegler revealed how union leaders William Bioff and George Scalise were tied to organized crime, his charges against labor became broader, culminating with his attacks on the Roosevelt administration and the New Deal.
As the book progresses, however, Witwer reveals a different reality compared to the one Pegler penned. Unions were not all corrupt and the corruption that did affect unions often came as a result of outside influences. Members of “The Outfit,” the criminal enterprise Al Capone left behind, tended to muscle in on honest unions, and took on leadership positions to bilk the treasury of untold fortunes. Other criminal enterprises often followed suit, thus diminishing the unions’ stated purpose and lining the pockets of gangsters.
In addition, business owners were often complicit in these activities, allowing the criminals to run unchecked through unions as a way of limiting worker dissent. In other words, while the businesses were paying financial tribute to the gangsters who pulled the strings in the labor movement, they did so as an anti-labor measure and not out of fear.
The book concludes with a look at the decline of Pegler’s influence, as his reporting grew weak and his allegations threadbare. His self-stated efforts to improve the condition of working-class citizens who were trapped inside corruptly led groups never came to full fruition. His efforts did, however, lead to a post-war political showdown that eventually led to the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which substantially curtailed the strength of labor unions.
Witwer’s work is a masterpiece of research that draws on public documents, personal papers, and media reports of the time. It pulls at each minor scrap of information and organizes it well until the full image of this era is adequately clarified. The depth of the reporting and researching is both impressive and a bit daunting—while the book contains 336 pages, more than 80 pages are dedicated to research notation and indices.
In spite of this heavy research load, the book has a solidly readable quality. Witwer’s attempt to split the difference between a scholarly book and a mainstream read is admirable, making the book more readily accessible without diminishing its scholarly value. Indeed, Shadow of the Racketeer was named the 2010 book of the year by Labor History journal.
Each page contains additional revelations that, while not earth-shattering, cumulatively create an interesting examination of an understudied portion of this country’s history. Furthermore, the attention to detail in the writing allows for the rich development of the characters and the events contained in this tome.
The book is in some ways limited in its readability through the excessive number of players in each scandal and the wide range of unfamiliar acronyms. The book is not an easy read for this and other reasons having to do with the way in which the writing is crafted. However, those individuals hoping to gain a deeper understanding of this period and this topic should find the book accessible, although not easily so.
The work provided here gives readers a frank and honest look at the reality of the labor movement of the 1930s and the rise of the concept of the racketeer. For those with an interest in labor, unions, crusading journalism, or the New Deal era, this book is certainly worth a read.
VINCENT F. FILAK
University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh