Blogs > HNN > Robert D. Parmet: Review of Robert Fitch's Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise (Public Affairs 2006)

Mar 18, 2006 8:54 pm

Robert D. Parmet: Review of Robert Fitch's Solidarity for Sale: How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise (Public Affairs 2006)

Robert D. Parmet is Professor of History at York College of the City University of New York. He wrote Labor and Immigration in Industrial America and The Master of Seventh Avenue: David Dubinsky and the American Labor Movement.

“They’re all crooks!” my garment worker father used to say when I would ask him about his union’s officials. I always objected, contending that he was too critical. In the decades that followed, labor corruption and racketeering received much publicity and reached the point where today, Robert Fitch, a journalist and union member, in argues that crookedness is indeed common. “Pervasive corruption,” and “the perception of corruption,” Fitch contends, are not only harmful, but explain the drastic shrinkage of union membership since 1955 when more than a third of the nation’s private-sector workers were organized.

The cure he recommends is nothing less than a complete overhaul that would strip away the superstructure the American Federation of Labor began to erect when it was founded in the 1880s. Echoing business foes of unionism, Fitch charges that labor leaders are out of touch with union members and a suggests such “strategies” as an end to compulsory union membership and exclusive bargaining contracts.

Fitch is unsparing in his assault. Completed on the eve of Andrew Stern’s creation of the Change to Win Coalition in June 2005 and its secession the next month from the AFL-CIO, his book takes on both the old and new federations. He finds unsavory elements within each group, and contends that neither side is interested in altering the basic relationships between leaders and followers that foster corruption. It is a world of “fiefdoms” that defy destruction.

Wielding a verbal rapier, Fitch marches through time, beginning with “the stout, hard-drinking [Samuel] Gompers” and concluding with Stern, neither of whom he finds especially interested in democracy. Rather than write about role models, or engage in “exemplary history,” he would have historians engage in “explanatory history,” to reveal “how things happened,” with an eye on institutions, “which set the rules that establish how people will be treated.” Contemptuous of accounts of traditional labor heroes and martyrs, he calls attention to “the true founders of the American labor republic,” two turn-of-the-twentieth century figures, the “notorious” head of the Ironworkers, Sam Parks, and Teamsters Union president Cornelius “Con” Shea.

As these and other unsavory characters dominated the labor movement, Fitch further contends, working conditions remained poor and union membership totals low. With labor subverting itself this way, one may wonder why management has through the years bothered to oppose unionization everywhere, from shops to courts, legislatures, and even the streets. Why did business leaders establish the “open shop” “American Plan” in the 1920s, and have Congress enact Taft-Hartley in 1947 and Landrum-Griffin in 1959? The latter measure, passed after an investigation of labor racketeering, included a “Bill of Rights” to protect union members from their leaders. Without denying the prevalence of corruption, which Fitch demonstrates, can anyone in good conscience say that the business interests behind Congress sought “union democracy” and improved working conditions? Or was it merely union-busting that they were after?

With journalistic ease, Fitch details both private and public sector union corruption, especially within more recent organizations. Using mainly published sources supplemented by interviews and archival materials, writing with confidence and conviction, he effectively skewers officials of several unions, including Teamsters, Service Employees, Garment Workers and Mason Tenders. He is less effective in dealing with the early period, for example, paying scant attention to personal and intellectual differences between Samuel Gompers and Terence Powderly in the rivalry that led to the formation of the AFL, and mistakenly placing that event in the 1890s. His bibliography is slim, missing the major biographies of such figures as Sidney Hillman, John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther, perhaps because to study them would be to lapse into “exemplary history.”

By design Fitch did not write a “balanced” labor history, but in concentrating on pervasive corruption, “labor’s forgotten past,” he uses a single factor in the sorry state of today’s unionism to explain what has happened. In two paragraphs he dismisses globalization and other “universal trends,” casually alleging the relative weakness of American unions while stressing their corruption. As observers have long noticed, America is exceptional in several ways, not only in the structure and corruptness of its unions.

Robert Fitch is driving home a point, for which he deserves credit. Perhaps the problem in the United States actually is “a lack of calling” on the part of union leaders who serve themselves rather than their constituents. However, for them to reverse course is unlikely. Though few business people would prefer to deal with racketeers, it is questionable how many would welcome, and even permit, revitalized labor organizations.

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Michael Hirsch - 3/27/2006

Yes, of course. American workers love a race to the bottom. Legalize gambling and they can even bet on it. Lousy pay, dangerous work, no future for their kids and the scum of the earth lording it over the rest of us. Sounds ideal. Another gilded age, one workers would be quick to defend. I can see the Delphi workers jumping for joy right now.

And you think you've got trouble from the Jihadists? Just wait.

BTW: Parmet is on the money. Fitch's book is well worth reading.

Jason KEuter - 3/25/2006

That lack of a welcome would be especially pronounced among the workers themselves!

Lorraine Paul - 3/22/2006

It is ask" how many would welcome... revitalised labour organisations?"

Hmmmm! let me guess. None!!