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The Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act: Organized Labor’s Toxic Cocktail

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session.

Bernard Spindel (d. 1972) whispers in ear of James R. Hoffa (b. 1913) after court session in which they pleaded innocent to illegal wiretap charges. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper staff photographer: Roger Higgins. PD.

Today's post is written by Miller Center National Fellow James J. ("Jack") Epstein. In this post, Jack explores the origins and development of the unexpectedly related crossroads of labor law and crime control. The impact of these policies no doubt are alive in this election year. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties included planks on labor and crime control in their platforms. Furthermore, the relationship between labor and Democratic Party continues on an ambivalent path and appears to be at an important crossroads based on events from the Wisconsin recall election of Scott Walker, to the Labor Unions' holding of their own shadow convention in July, to the teachers' union strike in Chicago.

On this date in 1959 President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA), popularly known as Landrum-Griffin.  A notoriously complex law, Landrum-Griffin marked the achievement of two long-standing policy objectives for conservative opponents of organized labor.  On one hand, it restricted considerably unions’ use of effective, and thus always controversial, organizing tactics like “secondary boycotts” and “hot cargo agreements.”  On the other, it brought unprecedented federal oversight. LMRDA thus was a kind of toxic cocktail for labor, a more muscular version of Taft-Hartley, mixed with a variation of public regulation akin to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s supervision of corporate activities.  Despite this breadth of coverage, however, Landrum-Griffin has lived long in the historical shadows of the key federal labor laws that preceded it – the 1932 Norris-LaGuardia Act, the 1935 Wagner Act, and the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.  Yet it is as vital for a full understanding of American politics today as any of its more famous predecessors. 

Passed by landslides in both the Senate (95-2) and House (352-52), LMRDA showed above all the awesome political power of a criminal concept used since the late 1920s to attack American trade unionism – labor “racketeering.”  Supporters used public fears over the power of union “racketeers” – or labor “czars” or “bosses,” to cite other common catchphrases of the day – to attack labor and to garner political capital sufficient to pass their law.  And so, at the height of organized labor’s historical strength – in the mid-1950’s, roughly 35% of the non-agricultural workforce carried union cards – Congress passed, and Ike signed, a law aimed directly at the interests of unions. 

LMRDA did not, of course, appear in a political vacuum.  Even as Congress debated and passed labor reform, a three-year Senate investigation – eventually recognized as one of the twentieth century’s most important – was uncovering wide-ranging corruption and criminality by several regional and national labor union leaders.  The panel – the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor and Management Field – was popularly known as the “Rackets Committee” or the “McClellan Committee” after its chair, Arkansas Democrat John L. McClellan. 

McClellan’s Rackets Committee is best understood as a culmination of complex political and legislative dynamics.  From the 1930s and 1940s, New Deal opponents in Congress used antiracketeering rhetoric with increasing effectiveness to fight liberal reform and to marshal support for revision of the Wagner Act.  They also parlayed ongoing public anxiety over labor racketeering into two powerful criminal laws – the 1934 Copeland Antiracketeering Act and the 1946 Hobbs Antiracketeering Act.  Support for these laws derived from their sponsors’ ability to link labor racketeering to organized crime, which, they noted, had conducted complex interstate operations since Prohibition, and in the process had thoroughly corrupted big-city criminal justice administration, making local law enforcement a dead letter.  Both laws gave federal prosecutors unprecedented authority over what were common street crimes.  And they offered draconian penalties to deter economic coercion and extortion.

Whereas previous panels had focused on particular aspects of union racketeering – pension fraud; coercion and extortion of small businesses to accept unionization; suppression of rank-and-file dissent – McClellan’s panel investigated the entire phenomenon.  But that was only half the story.  For three years, McClellan and his ambitious young Chief Counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, brilliantly fed to newspapers and magazines warnings of upcoming hearings that promised particularly sensational testimony.  Similar leaks to still-new television networks looking to expand viewership assured live coverage for an avid American viewing public, only this time feeding to audiences real-life salacious details of union leader criminality, corruption and violence, with the occasional dollop of prostitution and narcotics rings thrown in for good measure.  The culmination came during the numerous appearances of the President of the powerful International Brotherhood of Teamsters, James (“Jimmy”) R. Hoffa, whom the McClellan Committee subpoenaed several times to testify regarding widespread reports of ties to organized crime; embezzlement of rank-and-file pensions; suppression of free union elections; and coercion and extortion of small businessmen to accept unionization.  The televised confrontations between Hoffa, McClellan and Kennedy remain among the most taut, suspenseful and dramatic political moments in the second half of America’s twentieth century. 

In the 1964 words of Alan McAdams, who wrote the first of what remains only three treatments of Landrum-Griffin, the law emerged from the inevitable cries to “get Hoffa!”  But conservatives “got” more than Hoffa; they “got” the entire organized labor movement.  Reform of Taft-Hartley had been a core domestic issue since President Harry Truman’s surprise re-election in 1948.  Democratic gains in 1958 on ballot initiatives, key gubernatorial races, and in the Senate and House raised expectations for Labor and its legislative allies that Taft-Hartley reform in their favor would finally be possible.  But the Rackets Committee upset all such expectations and produced instead Landrum-Griffin.  After 1959 what had been “organizational picketing” was now “extortionate picketing,” and anti-labor legislators, politicians and judges could now, much more easily, elide the distinction between legitimate trade unions and criminal enterprises.  “Just how many Hoffas are there in organized labor?,” opponents of unions encouraged Americans to ask.

 Labor power eroded steadily from the 1950s forward, and a 35% organized non-industrial workforce now sits at about 11% (7%, actually, if one excludes public sector unions.)  Meanwhile, some might ask, what happened to those 1934 and 1946 federal antiracketeering laws?  Democratic control of the White House and Justice Department assured modest initial enforcement of the Copeland and Hobbs Acts, though even in these years high-profile prosecutions captured headlines.  Conservative congressmen, meanwhile, focused on using antiracketeering rhetoric to transform the nation’s labor laws, as we have just seen with LMRDA. 

The Rackets Committee and Landrum-Griffin, however, forever changed these dynamics.  They made infinitely harder the political argument that there remained important distinctions between legitimate labor organizations and criminal enterprises.   Predictably, Copeland and Hobbs prosecutions ticked significantly upwards as the 1960s progressed, aided now by four new antiracketeering laws pushed by then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy in 1961 and 1962.  Meanwhile, opponents of organized labor in Congress moved their union racketeering fight from the framework of labor reform politics to the paradigm of explicit national organized crime control.  By 1969 and 1970 our old friend Senator McClellan was able to argue that Landrum-Griffin, though fine for its time, was now manifestly ill-suited to meet the Government’s greater crime-fighting responsibilities.  This in turn opened the path for passage of the twentieth century’s most important federal crime control statute – the McClellan-authored seminal 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). 

The multiple legacies of Landrum-Griffin thus included, in the twentieth century’s closing decades, the decline of union power and the gradual replacement of labor policy with crime control as the main dynamic shaping the domestic political economy.  While the LMRDA was the last major piece of labor reform, it was in many other ways our first national antiracketeering law for the second half of the twentieth century.  And as such, it laid the groundwork not only for RICO, but for the explosion of federal crime control laws that RICO spawned, including key omnibus law-and-order statutes in 1984 and 1994.  Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush burnished both their anti-organized labor and pro-crime control credentials at every available opportunity, while Democrat Bill Clinton pushed hard for passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and worked against organized labor’s leadership to achieve what was probably his greatest triumph in economic and trade policy – adoption in 1993 of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  And all politically active Americans are aware of two mirrored statistics that in many ways define today’s domestic politics – while union membership has declined precipitously, that is, the prison population, particularly among our African-American and minority young men, has, grimly, risen relentlessly and deserves redress.

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