Feb 3, 2020
This was the editorial in the SPARK workplace bulletins, the week of January 27, 2020.
On January 6, federal prosecutors filed new charges against a former official of the auto workers union (UAW). New in the charge was the term, “conspiracy to aid a racketeering enterprise.”
“Racketeering enterprise”—these words are taken directly from the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Today, they are aimed directly at the UAW, not only at a few union leaders who may be corrupt, but at the whole union.
Calling the UAW a “racketeering enterprise” is nothing but an extortion threat, just like a federal prosecutor in New York City used RICO to extort a deal from the Teamsters Union in 1988.
The prosecutor in 1988 was none other than scheming Rudy Giuliani! He filed a civil suit aimed at three dozen Teamsters leaders, making them “an offer they couldn’t refuse.” Facing legal costs of at least $100,000 each just to defend themselves, they also faced the threat of losing their pensions.
Many of the leaders named were corrupt—the kind who would sell out the union, in order to protect their own butt. And that’s exactly what they did. They signed a “consent decree” with the government, letting it take over the union. The government let them skip town with their pensions.
Teamsters members didn’t fare so well.
Under 32 years of government supervision, the Teamsters Union racked up a sorry record. Ron Carey, elected Teamster president twice, was tossed out of the union by the government. Terms of a contract, which workers at UPS had imposed by an important strike, were effectively abrogated. Another fight organized by Carey and rank and file activists over increased weight limits at UPS was sabotaged by local union leaders under the watchful eye of the feds. The Central States pension fund, which had lost part of its funds to mobsters, lost much of the rest to the bankers the government chose to run it. UPS, which had been one of the biggest employers contributing to the pension fund, was allowed by the government to wiggle out of responsibility for the fund. Today, retired Teamsters face a future without the pensions they earned.
A few gangsters who dominated several New York/New Jersey local unions may have been tossed out. But at what price?
The feds are today again throwing around a RICO threat. What does it mean for the labor movement?
Are there some leaders of the UAW who are corrupt, who took union money for their own individual purposes? Undoubtedly. There is not an organization in this corrupt society which doesn’t have corrupt individuals in it.
But a government takeover of the whole UAW will not eliminate corruption. The only ones who really can are the workers who make up the UAW. Organized together, they can get rid of today’s corruption, and they can oversee to prevent it from happening again. But government oversight will not help the ranks to do that. It will only be one more barrier standing in the way to their own organizing.
The big problem with the UAW is not corruption by a few. It’s the policy of the whole union, a policy that essentially does not rest on the ability of the workers to carry out a fight.
The ongoing problem for the UAW is what policy it will have. Will it be a combative, fighting policy, resting on the desire of workers to fight?
Faced with this federal investigation, some leaders of the UAW decided to go ahead with the GM strike. It’s to their credit they did because the GM strike rested on workers’ desire to fight. Will UAW policy continue down this road? Will it aim to take every fight as far as workers are ready to go, expanding them as widely as possible? That’s what is needed in the UAW and in every union today.
Government oversight will not make the UAW more combative. It will only be another impediment in the way of workers who want to organize a fight. Depending on the government means turning your back on your own class, on the ability of workers to organize. But our future can only depend on what our class finds the way to do.