International Labor and Working-Class History

The Conservative Turn in Postwar United States Working-Class History

The Racketeer Menace and Antiunionism in the Mid-Twentieth Century US

David Witwera1

a1 Penn State Harrisburg

Abstract

In the postwar era, conservatives manipulated concerns about union corruption and organized crime in order to score political points against New Deal Democrats and to win new legal restrictions on union power. The resulting racketeer menace had much in common with the contemporary red scare. Antiunion conservatives framed the issue of labor racketeering in terms that resembled the language then being mobilized against internal communist espionage and subversion. This rhetoric proliferated in the congressional debates of the postwar era. Proponents of the Taft-Hartley Act invoked the racketeer menace in 1946 and 1947. They depicted the law as an effort to curb racketeering and thus protect workers and the general public by restricting abusive union power. In the years that followed, a series of congressional hearings into union corruption kept attention focused on the issue of racketeering. For the Eisenhower Administration this campaign against labor racketeering offered a chance to peel the working-class vote away from the Democratic Party by politically dividing union members from their leadership. The culmination of this trend came at the end of the 1950s during the McClellan Committee hearings, which was the largest congressional investigation up to that time. Those hearings transformed Teamsters President James R. Hoffa into a potent symbol of the danger posed by labor racketeering. The committee's revelations and the publicity they received undercut the labor movement. Polls showed growing public skepticism toward unions, and especially union leaders. Such attitudes helped conservatives win a new round of legislative restrictions on organized labor in the form of the Landrum-Griffin Act (1959).

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