Nicodemo “Little Nicky” Scarfo, Vincent “Chin” Gigante and Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso are just some of the mobsters who have been involved with organized labor.
Scarfo, serving a 69-year prison sentence for racketeering, extortion and murder, ran the Hotel and Restaurant Employees union in the late 1980s. Genovese crime boss Gigante — who had allegedly infiltrated the International Longshoreman's Association — was later convicted of racketeering. And Casso — former underboss of the Luchese crime family and now serving a life sentence after admitting to 36 murders — was accused in 2001 of taking money to influence several construction unions, including a local of the Laborers' International Union of North America.
Several major U.S. Senate investigations beginning in the 1950s have documented organized crime's involvement with unions. Live telecasts of 1950-51 hearings of a special Senate panel chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) were credited with increasing the public's awareness of organized crime and the breadth of its stranglehold on unions and their pension funds. In a book about his committee's work, Kefauver wrote, the Mafia “is no fairy tale” and is engaged in “almost every conceivable type of criminal violence, including murder . . . smuggling . . . kidnapping and labor racketeering.”
Another probe, conducted in 1957-58 by the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, found “systemic” racketeering in both the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union. The federal government took over both unions in the late 1980s and early '90s — the most drastic step it could take — to weed out mob influence.
In 1959 Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act, which requires that unions file annual financial reports showing how union dues are spent. Congress then passed the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 — the so-called RICO act — which allowed the Justice Department to go after unions with mob ties.
In 1986, the President's Commission on Organized Crime reported that the Laborers' International Union was dominated by organized crime. In the early 1980s, former Gambino family boss Paul Castellano was overheard saying, “Our job is to run the unions,” according to the FBI, which had planted bugs in Castellano's house in 1983. Castellano was shot and killed in front of a steakhouse on New York's East Side in 1985 on the orders of future Gambino crime boss John Gotti.
According to federal authorities, union and mob bosses often team up to demand kickbacks from union members in return for prime job assignments. Crime families also have been known to demand money from contractors in exchange for “labor peace.” And contractors on union projects sometimes must pay salaries for “ghost” employees — crime family members who either don't show up or show up but do not work.
Prosecutors say union corruption in New York City inflates the already high cost of building union projects in Manhattan by $200 million to $500 million a year, an amount prosecutors sardonically call the “mob tax.”
By 2004, the Labor Department's inspector general had 359 pending labor racketeering investigations, of which more than a third involved organized crime. Internal affairs of the “big four” unions — Teamsters, HERE, Laborers' and International Longshoreman's Association — still make up a significant portion of the Labor Department's racketeering investigations, the department said.
Union pension funds are a tempting target for labor racketeers. Union officials with mob ties have been found diverting union pension funds for their own personal use or investing the money in mob-tied businesses. Money from the Teamsters pension fund, for example, reportedly financed 85 percent of the casino hotels that appeared on the Las Vegas Strip in the late 1970s.
Three major unions with longtime corruption problems are still trying to rid their unions of corruption:
International Brotherhood of Teamsters — To many observers, the Teamsters is the poster boy for mob-run unions. The federal government deems the union so corrupt that it took over the union in 1989 and continues to oversee its operation.
The legendary Jimmy Hoffa, president of the Teamsters from 1957-71, was convicted of attempted bribery of a grand juror in 1967 and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In 1971, however, President Richard M. Nixon commuted his sentence to time served on the condition he not participate in union activities for 10 years.
Hoffa disappeared in 1975, never to be found, after leaving for a lunch with men linked to the Mafia. His son, James P. Hoffa, a labor lawyer, is now president of the 1.3-million-member union. He took over as president in 1998 after federal investigators discovered that union funds were being diverted to support President Ron Carey's 1996 re-election. Carey never served jail time, but some of his associates did. Last year, former federal prosecutor Edwin Stier, whom the Teamsters hired to clean up the union, resigned, saying Hoffa — who has vowed to get rid of federal oversight of the Teamsters — was retreating from his anti-corruption pledges.
Former Teamsters union President James R. Hoffa testifies in 1957 before the Senate Rackets Committee. He disappeared in 1975, presumably killed by former Mafia associates. (Getty Images/Al Muto)
Laborers' International Union — The federal government also keeps close tabs on the 800,000-member Laborers' union, which represents construction, maintenance and food service workers, but the union isn't in trusteeship. In 1995, the Justice Department decided not to pursue formal criminal charges but retained the right to file a racketeering suit if the union didn't clean up its act. In 2000 the union reached an agreement with the Justice Department after promising to retain “anti-corruption” reforms through 2006. The union has removed at least 226 corrupt officials, including 125 who were linked to organized crime. President Arthur A Coia Jr., a fund raiser for the Democratic Party and a visitor to the White House during Clinton's presidency, pleaded guilty in 2000 to a felony tax-evasion charge and was banned for life from holding any positions of power within the union. However, he was allowed to collect his $250,000 salary as “general president emeritus.” Terrence O'Sullivan, a top aide to Coia, took over as president in 2000.
HERE-UNITE — The 2004 merger of the hotel workers union and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees created HERE-UNITE, which represents nearly 450,000 hotel, casino and garment workers. In the 1930s, organized crime was linked to HERE locals in New York City and in the 1970s to locals in Florida. In 1991, the Justice Department took control of HERE's Local 54 in Atlantic City, N.J., which represented hotel and casino workers and reportedly had ties to organized crime figures in Philadelphia. In 1995, the Justice Department asked the courts to take over the entire HERE union, maintaining that the union was run by organized crime. It was the first time the government resorted to such drastic action since it took over the Teamsters in 1989. The federal government oversaw the union until 2000, when the Justice Department determined the organization had largely purged its ties with organized crime.