For many months now, members of Nevada’s Culinary union have been hearing from their union brass that this year’s merger with UNITE, the big needle trades union, was just what the doctor ordered.
What they’re not being told, however, is the massive shadow of the Mob that still looms over Culinary’s new marriage partner—and what that could mean for Culinary’s rank and file.
UNITE—the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees—resulted from the 1995 merger of two garment-industry unions that had long been mob-dominated: the Amalgamated Clothing &Textile Worker Union (ACTWU) and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU).
Indeed, when the U.S. Senate first learned of the “Cosa Nostra” in the early-1960s, it was through the testimony of a gravel-voiced New York City garment factory owner. His name was Joe Valachi, and he was a member of the Luciano-Genovese crime family.
Valachi told the senators that whenever he was threatened by any problems with his unionized garment workers, he would call an “assistant” to ILGWU President (and liberal icon) David Dubinsky. This man, John “Johnny Dio” Dioguardi, was the Luchese crime family’s “labor expert,” having taken the place in the garment district of the notorious mobster Louis Lepke. Dio himself became infamous for ordering sulfuric acid to be thrown into the face of labor columnist Victor Riesel, who had been reporting on Dio’s activities. Riesel was permanently blinded.
What was at stake for Dio and the other mobsters was their union sweatshop system that allowed the Mob its rake-off.
Today, according to the best federal information, the situation in the New York garment district is even worse.
Some of the best investigative reporting on this subject in recent years has appeared in the leftwing Village Voice,bearing the byline of labor consultant, New York University professor and former union business representative Robert Fitch.
“The Union from Hell” was the appropriate headline over one early-1998 article on UNITE. Fitch reported that just a couple of doors down Broadway from the union’s international headquarters was a UNITE workplace where union members were coerced into working nearly around-the-clock, seven days a week for extraordinarily low pay. Sometimes the compensation was as little as $1 an hour; sometimes it was zero. As Fitch would later testify before Congress, going into the Christmas season nearly 100 workers at the worksite “hadn’t received a check in 10 weeks.”
Worst of all, however, was that this was standard performance for UNITE garment shops in New York. The U.S. Department of Labor found, in an internal report, that unionized UNITE workplaces were even worse than non-union workplaces. That particular fact was kept from the public by the Clinton administration and only came out after Fitch’s Freedom of Information Act request.
In other words, while UNITE was publicly presenting itself, in high-profile national media campaigns, as the fighter against sweatshops, government figures showed, noted Fitch, that UNITE worksites “are actually more likely to have sweatshops under contract by the unions’ own definition than non-union shops.” The labor department found 75 percent of Gotham’s union shops were at sweatshop level, as opposed to 60 percent of its non-union worksites.
The contrast was even more pronounced on the West Coast, said a 1999 Department of Labor report. In non-union San Francisco, nearly 100 percent of the shops comply with the Fair Standards Labor Act. But in highly unionized New York, it was only about a third.
Other witnesses before the House labor committee included a former UNITE member who worked for the California company Sorrento Coats. After Sorrento workers decided to leave the mob-dominated union, she said, they were threatened by local UNITE officials with the loss of their jobs. One UNITE rep told her, she said, “With us, you eat beans; without us, you eat sh-t.”
Another Sorrento worker told the committee that UNITE officials promised, should company workers decide to disaffiliate, to use its influence in the clothing industry to stop orders coming to the coat company. Afterward, Sorrento did in fact lose a major production contract, said the worker, and she, being unable to meet mortgage payments, lost her house.
Under the widely reported terms of the merger deal made between John Wilhelm, president of the Culinary’s previous parent organization, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE) and Bruce Raynor, president of UNITE, Raynor has become the new “general president” of the merged HERE-UNITE, while Wilhelm became “hospitality industries president.”
Reportedly, in 2005 Raynor will back Wilhelm for AFL-CIO president.
Steven Miller is policy director for the Nevada Policy Research Institute.