New book profiles organized crime, union racketeering

Harrisburg, Pa. — A Penn State Harrisburg faculty member’s ongoing research into the nation’s historic periods of labor corruption has resulted in a book profiling organized crime’s move into union racketeering in the 1930s.

"Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor," by Associate Professor of History David Witwer and just published by the University of Illinois Press, focuses on a sensational union corruption scandal, its exposure by famed columnist Westbrook Pegler, and early 1940s trials profiling payments from Hollywood movie studios to the Chicago mob to ensure a pliant labor supply.

“In a field of influential columnists in the 1930s and 1940s, Pegler stood out,” Witwer says. “Pegler’s most pressing topic was union corruption and what he considered a dangerous growth of union power fostered by the New Deal.” It was Pegler’s investigative work that exposed the mob connections of top labor leaders and won him a Pulitzer Prize for reporting.

“Hammering away at union corruption in his daily columns, Pegler also used the campaign to justify a broader critique of the New Deal,” Witwer writes. “He was benefited also from the support of powerful conservative newspaper publisher Roy Howard, who also worked to counterattack the New Deal.”

From study of trial transcripts and Pegler papers and greatly assisted by a huge FBI case file Witwer gained through the Freedom of Information Act, the book describes how Pegler and Howard manipulated news coverage of the scandal to emphasize the perceived menace of union leaders.

“The exposés unmasked the long-hidden, disreputable pasts of men who had risen to positions of power in organized labor. As leaders in a movement that championed the cause of the oppressed, their crimes were especially unsavory and Pegler highlighted the salacious details of their involvement in prostitution,” Witwer adds. “The book profiles one of the most important union corruption scandals, but it does so from a distinctive perspective. It covers the transgressions that occurred when labor leaders betrayed the membership of their respective unions.”

Demonstrating how journalism is wielded as a political weapon, Witwer studies a range of forces at play in the labor union scandal and its impact, including the influence of the press, organized crime, political corruption and businessmen following their own economic agendas.

Witwer is also author of "Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union," named one of Choice magazine's outstanding academic books for 2004

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Last Updated May 06, 2010