Faculty member's book focuses on impact of attack on journalist

May 24, 2010

In 1956, syndicated labor columnist Victor Riesel was blinded in an organized crime-orchestrated acid attack on a New York City street.

The impact of that ambush on one of America’s most popular crusading journalists who was a foe of union graft is now the centerpiece of a Penn State Harrisburg faculty member’s research and forthcoming book.

Following the publication of his previous book, "Shadow of the Racketeer: Scandal in Organized Labor," with famed columnist Westbrook Pegler as its focal point, Associate Professor of History and Humanities David Witwer explained he went in search of a columnist who was more even-handed in covering labor and crime. He found Riesel.

Assaulted just after finishing a radio broadcast in which he castigated the leadership of a local union, Riesel also was working hand-in-hand with federal prosecutors in an ambitious legal assault on New York’s garment, trucking and other rackets, Witwer learned. “There was the assumption that his foes attacked him,” Witwer said.

“The person identified as the acid-thrower was found murdered and the prominent labor racketeer who allegedly ordered the attack was never convicted.” Riesel also was reported to have testified before a grand jury investigating organized crime.

The attack on Riesel not only shocked the nation, it also led to a “pivotal point in American labor history,” Witwer said. Spurred by the assault, the U.S. Senate convened an investigation from 1956 to 1959 that found corruption in organized labor to be widespread and “delegitimized union power when it was at its peak.” Witwer argues the attack and subsequent hearings helped anti-labor factions to seize the moment and gain acceptance and power, leading to a decline in union influence in America.

“The Conservative front painted communists and criminals in organized labor as a threat to the American way and used that to discredit the New Deal and to press for curbs on the power of unions,” Witwer said. He added that the Republican Party embraced the issue of corruption in organized labor and used it to court votes. “By 1958, it had become the GOP’s main issue.”

Despite his blinding, Riesel never stopped crusading against gangster infiltration and other corruption in labor unions. His column, “Inside Labor,” was syndicated to as many as 350 newspapers at its height. He retired in 1990 and died in 1995.

But there is much the public does not know about the Riesel attack and its aftermath, Witwer said. Utilizing records he obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, He said the FBI and Justice Department “knew the truth” about the attack but did not make it public. “Instead, they allowed the opponents of unions to seize this opportunity to undermine organized labor.”

The “truth” will be a pivotal ingredient in the Witwer’s new book.

Witwer also is the author of "Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union," the first in-depth study of the forces that have contributed to that organization’s troubled past and steps it has taken to combat the spread of corruption.

  • Associate Professor of History and Humanities David Witwer.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 09, 2015