Crime Always Pays
By RICHARD H. ROVERE official, the Vice-President is somewhere in darkest Africa, the Secretary of State is headed for the Antipodes, and Mr. Eisenhower is pack- ing his bags for a Florida vacation. Fortunately, there are other diversions apd not altogether un- worthy ones.. The worthiest and most diverting is a Senate investigation of the relations, if any, between organised crime and organised labour, and a quick judgement on the proceedings to date would be that the relations are numerous and colourful.
As entertainment, crime always pays, particu- larly when it is exploited and made entertaining by upright men, such as writers and Senators. But the current investigation has the additional advantage of teaching us a good deal about our society. What has thus far been brought out is, in essence, this : officials of the Teamsters (truck- drivers) union in Seattle, Washington, having be- come a great power in that city and having formed profitable alliances with its gamblers and vice kings and general racketeers, decided to extend their operations to Portland, Oregon, 186 miles away by road. Seattle has always been known as a wicked place, but Portland was thought to be a hotbed of civic virtue, and so, apparently, it was until the organisers of the Seattle truck- drivers laid siege. Such waywardness.as there had been in Portland was firmly and decorously managed by a man named James Elkins, who did well by providing the capital for a few quiet gambling houses and by sometimes making narcotics available to needy addicts but who would have nothing whatever to do with white slavery and who made only the most modest efforts to corrupt politicians. But the Seattle Teamsters and the friends of the Seattle Team- sters were men of bold vision; they took a kind of federalist, or One World, view of crime—they wished to unify and codify and amalgamate everything. In the process, Mr. Elkins got hurt and, being hurt, got angry and resentful and, being resentful, became agreeable to talking to a Senate committee. He has been talking—or, in proper American, singing—for over a week now.
In the tales that Mr. Elkins has been unfold- ing, only the role of the trade union has been unusual. The story of how horse parlours and whore houses are organised and financed and how they reach an accommodation with the forces of law and order is a familiar and tedious one. What is of great interest, though, is the role of union officials as patrons and bankers and protectors, especially officials of the International Brother- hood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen, and Helpers of America. The Teamsters are the largest and richest of American unions. With 1,500,000 members, they have almost one-tenth of organised workers in this country. In their latest financial report, they acknowledge assets of S37,200,000, and this certainly is only the part of the iceberg that can be seen and appraised.
Twenty years ago, a trade union that had any money at all had one perfectly obvious use for liquid assets—organising the unorganised. There were no trades or industries that did not stand in need, from the labour man's point of view, of further organisation. But today there are many trades completely organised, among them truck- ing. There is almost nothing for the vast and affluent bureaucracy of the Teamsters to do; their contracts are long-term affairs and they are negotiated on a regional basis. The union is so powerful it seldom has to conduct any strikes. Yet, properly enough, it goes on collecting dues from members and banking them. Thus, in a capitalist system, it accumulates a formidable supply of capital for which it has no ready use, as a private industry does. It cannot expand, it cannot invest. (Frequently, unions do invest in businesses, but the practice is not generally approved and the investments are generally in small, obscure firms.) To complicate matters, the unions accumulate, much faster than businesses ever do, political influence, and this is, as a rule, every bit as hard to invest as the money. If American labour were ideological, power could find an outlet in a labour party, but very few sections of labour have any political concerns, and to the Teamsters ideology is a matter of supreme indifference. Yet they have the power, just as they have the money and the time.
In the circumstances, one imagines, it is only natural that some of it should be spent along the lines Mr. Elkins has been describing in Portland, Oregon. And one can easily enough envisage an epidemic of this sort of thing. As a nation so often smiled upon by fortune, we have, very often, this great problem of surpluses. The big issue in the agrarian part of our society is what to do about farm produce for which we have no use. And a great urban issue seems certain to be that of what to do with the surplus money and the surplus power of our trade unions, which up to now have operated with fewer legal checks and restraints than have been applied to most other institutions.