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The Racketeer’s Progress

Andrew Wender Cohen’s The Racketeer’s Progress navigates the intersection between labor and violence in early twentieth-century Chicago. The so-called “racketeers” of Cohen’s book aren’t sharply dressed gangsters, but rather members of Chicago’s localized craft economy, butchers, barbers, and construction workers, who resorted to violence in defiance of the emerging national corporate economy (1). Cohen wrote that during this battle between craft governance and corporate modernization, the term “racketeer” was forged to undermine the labor movement. Cohen explained that corporate elites harnessed public interest in the violent gang wars of Prohibition Chicago “not to expose the power of men like [Al] Capone, but rather to compare craft governance to extortion” (233).

Cohen began his book not during the gang violence of the 1920s, but rather during the turn of the twentieth-century. Over the first three chapters, Cohen demonstrated the differences between the two factions, highlighting that members of the craft economy worked in public spaces, forging alliances with political machines and its bureaucracy, while the business elite led a coalition of judges, resentful entrepreneurs, and non-union workers (100). The business elite despised the local craft economy because of their “unions, their politics, their provincialism, and their inefficiency.” It would attempt to dismantle labor’s influence with the emerging reform rhetoric of the Progressive Era (21).

While craftsmen and corporations both used Progressive Era rhetoric to win public support, unions were unable to frame their position successfully because “craft governance, even honestly supported, ran counter to the values of many middle-class American reformers” (127). Much more accepted was the corporate idea of an “open shop,” granting the ability of workers to unionize, but denying unions authority over the workplace (130). The idea of an open shop reform movement became popular after charges of corruption were brought against several unions. Union leaders were portrayed as “ward heelers, machine bosses, and corrupt cops,” whose dictatorial rule over the craft economy was increasingly seen as a criminal conspiracy (140). The business elite saw themselves as moral reformers, “representatives of the public interest” who wanted to build a “…corporate order, in which unions were subordinate…” (254). Cohen demonstrated how reformist lawmakers transformed rhetoric of corruption into legislation, treating fines that unions imposed on either employers or their members as an act of criminal extortion (252). While legislation blocked the expansion of unionism into the manufacturing sector, corporate elites were unable to suppress the operation of craft governance. Members of the craft economy responded not with compliance, but rather with violent defiance.

Cohen spends the remainder of his book exploring the criminal infiltration of the labor movement and the birth of the term “racketeer.” As gangster violence flourished with the advent of Prohibition, open shop businessmen like Employers Association (EA) secretary Gordon L. Hostetter “conflated craft governance and gang violence…to a society obsessed with bootleggers…”(255). While gangsters like “Scarface” Al Capone, Murray “The Hump” Humphreys, and Timothy “Big Tim” Murphy exploited the craft economy for personal profit, business leaders like Hostetter charged that the union leaders who colluded with these thugs were the bigger threat to the corporate order (261-262). Cohen explained that with the invention of the term racketeer, participants of the craft economy “deserved no more sympathy from the courts than did a beer runner, pimp, or gambler” (261).

As the Great Depression eroded faith in Progressive Era ideology, public attitudes towards craft governance changed. Depression Era intellectuals defended the violence of craftsmen and the stabilizing effects of “racketeering” (267). Gangsters like Al Capone were no longer seen as thugs employed by unions, but as omnipotent “terroristic organizations” demanding tribute (269). As President Roosevelt’s New Deal recovery began to marshal, the “recovery acts turned corporate price-cutters into outlaws and craftsmen into defenders of the public good” (273). Cohen indicated that the same strategies of craft governance used in enforcing contracts between private groups and workers were adopted by the New Deal. Both the National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) established wages, working hours, and industrial codes (272). Cohen ended his work with the evolution of the definition of “racketeer.” The term began to be used as a gatekeeping slur to keep out unwanted unions in the New Deal coalition (289). Cohen wrote that by the time of the 1950 Kefauver Committee, the term became “a smear, a counterpoint to the word ‘Red,’ designating the types of unions and businesses to be barred from a place at the table” (289).

While Cohen’s book successfully navigates the murky financial underbelly of early twentieth-century Chicago, it ultimately reads like an incomplete thought. Cohen devoted a fair amount of attention to organized crime figures, but largely ignored members of the local Democratic political machine. A more thorough analysis of the alliance between craftsmen and machine politicians would have presented the reader with a more complete account of Chicago’s economic ecosystem. Despite this, The Racketeer’s Progress would be of great interest to both labor historians and academics interested in organized crime’s parasitic relationship to unions.

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