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U.S. labour leader Jimmy Hoffa at the Greater Pittsburgh Airport in an April 12, 1971, file photograph.Jerry Siskind/Reuters

David Witwer is a professor of history and American studies at Penn State Harrisburg and the author of Corruption and Reform in the Teamsters Union.

Two recent scandals have jolted the Canadian labour movement and raised the spectre of alleged union corruption. Last month, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) accused three of its former top officials of improperly taking $5.75-million out of union funds. The issue came to light after the union’s executive board became suspicious about certain unexplained expenditures and ordered a forensic audit. (The allegations have been denied and have not been tested in court.) In March, 2022, the executive board of Canada’s largest private-sector union, Unifor, alleged that its long-time president, Jerry Dias, accepted a $50,000 bribe from a maker of COVID-19 test kits. (Many Globe and Mail employees are Unifor members.) Mr. Dias was allegedly paid to convince employers with Unifor members to use the company’s test kits. The complaint emerged after he gave half the money to a fellow union official, who responded by filing an ethics complaint against Mr. Dias.

While comparatively rare in Canada, across the border, in the United States, union corruption scandals have been all too common. Indeed, many Americans associate organized labour with the notorious Jimmy Hoffa, who despite his self-acknowledged mob connections became president of the powerful Teamsters Union in 1957. Mr. Hoffa gave his Mafia associates access to the union’s pension and benefit funds but still avidly championed the needs of Teamsters members, negotiating contracts with employers that brought significant gains for unionized truck drivers. Grateful union members enthusiastically re-elected Mr. Hoffa, even after his two criminal convictions in 1964. When he began serving his 13-year jail sentence in 1967, he did so as the president of the largest union in the U.S. Although he disappeared in 1975, presumably the victim of a mob hit, Mr. Hoffa remains the best-known American labour leader, a potent symbol of the historic problem of union corruption and mob influence in certain sectors of the labour movement.

In recent decades, that kind of mob-connected corruption has faded in the U.S. as the power of traditional organized crime has waned. By the end of the 1980s, a Department of Justice co-ordinated offensive had decimated Italian-American organized crime in the country, with 2,500 indictments. The convictions swept through the ranks of Mafia families from New York and Chicago to Las Vegas, including 19 family bosses and 13 underbosses. The result, as criminologist Jay Albanese noted in 2004, “has been a decline in the influence of Italian-American organized crime in the U.S. over the last 20 years.”

But scandals continue to surface, even in unions that have never been tied to organized crime. In 2020, a former president of the United Auto Workers (UAW) union, Gary Jones, pled guilty to federal charges that he had misused more than US$1-million in union funds. The money went to lavish expenditures, including US$60,000 for cigars and fancy smoking paraphernalia, as well as vacation rentals at expensive golf resorts. The same probe that brought down Mr. Jones led to criminal allegations against a dozen other UAW officials; Fiat Chrysler was later sentenced for paying millions in bribes to union leaders in order to influence the collective agreement.

Just last fall, a similar scandal rocked the union that represents New York’s municipal workers, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The national union alleged that a local union official had improperly pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the organization’s funds. An even bigger scandal had tarred the same organization in 2002, when 20 AFSCME leaders in New York’s District Council 37 were convicted of embezzlement, vote fraud and taking kickbacks. Ironically, both the UAW and AFSCME had progressive reputations, quite different from that of the Teamsters; indeed, both had historic ties to the civil rights movement.

This history of corruption scandals has cast a shadow over the U.S. labour movement and has had important political ramifications. The enduring problem has provided anti-union groups in the U.S. with a potent argument against efforts to reform American labour law in ways that would make it easier to organize. Indeed, back in 1959, the conservative Wall Street Journal extolled the link between the Mafia and the Teamsters in an editorial titled The Virtue of Mr. Hoffa. As the paper noted, “The difficulty in curbing labor union power thus far has been that the people have not clearly seen, or believed, the danger.” Mr. Hoffa’s menacing reputation had solved that problem then, and for similar reasons anti-union forces in the U.S. continue to invoke his name today. It allows them to depict unions as predatory organizations rather than as defenders of the working class. This depiction in turn provides justification for resisting any changes that would make it easier for unions to organize workplaces, by validating claims that American workers need to be protected from corruption-prone organized labour.

The importance of Mr. Hoffa’s legacy may be best demonstrated by the divergent history of unionization rates in the U.S. and Canada, which had been equivalent until the early 1960s. It was then that American unions began their discouraging decline to their current, marginal status, while Canadian unions enjoyed a period of continued growth. This divergence coincided with the height of Mr. Hoffa’s notoriety, which as legal scholar James B. Atleson observed, “affected the way Americans think of unions,” fostering “the feeling that union corruption is rampant.” Today only about 10 per cent of U.S. workers belong to unions, which is just about a third of the rate in Canada, where 29 per cent of workers belonged to unions in 2022.

If Canada’s experience with union corruption has been quite different, then the case of Hal Banks, dubbed “the Jimmy Hoffa of Canada,” illustrates some of the reasons for that difference. The Seafarers International Union had sent Mr. Banks to Montreal in 1949 to lead the organization’s Canadian affiliate, and in the years that followed he used a combination of violence and intimidation to cement his control over the organization. Despite numerous allegations, including charges that Canadian sailors were being forced to pay kickbacks to get work, the government chose not to investigate, perhaps because Mr. Banks’s union had supplanted a labour organization with communist ties, the Canadian Seaman’s Union. But when Mr. Banks attempted to use thuggish violence to expand his union’s jurisdiction, other elements in the Canadian labour movement demanded action. In June, 1962, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Transport and General Workers Union (CBRT) shut down the St. Lawrence Seaway to put pressure on the government to act. The CBRT and the Canadian Labour Congress played a strong role in the resulting special commission of inquiry, known as the Norris Commission, and even supported legislation imposing a three-year government trusteeship over Canadian maritime unions.

The Canadian labour movement’s willingness to take this kind of initiative against a corrupt affiliate marks an important break with the pattern in the U.S., where historically organized labour has avoided confronting union corruption until after a scandal has erupted (and sometimes not even then). The U.S. labour federation, the AFL-CIO, has responded warily to government investigations and has opposed proposals for government trusteeship of corruption-prone unions such as the Teamsters.

The current Canadian scandals reflect this different pattern north of the border. In both cases, the corruption accusations came from within the unions, not from a government probe or journalistic exposé. This suggests a willingness to self-police that may explain the apparent difference between the prevalence of union corruption scandals in Canada and the U.S.

However, it may also reflect a greater reluctance on the part of authorities in Canada to look into union corruption. While the U.S. government relentlessly pursued Mr. Hoffa, Canadian authorities didn’t move against Mr. Banks until forced to do so. More recently, critics of the Charbonneau Commission’s investigation of corruption in Quebec, from 2011 to 2015, asserted that it failed to follow up on evidence of organized crime’s influence in the province’s labour movement. As one consultant who had worked with that probe, Antonio Nicaso, put it, “The commission was, maybe, scared to learn more.”

If Canadian authorities are reluctant, then this provides unions in Canada with both the opportunity and the need to act vigorously against corruption, in order to avoid the fate of their U.S. counterparts, which find themselves ever haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Hoffa.