John Boyko explores the dark underbelly of mid-twentieth century Canadian unionism:
Hal Banks was a thug. He was born in Iowa and grew up in California. He had been arrested for passing bad cheques and came to know the cold, grey walls of San Quentin prison. He was later accused of murder, kidnapping and numerous rapes before becoming a sailor then union enforcer. He was deemed the perfect man to build the SIU in Canada. From his opulent office in Montreal, Banks became a tyrant. He bribed, bought or had beaten up all those who opposed him or the SIU. He established “Do Not Ship” lists that banned certain workers, ships and companies. The shipping companies and the Canadian and American governments were happy that a semblance of order had been established, the ships were moving and the Communists were gone or hiding, and so turned blind eyes when Banks and his gangsters broke laws and bones.
Petty thuggery and union organizers are like white and bread. As this fascinating article goes onto explain Hal Banks was also a "substantial" contributor to the Liberal Party, something which then Prime Minister Lester Pearson admitted to in a TV interview with Pierre Berton. Luckily for Pearson a few hours after the interview aired JFK was assassinated and his confession was forgotten in the chaos that followed.
The story is important as more than just a historical curiosity, a glimpse into how the old Canada operated. To the younger generation - those under say 40 - unionism is black and white pictures of cloth capped workers battling against their top hatted oppressors. The narrative of early industrial unionism is about as stark: Heroic workers battling against greedy capitalists. Historical reality is rarely simply and almost never good. If the capitalists were ruthless so were the union leaders. Thuggery isn't a bug of industrial unionism, it's something that comes very close to being a feature.
At the height of the industrial age - about 1960 - private sector unions wielded a now unimagined power over the economic life of most developed countries. While their power in North America never rivalled that of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) in Britain - a virtually parallel government for much of the 1970s - they could deal with Presidents and Prime Ministers as near equals. Without union foot soldiers it seems unlikely that JFK would have squeaked out his narrow victory in the 1960 Presidential election. As a solution to a mass shipping strike on the Great Lakes - the subject of the article - the Pearson government actually took control of the dominant shipping union. That might sound like a wild over reaction but given the wide spread criminality of these unions - to say nothing of known communist infiltration - it was probably the least worst option.
Private sector unions were ultimately cowed not by Parliament or Congress but by the most powerful force in the modern world: Technical innovation. Not all the political power in the world could stop the revolutionary promise of microchips and container shipping, that is short of the state actually banning all innovation. Say what you will about mid-twentieth century statists they were never so crazy as to try and stop scientific and technical progress.
Rent seeking - and most union activity is little more than rent seeking behaviour - runs constantly against this technological restraint. Only in areas where technological change is comparative limited by the nature of the production process - such as diary farming - does the behaviour persist indefinitely. In other sectors it lasts as long as a cheaper alternative is not created. Container shipping destroyed the longshoremen's unions and robotics has hamstrung the auto workers unions for decades. John F Kennedy could have started a thermonuclear war during his time in office, yet he could never have foreseen or stopped the radical technological changes in the half century following his death. A salutary reminder that the power of the state is the power to destroy, not to create.