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Perverse Solidarity: How Can The Irishman Teach Us Union History?

by Sam Schectman

[originally published spring 2020]


The action outside the general faculty meeting on the 19th was the first time I had ever been to a true, chanty-signy protest. As I stood there surrounded by the crowds of students and workers, two thoughts kept racing around my head. The first was that it’s really hard to keep a synchronized chant going through a long King hallway, (Union Busting! Is Union Busting Disgusting! Union Disgusting! Is Busting!), and the second was the voice of Al Pacino portraying Jimmy Hoffa in Martin Scorsese’s recent film The Irishman. There’s a scene early on in the movie - okay, early for The Irishman - when Hoffa is introduced giving a speech in front of a crowd of teamsters, and he describes the situation with the union, railing against the government and big business, and calling for unity. He says to the crowd, “We need Solidarity! I wanna write it in the sky! Solidarity! Solidarity! Solidarity!”

I cannot get the image of Al Pacino making insane hand gestures towards the cheering crowd of teamsters out of my mind. I think, partially, this is because I have a great love for The Irishman, and especially Pacino’s performance, but also because I truly think that he’s right. We do need solidarity— right now, more than ever. I’m not the only one that has had very tough conversations with some of the people who, as of now, are slated to lose their jobs. I had a long conversation with Kimberly, one of the custodians in East, about how unfair this situation is. I teared up at that big meeting the first day that UAW found out about the layoffs, when the room was packed with students and workers. But I can’t help but feel lost throughout this whole process. I keep wondering what we can actually do about this situation. Petitions are good, sure. Protesting is even better. Will any of it matter? What does solidarity do for us?

The Irishman, to some extent, tells a mob story, but really the union politics are at the center of the story. The union is the bridge between the legitimate economy and the illegimitate economy, and because the union and the mob are partners in crime, there is a type of perverse solidarity that exists for much of the movie. Hoffa is a friend to the Buffalinos and other crime families. He’s their guy, he just happens to be at the top of the teamsters as well, and is hugely powerful in his own right. However, when you really examine the class politics here, you can see a parallel in the relationship between the union and the mob, and the relationship between unions and regular bosses. Anyone who knows anything about class politics knows that the relationship between capital and workers is adversarial, so if we extend the analogous relationship here, so must be the relationship between the mob and the union.

4However, the illegitimate economy does at least allow the worker to rise in status in some way. This is what The Irishman is about, in some way, as we watch Frank Sheeran rise from a regular unionized worker to a proper mob boss, as symbolized by the ring that Russ Buffalino gives him. However, in our time, this illegitimate economy doesn’t really exist. Unions don’t have much mob backing, and they aren’t nearly as powerful as they were during Hoffa’s time. Part of this is due to neoliberal deregulation policy in the late 70s and 80s. For the Teamsters specifically, deregulation of the freighting industry led to both non-unionized trucking companies entering the market, weakening the bargaining position of the union, and an unsuccessful attempt to bribe Nevada Senator Howard Cannon into opposing deregulating legislation that led to the conviction of the General President of the Teamsters in 1982. There were also attempts to tackle corruption in the union like the corruption had been seen under Hoffa and his successor, Frank Fitzsimmons, partially through the mob-busting RICO act.

What does this mean for us? The absence of the mob’s influence in union politics may have weakened their position temporarily, but there is at least one good thing that comes out of this - the perverse solidarity between the mob and the union has been replaced by real solidarity. We as students aren’t doing this for favors, or to try and skim off the top. We’re doing this because we care about these workers, and we care about unions. We know our history, and we know that unions got us the 40 hour work week. We know unions got us weekends. We know unions got us workers comp. We know unions got us parental leave, and vacation time, and health benefits, and dental care, and everything that makes working in this shitty world even slightly bearable. We aren’t standing with them just to become their bosses. We’re standing with them because they’re our family.

My favorite line reading in The Irishman is when Frank Sheeran lays it out clear to Hoffa that the mob is going to kill him if he doesn’t cooperate. Here, Pacino scoffs and lays out a perfectly defiant phrase, “They wouldn’t dare. They wouldn’t dare.” He doesn’t sound sure about it, but he knows the end is coming. Oberlin’s already made the choice to lay off their unionized workers. They don’t care about them. They’re trying to confuse us, but we know our job. It’s our job to care about them, just as it’s always been their job to care for us here, and now the Oberlin Administration is trying to sow the seeds of dissent among our ranks, at a time when we need unity. We need solidarity.

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