There is plenty of organised crime in Britain, and there always has been. People have slandered the unions in Britain with almost every foul name under the sun, but one thing I have never heard is someone calling the unions here fronts for the mafia.

However, it's a matter of public record that some unions in America have been tainted by organised crime. Why there, and not here?

I'm making a direct comparison between Britain and America for the sake of simplicity. I believe what I've said about unions in Britain also applies to unions elsewhere in western Europe and probably other advanced economies such as Japan, but I don't know for sure.

Some people have asked how I know British unions aren't tainted by organised crime. I found this: http://www.bunker8.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/orgcrim/potter.htm

A thorough contrast between British and American underworlds can be noted in the area of labor racketeering. The contrast can be simply put: several American labor unions have along record of organized crime activity, to the point of thorough penetration in sections of the Teamsters and Longshoremen (truck drivers and dock workers -JL). However extensive charges have also been made in recent years against sections of unions like the Roofers, Carpenters, Laborers International Union, and the Hotel Restaurant Employees and Bartenders. There is no labor racketeering in Britain-a categorical statement that can be justified with amazing ease. In their 150 years of existence, British unions have been accused of many things, plausible or implausible; but to our knowledge they have never been accused of being allied with crime…

I realise that this is only one article, and I couldn't find the unabridged version, and it's from a journal I've never heard of... but really if you are asking me to prove a negative that's the best anyone can do. The article offers an answer to my question, but I'm open to others.

  • False premise. ( en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Costigan_Commission ) Jul 5, 2015 at 4:39
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    @SamuelRussell, the Costigan Commission was Australian, not British.
    – mgkrebbs
    Jul 5, 2015 at 5:47
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    > I believe what I've said about unions in Britain also applies to unions elsewhere in western Europe and probably other advanced economies such as Japan, but I don't know for sure. Jul 5, 2015 at 6:37
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    Yes, I said I didn't know for sure, that's why I premised the question on Britain and not all other countries.
    – Ne Mo
    Jul 5, 2015 at 11:28
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    It was made in an academic article, not a newspaper. Look, I've substantiated the statement that they aren't mob-influenced, if you want to contend that unions in Britain are influenced by the mob, find some evidence that they are. Otherwise, what I have said stands.
    – Ne Mo
    Jul 6, 2015 at 21:45

4 Answers 4


I don't know if there is a proven definitive answer to this, but let me propose an explanation from first principles.

At the time that Labour Unions were organizing in North America, and lobbying for legal recognition, careers such as teamsters and longshoremen were largely selected from the recently immigrated communities of Italians, Irish, and East Europeans. The tight knit nature of these immigrant communities provided an insularity from the community at large, particularly the legal authorities, that was fertile ground for organized crime.

In particular, the natural progression for immigrants was often to be low-skill manual labour the first generation, progressing into the police the next, and then into the more general middle class the third. This meant that for several decades around the turn of the twentieth century the ethnicity of the police and the low-end manual labour were different.

In Europe and Britain there was still a class distinction, but there would have been much more overlap with the class that populated the police, providing a much less fertile soil for organized crime to take root.

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    I think you have an interesting hypothesis. I think you undervalue the class distinctions. I also wonder how much crime in England is organized and what the organizing principle is,
    – MCW
    Jul 4, 2015 at 17:24
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    I think your first paragraph answers the question. The community ties between working-class unionized immigrants and immigrant organized crime is enough of an explanation, IMO. The details about the police are off, but it doesn't detract. This article has a nice table that shows by 1880, 2/3rds of northern police officers and 40% of southern officers were foreign-born whites. But anyway, the fact that gangsters had neighborhood and ethnic ties to police officers would only exacerbate corruption, I'd think.
    – two sheds
    Jul 4, 2015 at 18:34

I feel that answers linking crime to ethnicity should at least try to provide some documentation relative to the ethnicity of union ranks.

I would say that the factor more important was the use of organized crime (which existed before trade unions) to suppress worker movement.

Organized was a more important force in USA than in UK. In the USA, the organized crime intervened often in the laboral relations, with the clear example of the Pinkertons (that, while claiming to be "detectives", were often just band of thugs used to violently break strikes), initially to break strikes and teach "manners" to protesting workers.

In this aspect, once the leadership of a (once) demanding trade union was killed, jailed, or beaten enough to renounce their position, it just made sense replacing them with pliable men.

Of course, even with the mob controlling the trade unions, the workers need some improvents or there is always the risk of new trade unions being formed by disatisfied workers, so some improvements must be achieved.

And, in order to ensure that no other trade union could replace the old one (due to the ineffectivenes of latter), you could make union membership mandatory (which explains the creation of union shops and even closed shops in a country that declares itself "the paradise of free enterprise").

Additionally, trade union outside the protection of "controlled" trade unions continues to be very heavily punished1.

Finally, once the mob controls the trade unions, it is not a great leap to search profit (more) from other opportunities that would arise from the situation.

In short, trade unions are corrupt because they were assaulted by the organized crime as a mean of forbidding representative trade unions from being formed/effectual. That is not news to the USA, many dictatorships (from Franco's Spain to those behind the Iron Curtain) had trade unions for exactly the same purpose.

1: To illustrate my point, go to this category page in the Wikipedia and click links at random; check how many do include strikers being wounded or killed with nobody being held accountable.

NOTE: Yes I see the lack of citations, but the mob rarely makes their business agreements public (and when they do, there is a shocking lack of documental support). Given that, I understand (from what I have seen in previous answers) that there is a bit more leniency in the documentation part.

What is real and documented was the mob role (including Pinkertons) against the workers'rights movements, and what happened to the honest leaders that defied them. And well, the other answer include even less citations.

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    Note: Additionally, I would like to see some source for the original aseveration. Crime issues with trade unions in USA may have more public relevance just because a lot of black films are produced in the USA, and they use local themes (like The law of silence).
    – SJuan76
    Jul 5, 2015 at 19:42
  • Note: historically, the sicilian and sardinian mafia had their roots in groups of thugs the landowners used to 'discipline' peasants and small farmers.
    – mart
    Jul 6, 2015 at 7:18
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    You can't call the Pinkertons "organized crime." They were an incorporated company that did business with (among others) the Department of Justice. Organized thuggery? Sure. Organized crime? Definitionally false.
    – two sheds
    Jul 6, 2015 at 12:35

I'll offer an alternative theory: organized crime in the US was to a great extent the product of Prohibition. It had given them immense profits, and a network of well-bribed police & other public officials, since many people regarded ignoring Prohibition as almost a public duty. Once it was repealed, the crime syndicates had to redirect those resources to other areas, like gambling (e.g. Las Vegas) and controlling labor unions. (Which, it might be argued, are at their extreme pretty close to an extortion racket anyway.) Britain didn't have Prohibition, so didn't have such large organized crime syndicates looking for new areas of endeavor.

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    Yes, I do argue. -1. Also, I find the idea that organized crime is basically the product of Prohibition (or even immigration) is hard to justify, as the "locals" were quite profficient at it (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tammany_Hall. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spoils_system, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soapy_Smith). Immigrants only brought their native varietions.
    – SJuan76
    Jul 6, 2015 at 0:04
  • Con men, political machines, and patronage are different than organized crime, which is usually taken to mean some combination of racketeering, drug distribution, and prostitution. I especially don't see how the Spoils System is relevant here.
    – two sheds
    Jul 6, 2015 at 1:11
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    @SJuan76: Prohibition had absolutely nothing to do with immigration: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… And as two sheds points out, the various political machines weren't really criminal (nor AFAIK did they later evolve into organized crime syndicates), they were pretty much the normal and accepted way of doing business in those days.
    – jamesqf
    Jul 6, 2015 at 4:57

Trade unions in North America were often dominated by immigrants, e.g. Sicilians, and later Russians, who had been members of organized crime syndicates in their home country, prior to immigrating.

Trade unions in Britain were (mostly) dominated by "locals," who had no previous ties to organized crime.

  • Did they have criminal gang associations in their homelands? I am not sure that this really answers the question, but simply pushes it back.
    – user24000
    Oct 12, 2016 at 18:16
  • Recent research suggests that the mafia originated as a "lemon-selling" cartel in Sicily, arising in the wake of scurvy-prevention in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. You might be able to bulwark this answer from that recognition. I lost the link, but it was in the news within the past 8 weeks or so. Feb 5, 2018 at 0:03

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