Organizing Portland: Organized Crime, Municipal Corruption, and the Teamsters Union

By Donnelly, Robert C. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Organizing Portland: Organized Crime, Municipal Corruption, and the Teamsters Union


Donnelly, Robert C., Oregon Historical Quarterly


IN MID-TWENTIETH-CENTURY Portland, gambling dens, brothels, and unlicensed bars operated virtually uninhibited by police as long as vice racketeers paid scheduled kickbacks to key city law enforcement officials. Despite Mayor Dorothy Lee's efforts to reform city government from 1948 to 1952, some municipal officials, both before and after her administration, tolerated, sanctioned, and may well have profited from the city's vice economy. By the 1950s, word of Portland's reputation as a "wide open" city whose local officials entertained payoffs had traveled north to Seattle, where racketeers, with help from some Teamsters Union officials, had been exploiting that city's criminal operations. By 1954, the Teamsters and local racketeers, with support from the Multnomah County district attorney, were operating profitably in Portland and were well on their way to controlling the city's booming vice industry. Clearly, political reform efforts in Portland had not been successful.

In 1956, however, Oregonian crime reporters Wallace Turner and William Lambert--using information provided by Portland's own crime boss, James Elkins--exposed organized crime and municipal corruption in Portland and unwrapped a scheme by corrupt Teamsters officials to take over the city's vice rackets. Union racketeering had already caught the nation's attention, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Senate investigators had gathered evidence on the Teamsters' organizational tactics and the illegal activities of certain Teamsters officials. By 1957, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field, better known as the McClellan Committee, concluded that Portland not only had a local crime problem but also a situation that had serious national ramifications.

Those who were eventually accused of corruption and criminal activity also played a part in their undoing. "Were it not that the conspirators in this particular case had a falling out," the McClellan Committee concluded in its 1958 interim report, "the Committee believes that gambling and law enforcement in Portland would now be completely under the domination of a teamster-backed [sic] underworld. In other cities of the United States, where similar tactics have been employed, this type of domination has been achieved successfully." (1) The Portland case was not unique, but it offers insights into how urban crime, municipal corruption, and illegal union activities worked together to open the city to organized crime.

WHEN THE INTERNATIONAL Brotherhood of Teamsters began to recruit unskilled laborers in the early 1930s, the union broke from its traditional policy of limiting its representation to specialized crafts and laid the groundwork for the rise of a more militant membership. At the time, the Teamsters were less a national union than a "loose confederation of locals controlled by powerful bosses. (2) The criminality that existed, historian Nelson Lichtenstein explains, "was largely concentrated in highly decentralized, multi-employer industries, which gave individual union leaders ... the opportunity to skim the pension fund, cut sweetheart deals, or simply run the local as a family business:" (3) When the Teamsters opened its ranks to unskilled workers--generally, laborers who were hired for tough, physical jobs--the union fragmented, pitting old-line union officials who had fought for collective bargaining, better wages, and safer working conditions against a new legion of "hard-fighting and troublesome' recruits." many of whom were motivated to join the labor movement to acquire wealth. (4)

By the 1940s, the Teamsters had become top-heavy with officials, and "internal oligarchies" exercised control over certain industries. After World War II, a large group of full-time labor officials assumed leadership of the union, according to Lichtenstein, "open[ing] the door to a whole set of corruptions that became an integral part of the postwar union mythos. …

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