By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus
"The Fulton Fish Market…has for decades been corruptly influenced by organized crime….despite the repeated efforts of law enforcement to prosecute crimes there…the problem of organized crime corruption in the Market has persisted….it is necessary for the commissioner of business services to have expanded authority to license and/or register businesses in the Market area and regulate the conduct of such businesses." (New York City Legislative Findings to Local Law 50, 1995)
In the history of American organized crime the story of the takeover by an Italian mob of New York's Fulton Fish Market revealed the ability of racketeers to seize control of a major business and to maintain that strangle hold for several decades.
After the First World War, Joseph "Socks" Lanza and his henchmen established themselves as de facto bosses of the Market. A mob operative, Lanza also exerted much influence on the entire New York City waterfront from the 1920s to the 1950s. In1923, he organized Local 359 of the United Seafood Workers representing employees in the Fulton Fish Market. Despite criminal convictions and prison terms, and because of useful official friendships, which served to shield him, he remained on the Local's payroll and served as its business agent until his death in 1968.
Occupying two blocks of South Street in lower Manhattan, on the East River, near Fulton Street, organized in 1833 to serve fishing vessels, the Market was the first and largest fish market in the United States. By 1998, there were sixty wholesale seafood venders leasing separate garage-like stalls.
Fish is a very perishable item. Fishermen sold their catch to suppliers, who packed the product into boxes. Beginning at 10 p.m., truckers delivered the product to the wholesale stalls, where it was sold and delivered to retailers from restaurants and stores. Mobbed-up Local 359 exercised significant leverage in corrupting the system to its advantage.
Retailers were told where to park their vehicles, which were left unlocked. After selecting their purchases, the boxed fish would be hand carted by workers to the parked vehicles and loaded by the workers. The retailers paid fees to the workers each night to insure that their vehicles and fish remained safe from vandalism and theft. It was a cash business with scanty record keeping.
Local 359 had the backing of the Genovese crime family, which influenced every facet of the Market's operations. As a major mob power base, the Market was a substantial revenue source. The employees and bosses profited from all aspects of the business. Known as the "Czar of the Fulton Market," Joseph Lanza ran Local 359 for the benefit of the Genovese family. Extortions were commonplace. Payoffs were made to insure the cooperation of legitimate persons. With everyone on board in the conspiracy, even the authorities had to admit that the racketeers created an atmosphere of labor peace and a smooth-operating fish market business. Money was being made by the workers and everybody was happy with the status quo.
There were multiple protection rackets all of them paying off handsomely. Wholesalers had to buy "protection insurance." It was cheaper to pay Lanza and less troublesome than other means of preventing thievery. They were not victims of extortion, wholesalers would declare, but rather beneficiaries of theft insurance. Every Christmas they would kick in "voluntary" cash to union members, who never saw the money.
Skimming, or stealing seafood, was another ongoing racket. Much of the product was not weighed as it came into the Market. Thousands of pounds of fish were "skimmed" every night. Retailers had to purchase an alleged 130-pound box to ensure obtaining one hundred pounds.
Corruption reached into the city's bureaucracy. Regulation was practically nonexistent. Lanza was in league with many Tammany Hall politicians. City officials tended to ignore the flourishing criminal activity at the Fulton Fish Market. That was in the 1930s. Not until the years following the Second World War did the collusion between politicians and mobsters become officially recognized. The convictions for racketeering in the 1980s did little to repress criminality. Extortions and payoffs continued unabated. Filling the coffers of the Genovese clan became the cost of doing business, a burden that the customer would eventually have to bear. Investigations concluded that "For decades, mob rule was an intractable fact of life at the Fulton Fish Market."
Liberating the Market from mob influence was no easy task and took several years to accomplish. The RICO suit, United States v. Local 359, was not sufficient to completely purge the entrenched racketeers, but was considered a good start. Mobsters were forced to vacate their jobs and were replaced by civil servants who were tasked to monitor day-to-day operations. Local Law 50 was said to be the decisive breakthrough. The decades-long corrupt Market system was expunged. The cleanup resulted in lower seafood prices and a greater supply of the product. Although there was much skepticism as to whether the reforms would hold, a 1997 report was optimistic: "Based on the success of this initiative at the Fulton Fish Market, Local Law 50 has provided the model for legislation to oust Cosa Nostra from New York City's other major wholesale food markets and from the waste-hauling industry."
On November 14, 2005, after 183 years of operation in Downtown Manhattan, the Fulton Fish Market was moved into a state of the art facility, the New Fulton Fish Market, in the Hunts Point section of The Bronx.
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