Home>Feature>Labor Leader: Joel Jacobson picked a public fight with Frank Sinatra

Joel R. Jacobson, left, and former Newark Mayor Vincent Murphy, right, are sworn in as executive vice presidents of the newly-formed New Jersey AFL-CIO by international union president George Meany in 1961. (Photo: AFL-CIO Archives.)

Labor Leader: Joel Jacobson picked a public fight with Frank Sinatra

Served as state CIO president, and in Brendan Byrne’s cabinet

By David Wildstein, September 07 2020 12:01 am

One of the great New Jersey fights of the 1970s was between labor leader Joel R. Jacobson (1918-1989) and Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra and Dean Martin were playing blackjack before their performance at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City in 1984 when Sinatra insisted that he by dealt by hand rather than out a legally-required plastic shoe.

The dealer, who was born in Korea, initially refused, but she gave in after Sinatra apparently told her to “go back to China.”

Jacobson was serving as a Casino Control Commissioner at the time and called Sinatra a bully.  Old Blue Eyes refused to perform in Atlantic City for several years after that.

After working as a reporter for the Paterson Sunday Eagle, the fiery, in-your-face advocate Jacobson was hired as an aide to New Jersey Commissioner of Labor and Industry (and former Yankees pitcher) Harry Harper in 1947.

His first assignment was to kill a proposed bus fare increase from 5 cents to 7 cents that Gov. Walter Edge was opposing.

Jacobson became the director of education for the New Jersey Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1948.  He immediately took on state dairy farmers, blaming the high price of milk on greedy milk dealers.

Within two years, Jacobson gad become the executive secretary of the Essex-West Hudson CIO Council.  He brought police brutality charges after allegations that law enforcement mistreated union picketers after their arrest.

As a labor leader, Jacobson wanted unions to be militant in their support of social causes.

New Jersey CIO President Carl Holderman resigned in 1954 to become Commissioner of Labor and Industry under newly-elected Gov. Robert Meyner.

The 34-year-old Jacobson wanted to succeed Holderman, but he was outmaneuvered by a bitter rival, Paul Krebs.

A future congressman — he served from 1965 to 1967 — Krebs was the political director of the United Auto Workers of America (UAW) and was a 41-year-old old-school labor guy who believed he could be more effective advocating behind closed doors and not in the newspapers.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) merged with the CIO in 1956, but New Jersey was a holdout. After a proposed Merger, Jacobson replaced Krebs as New Jersey CIO president.

The AFL had about 300,000 members in New Jersey, and the CIO had about 200,000.  As part of the merger debate, the AFL wanted three of the four seats on the state executive council; the CIO wanted two seats.

The fight got so heated that national AFL-CIO leader George Meany threatened to seize control of the New Jersey union and name the officers himself.

The compromise was this: New Jersey AFL president, Louis Marciante would head the new labor group; former Newark Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Vincent Murphy who was even more powerful than Marciante, would be the secretary-treasurer – a job he’d held for nearly thirty years.  Jacobson became first vice presidents and Victor Leonardis became second VP.

The fighting between the two factions didn’t stop with the merger, and in June 1964 the New Jersey AFL-CIO abolished the vice president positions held by Jacobson and Leonardis.  That August, Jacobson led a walk-out by former CIO members at the annual state AFL-CIO convention.

Jacobson started his own rival union, the New Jersey Industrial Union Council.  The new group was allied with Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers (UAW) international union.

Eventually, the AFL-CIO offered to rehire Jacobson and Meany, but they turned it down.  Jacobson remained president of the New Jersey IUC and became the head of the New Jersey UAW union.  His official title at the auto workers union was director of community affairs.

State Senate bid

In 1971, Jacobson made his first and only run for public office.

Essex County went from six State Senate seats to five after the 1970 census and all five seats were decided in at-large countywide elections.

Republicans had won all six seats in 1967, and three of the incumbents were seeking re-election.

Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner gave the organization line to: Freeholder Director Wynona M. Lipman (who would become the second woman and second Black to serve in the New Jersey Senate); Assemblyman Frank “Pat” Dodd (D-Orange), Irvington Councilman Henry Smolen; and two South Orange attorneys, Ralph DeRose, who had been an aide to State Sen. Donal Fox (D-South Orange) and nearly won a 1969 race for Essex County Supervisor, and former Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Martin Greenberg.

Jacobson mounted an off-the-line bid for State Senate on a ticket with Newark City Council President Louis M. Turco.  Three other Democrats joined Jacobson and Turco on their slate: Irvington Board of Education secretary-business manager Michel A. Blasi, the former nine-term president of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local 430; former Newark Fireman’s Mutual Benefit Association Local 4 president Francis X. McCarthy; and former Newark Police Captain Edward Williams.

(When the Newark riots started in 1967, Mayor Hugh Addonizio had appointed Williams as the city’s first Black police captain with the hope that the move would placate rioters.  Williams served as the police department’s director of community relations.)

Lerner’s line prevailed by a wide margin.  Jacobson came in seventh, 7,207 votes behind Smolen.

Jacobson was a longtime friend of Brendan Byrne and became an early supporter of Byrne’s 1973 gubernatorial campaign.

In early 1974, Byrne nominated Jacobson to serve on the New Jersey Public Utilities Commission – now the Board of Public Utilities – as the consumer representative.

After the legislature created the New Jersey Department of Energy in 1977, Byrne nominated Jacobson to serve as the first commissioner.

As energy commissioner, Jacobson was a severe critic of oil companies.  Some of them would occasionally take out full-page ads in New Jersey newspapers criticizing him.

Early in his final year as governor, Byrne nominated Jacobson to a five-year term on the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.

State Sen. James Wallwork (R-Short Hills), who was a candidate for governor, used senatorial courtesy over all Essex County nominations, to block Jacobson.

Jacobson was not to be encumbered by senatorial courtesy and figured out a work-around.

He changed his official residency from South Orange to his shore house on Long Beach Island.  State Sen. John Russo (D-Toms River) signed off and the Democratic-controlled State Senate confirmed him.

While serving as a casino regulator, Jacobson criticized the rapid construction of fancy casinos that ignored urban blight in Atlantic City.

Gov. Tom Kean, who had sided with Sinatra, declined to reappoint Jacobson in 1986.

Jacobson’s final labor battle came in 1986 when U.S. District Court Judge Harold Ackerman appointed him to serve as trustee of Teamsters Local 560 after finding the union was run by mobsters.  (The federal prosecutor in that case was Michael Guadagno, later a state appellate court judge and the husband of former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.)

Ackerman fired him one year later.  Jacobson said he was trying to build an efficient union operation and that Ackerman’s preference was to break the union entirely.

Jacobson died in 1989 at age 71.

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