How Al Capone's Mobsters Outmuscled Chicago Milkmen

By: Sharise Cunningham  | 
chicago milk wars
After the Great Depression, major cities like Chicago, Houston and St. Louis, all had conflicts between dairy farmers, milk dealers and distributors because of dairy pricing and employee wages. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Al "Scarface" Capone is perhaps the most recognizable and infamous name in organized crime. His life as a gangster was highlighted by a series of racketeering schemes, tax fraud, violence and bootlegging.

Capone was suspected of being behind the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in which seven rival gang members were killed by gunmen dressed as police officers. However, no definitive connection to Capone and the Feb. 14, 1929, ambush was ever proven.


It seems a lot was hard to tie to this "Teflon Don" since, somehow, the federal government only managed to put him in prison for 11 years on charges of income tax evasion. He served out his sentence in Federal prisons in Atlanta, then later in the notorious federal prison Alcatraz.

The Milkman Cometh

dairy producers pouring out milk
Al Capone (inset) and his Chicago mob muscled their way into the dairy industry in the early 1930s. The incident became known as the "Chicago milk wars." Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

But there's one story about Capone you might not have heard. It has to do with the Chicago dairy industry and several unions, including the Pure Milk Association and the Milk Wagon Drivers' Union Local 753.

It was 1933 and Capone was already in jail. Dairy prices were fixed, but independent dairy farmers wanted more money for their milk. Reps from the dairy trade group the Associated Milk Dealers said the public wouldn't pay more, so the farmers, who were union members of the Pure Milk Association, walked off the job.


Meanwhile, Capone and his gangster protégés needed money because it was clear President Franklin D. Roosevelt was preparing to repeal Prohibition. Once bootlegging and speakeasies became a thing of the past, it would put a dent in the mob's major revenue sources. So, they targeted the dairies.

Claire White, director of education for the Mob Museum in Las Vegas, says there were two reasons why. First, the dairies lacked regulation. And second, the Mafia already controlled other food products, including artichokes (yes, really), and Wisconsin cheese via crime boss Joseph Bonanno.


The Mob vs. the Unions

Capone's mob bought Meadowmoor Dairies, intending to bully its way into the milk business. Bottling milk in Meadowmoor's facilities would allow them to bypass the fixed dairy pricing, and to stop unions from distributing only local milk.

Meadowmoor distributed milk through stores exclusively rather than using drivers for home deliveries. The dairy bought milk from farmers at a flat price and aggressively exploited store distribution.


This allowed Meadowmoor to underprice other distributors who were bound by contract to pay union prices to union drivers. These mob-like tactics pitted the gangsters against union officials and those dairies that had to deliver milk to homes (and those delivery drivers).

But the mob wanted the union's help. A story in the Chicago Tribune recounts how Capone's political fixer, Murray "The Camel" Humphreys, went to Steve Sumner, the union leader of the Milk Wagon Drivers' Union Local 753, asking him to "lay low" so Meadowmoor could hire non-union workers to undercut the other dairies. Then, Sumner and his union drivers could protest Meadowmoor, which would give Meadowmoor reason to raise milk prices again. All of this was in exchange for the mob's protection, of course.

Sumner wanted no part of it. He declined the mob's security and said no to all their demands, which led to the beginning of Chicago's milk wars.

As one would expect, violence and intimidation was the order of business. Over an 18-month period, there were numerous bombings, dozens of windows smashed, damaged trucks, and drivers and vendors beaten.

Striking dairy farmers and drivers bombed Meadowmoor just after it opened in 1932. Undeterred, the dairy sold its milk at 9 cents a quart — 2 cents below the regular price at other distributors. Capone's mob also extorted New York pizzerias to use only Meadowmoor cheese.

As the battle raged between the unions, the mob, home milk delivery drivers and retail sellers, Sumner and the Milk Wagon Drivers' Union attempted to organize the companies and convert them to an employee wage system. But the Associated Milk Dealers refused and the dairy farmers continued to strike, even though the Supreme Court handed down injunctions against union picketing.

Meadowmoor dairy truck in the river
A milk delivery truck, owned by Meadowmoor Dairies, is seen after striking dairy farmers pushed it into a riverbed.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images


A Landmark Antitrust Settlement

Fast forward to November 1938 when a grand jury indicted 43 individuals with violating the Sherman Act for trying to fix the price of milk. Fourteen corporations and 43 people were indicted, including Sumner and several unions: the Milk Wagon Drivers' Union; the Associated Milk Dealers; the Pure Milk Association; and the Milk Dealers' Bottle Exchange. But not Capone's associates.

Eventually, in 1939, the antitrust case was thrown out by a district court judge but later reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court.


However, instead of going to trial, the Department of Justice offered the parties the option of signing a consent decree to agree to the following:

  • The farmers' organizations and unions pledged they wouldn't stop independent producers from marketing milk.
  • Distributors vowed to end price fixing.
  • The drivers' union promised not to hamper store sales of milk.

And thus, the milk wars officially ended in 1940.


Capone Wasn't Crying Over Spilled Milk

By now, Sumner was already voted out of his job as leader of the Milk Wagon Drivers' Union. He seemingly took it with grace by saying, "The young fellows wanted to move in, so we'll have to step out," as reported by the Chicago Tribune. Sumner died in 1946.

So, what about Capone and his direct connection to the Chicago milk wars? Most likely, there isn't much. White notes that both Al and his brother Ralph were in jail when it kicked off. And unlike Hollywood movies, it's unlikely they were pulling too many strings from behind bars.


Capone essentially "retired" from the mob after his imprisonment in 1931, but the Chicago crime syndicate he created continued under the leadership of several disciples like Mafia bosses Paul Ricca and Tony Accardo.

By the time Capone was released from Alcatraz in 1939, he had paresis from a severe case of syphilis that affected his mental and physical health. Doctors noted that he had the cognitive processes of a 12-year-old child. He never returned to Chicago and instead lived out his last years with his family at his Florida mansion, where he died in 1947. He was only 48.