Riesel was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the oldest child of a Jewish garment-working family. He had a sister and a half brother. His father, Nathan Riesel, led a small Manhattan union of skilled embroiderers and impressed upon Riesel the importance of unionism and the need to keep mobsters out. As a youngster Riesel witnessed numerous demonstrations and violent strikes, including incidents in which his father was beaten by thugs over control of the union.
While still attending Morris High School in the Bronx, Riesel began writing articles on labor matters in the United States and offering them for publication to overseas English-language newspapers. Following graduation at age fifteen in 1928, he took night classes in personnel and industrial relations at City College of New York, receiving his B.A. degree in 1940. During the 1930s, to pay for his education, he worked at a variety of jobs, including at a hat factory, a lace plant, and a steel mill. He also traveled through the industrial Midwest, taking jobs in mines and mills and reporting on labor conditions to newspapers in New York City and overseas. A wiry bantamweight, Riesel consistently stood up for “the little guy” against perceived exploitation.
Riesel’s politics during this period were left of center. While vehemently opposed to communism, he supported the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) and wrote in support of strongly pro—New Deal political candidates. As a result, while still taking classes at City College in 1939, he joined the staff of the left-wing New Leader, published in New York City. He wrote a column called “Heard on the Left,” which assailed totalitarianism overseas and home-grown fascists of the Father Charles Coughlin school. Riesel briefly served as the managing editor for the New Leader before leaving to join the staff of the New York Post, then pro-New Deal, in 1942. His labor column in the Post, entitled “Inside Labor,” ran six times a week and was syndicated to like-minded newspapers throughout the country. By this time he was married to Evelyn Lobelson; they had two children.
Following World War II, Riesel’s politics began a shift to the right that continued for the rest of his life. In 1945 he left the Post and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Daily Mirror, taking his column with him. Access to the Hearst syndicate made Riesel’s column nationally known, reprinted in more than 100 newspapers. His column hammered away at the presence of two perceived evils in the labor movement—communism and racketeers. His previous anticommunism became increasingly strident as the country entered the cold war and as the second red scare of the postwar period forced labor leaders to eschew support from communists and other left-wing organizers. Riesel’s devoted anticommunism found him strong allies at high levels of power. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, regularly fed “scoops” to Riesel that were mutually beneficial.
Antiracketeering, however, was a newer theme in Riesel’s writing, probably spurred by the death of his father in 1946. Riesel always attributed his father’s death to compounded injuries suffered at the hands of thugs trying to wrest control of his father’s union. As several major national unions were rocked by scandals in the 1950s, most notably the Teamsters and the International Longshoremen’s Association, Riesel used his newspaper column and appearances on radio and television programs to assail the presence of organized crime in the labor movement.
Riesel’s antiracketeering crusade apparently led to the most tragic incident in his career. In the early morning hours of 5 April 1956 an assailant threw acid in Riesel’s face. While eventually able to make out dim shapes, Riesel never regained his sight. His assailant was later found murdered, and even though some co-conspirators were jailed, the intention behind the attack remained somewhat murky. The blinding incident created a national uproar and was the catalyst for the Senate investigation of racketeering in labor, beginning in 1957, from which the committee counsel Robert F. Kennedy made his assault on the Teamsters. Riesel’s column was also more widely syndicated after the assault, reaching about 300 newspapers at its peak in the early 1960s, by which time it appeared five times a week.
After he was blinded, Riesel was chauffeured to and from his office and speaking engagements, and he continued to produce his column six days a week. Most of his work was done by telephone, after his wife or assistants read him the morning papers. He would call numerous contacts in government and labor and then type his column himself in the afternoon, which was fact-checked and typo corrected by his assistants.
Riesel continued to attack communism and labor racketeering until his retirement in 1990. He also served as an unofficial adviser on labor matters to the Republican presidents Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Traveling extensively, even after the acid attack, Riesel was president of the Overseas Press Club of America from 1966 to 1980. He received numerous awards for journalistic excellence, including the Associated Press Editors Award for the fight for a free press. He was the second recipient of the Samuel Gompers Award and also received the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Greatest Living American Award. He died of a heart attack at the age of eighty-one and is buried in New Jersey.
For several decades after World War II, Riesel was the nation’s best-known voice on labor matters. His syndicated column reached an estimated 23 million Americans, and his appearances, in his trademark dark glasses, on popular television programs like Meet the Press made his views widely circulated. His prose style was well suited to the short form of the daily column. He combined an eye for the personal anecdote that illuminated a larger issue with a zealot’s focus on his main crusade, to rid labor unions of racketeers and communists. For many Americans, his stories were all they knew about labor unions. Consequently, he perhaps unwittingly contributed to the declining public favor for the labor movement in the cold war era. By the same token, his constant attacks on corrupt practices led to external government investigations as well as internal union housecleaning to the benefit of hundreds of thousands of union dues payers.
Riesel’s personal papers are at the Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives of New York University. An obituary is in the New York Times (5 Jan. 1995).