Unions and Democracy

A Reply to Steve Fraser

Herman Benson

Steve Fraser has been a prime mover in rallying active public support for the labor movement among independent liberal intellectuals, that is, those who are not bound to unions by financial or organizational ties and are free to speak their minds. He took the lead in assembling the forty-one eminent authors, scholars, and educators who in 1995 called for "rebuilding the labor-intellectual alliance." The declaration inspired more than a thousand enthusiasts to attend a "teach-in" on labor at Columbia University in 1996, which was followed by similar gatherings in other universities. The group Fraser gathered has now become a full-fledged organization: Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ). For all this he deserves a full measure of credit; there s been nothing like it for decades.

These events are of exceptional significance symbolic and practical to our labor movement. Union activists find it heartening when even so mild a turn effected by John Sweeney, accompanied by great promises, can win the sympathies of writers and thinkers who begin to view the labor movement as a fresh force in American life for social justice. It is a sign of how powerful an impact a truly democratized and refurbished labor movement could make on the nation. Labor signifies potential power to intellectuals. Intellectuals bring to labor the kind of approval that it needs so urgently as it seeks to lift itself out of the doldrums. The social power of labor linked to the moral power of intellectuals can become a force to change the nation.

But nothing is perfect.

From the very outset, this new intellectual movement appeared to be diffident on the subject of internal union democracy, not hostile to the abstract principle of union democracy but uncomfortable with the advocacy of union democracy. The Fraser group s original draft declaration of 1995 omitted any reference to this delicate subject; the final draft ultimately gave union democracy a friendly tip of the hat, but this came only at the insistence of Arthur Schlesinger, who, as an old friend of Joe Rauh, was familiar with the long battles for reform in the Miners and the Steelworkers. At the time, this lapse seemed like an accidental oversight of no significance. Now, after Steve Fraser s piece in Dissent ("Is Democracy Good for Unions?," Summer 1998), we can t be so sure.

Our established labor officialdom, not entirely but on the whole, distrusts those who talk too earnestly about internal unio democracy and loathes unionists who campaign actively to strengthen it. The labor movement has a long way to go before the barriers to a robust union democracy are lifted. A delicate problem intrudes: is it possible for intellectuals to collaborate amicably and fruitfully with the leadership of the top labor movement on behalf of worthy causes and at the same time defend membership rights against abuse by that same leadership? It remains an open question, but leave that aside for the moment.

It would be unreasonable to insist that everyone in, around, or for the labor movement unfurl the flag of internal union democracy and ride away to right the world. Too many other things to do, too many other battles to fight. It takes many different people fighting on various fronts in distinctive ways for various causes to make up the battle for social justice and democracy.

So Fraser could have ignored the subject and still made his fine contribution to the cause, and good luck to him. However, at the request of Dissent, he raises the question, "Is Democracy Good for Unions?," a title perhaps chosen by the editors for its jazzy ring. His answer, if any, illustrates that the pro-labor intellectual s attitude toward union democracy can be worse than ambivalent, even depressing.

It is obvious through it all that Fraser distrusts union democracy. He certainly disparages it. After all, he tells us, despite the Teamsters reforms, Ron Carey turned sour, and a huge number of Teamsters will democratically vote for the unappetizing James Hoffa, Jr. After all, with democracy, workers sometimes vote to maintain racially exclusive hiring systems even against the advice of their leaders. After all, the great Walter Reuther could be a ruthless bureaucrat; after all, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers in its heyday "was often run without regard to formal democratic procedure." And more of the same is scattered throughout his essay.

This congeries of complaints, however, compiles the case not simply for the defects of union democracy, but of all democracy. Exercising their sovereign democratic rights, voters have been accused of doing the reprehensible. With your democracy, they chose Reagan and Nixon. Your Clinton turned sour. A huge section of the voting population tolerates racism, supports right-wing bigotry, authorizes the demeaning of families on welfare. With your democracy, we got the Vietnam War. And more of the same.

It takes an enormous leap on the flying rings to start from the inevitable shortcomings of democracy and end with an admiring respect for those who would dispense with that defective democracy. Fraser would surely be appalled if we suggested that some well-intentioned strongman take over in America. But for unions? That s another story.

Fraser revives a stock argument that has been traditionally used to justify repression inside unions. Unions, he notes, are "combat organizations imposing a solidaristic discipline with which to confront a centralized enemy utterly unconcerned with niceties of democratic procedure. Under such conditions, many union leaders secretly believe and practice what one of them openly confessed back in the 1920s: As a democracy no union would last six months. " He can t help expressing admiration for those tough-minded and tough-talking advocates; he even slips into the toughie language. "There are some trade union leaders today . . . utterly devoted to organizing, tactically creative, and militant . . . who ve achieved remarkable success against daunting odds in the South and elsewhere who don t care a rat s ass for union democracy . . . indeed consider it an actual hindrance. . . . From afar it s all too easy to declaim against this preoccupation. . . ."

Is he simply reporting facts or arguing for a point of view? It is not quite clear, but we get the drift of it. As we finish the twentieth century, with all we should have learned, must we still be reminded about those tough-minded idealists who will solve our problems by dispensing with democracy?

Arthur Goldberg, defending the practices of our old labor movement forty years ago, formulated the idea nicely: whe our nation is at war, we restrict democracy. Unions are eternally at war, therefore they must eternally limit internal democracy.

But unions are engaged in an odd sort of war. The moments of battle are interspersed with much longer periods of amicable armistice, extended truces, and collaboration with the enemy. Even collusion. Sometimes our officers end up on the payroll of the hated enemy. And there is this quintessential difference: when our country is at war, the danger of repression rises. At peace, the nation relaxes. Generally speaking, labor has this upside-down. In those long periods of peaceful relations with employers, bureaucracy is strengthened and restrictions on democracy intensify. But when labor is at war and workers are on strike, the hoops are loosened and the spirit of democracy revives.

Fraser s jaundiced philosophical view of union democracy is shaped by an oddly twisted view of history. For one thing, he doesn't like the Landrum Griffin Act.

Not quite unanimously, the labor establishment denounced the Landrum Griffin Act (LMRDA) as antilabor when it was first adopted in 1959 because, for the first time, it provided protection in federal law for the rights of members in their unions. Since then, however, their protestations have been muted because the experience of almost forty years has exploded their predictions of gloom and doom. Belatedly, Fraser revives their abandoned charge. Landrum Griffin, he writes, is "transparently antilabor."

Actually, the LMRDA has helped effect a sea change inside the labor movement. It has legitimized and strengthed democracy and legalized basic civil liberties in unions, protecting the rights of free speech, free press, the right to assemble, and fair elections for workers inside their unions. Protected by the provisions of federal law, miners were able to oust the murderers who ran their union; Teamsters were able to break the hold of organized crime over their national office; seamen were able to oust crooks from control of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots and of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association.

Before Landrum Griffin, members could be, and were, expelled for forming caucuses, for organized campaigning for union office, for suing in court or complaining to administrative agencies, for circulating petitions within their unions. They were routinely expelled for "slander" when they criticized their officials. All that is now illegal because of the Landrum Griffin Act. Union democracy is now legal, and even reluctantly accepted by the labor establishment.

But Fraser doesn t like the law because, those thirty-nine years ago, it was "muscled through" by congressmen who wanted to weaken labor. True, the coalition that put over the law was a mixed bag. Remember, however, that the basic provisions and principles of the law were first proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union. By now, however -- after thirty-nine years -- those motives and politics are as irrelevant as the mixed motives of those who muscled through the U.S. Constitution more than two hundred years ago. The law has not weakened the labor movement. It has strengthened the labor movement by strengthening union democracy.

Fraser seems to think that he is defending the labor movement when he writes, "This structural dynamic of American trade unionism accounts, in part at least, for why the crusade for union democracy seems interminable and interminably futile. The Association for Union Democracy, for example, has been waging the good fight for a half century; although there have been some highs, and especially some very grim lows [I m not sure which those were -- HB], in the end it would be hard to argue much has changed over that span."

If true, this would be the worst news about labor we ve heard in a long time. Does he really think that if those who strive for social justice and democracy in society are convinced by that dismal message they will flock with enthusiasm to the labor banner? But it is not true, it is totally false.

In the last forty years, there has been a proliferation of organized reform and insurgent activity throughout the labor movement. Victories in the Miners union and the Teamsters changed the balance of power in the labor movement. Sweeney and his colleagues did not create that movement for democracy and reform; they rode it into power.

No, the "crusade" for union democracy is not "futile," but one must yield to Fraser on one decisive point: it probably is "interminable." This qualilty, however, it shares with all crusades for democracy, decency, and social justice in society which, despite all progress, do seem interminable at least until the achievement of Utopia. Christian churches have been crusading for the brotherhood of man for two thousand years; but we still face Bosnia and Rwanda and the Holocaust. On a far more modest scale, Dissent has been crusading intellectually for social justice even longer than the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), but injustice remains.

Fraser employs the same kind of reasoning and exhibits the same condescension toward union democracy that led the old "house intellectuals," in pre-Sweeney days, to justify the bureaucratic practices of the old labor establishment. These intellectuals pleased labor leaders but lost credibility in the larger public and thereby dissipated even their own value to the labor movement.

It would be ironic if our new generation of intellectuals, in search of social justice, felt impelled by the needs of the "alliance" to serve our new labor leaders in the same spirit as the old. The founders of SAWSJ enjoy credibility and can inspire a new cadre of union activists because they are independent-minded and critical commentators. Meanwhile, there are good union loyalists who strive for more justice and democracy within the labor movment to make it more effective in the quest for democracy and justice in the nation. They deserve credit and recognition. It would be a sad day if the new labor-intellectual alliance began by belittling their efforts.


Herman Benson is the founder of the Association for Union Democracy and was its executive director of 20 years.

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