The Two Eyes of Union Democracy.

By Robert Fitch


In his dictionary political of terms that had lost all genuine meaning, George Orwell included “democracy.”  It belonged there, he said, alongside words like “Freedom, “Progressive” and “Justice” because it no longer conveyed anything definite, but merely signified a sense of approval.  Who profited from democracy’s meaning deficit? Not democrats.  Argued Orwell:  “The defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning.” [1]


If autocrats benefit from ambiguity, democrats gain from clarity. That’s why AUD’s Herman Benson deserves praise for making plain exactly what he is fighting for. “What is this union democracy, we keep talking about,” he asks in his political autobiography, “ is it bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy? People’s?  Social? Industrial? Economic democracy?” None of the above, he answers.  Benson declares for what he calls “democracy-democracy, that is the kind of rights written in the U.S. Constitution and into federal law in the LMRDA[2]: the right to free speech, free assembly, the right to free and fair elections, due process, the right to criticize officials. [3]


Benson is right. Democracy is not just casting votes and counting them up so that the candidate who gets the majority wins. Democracy is, at a bare minimum, a fair competition for votes.  If the rulers can take away the rights of their critics to speak and organize, if they can rig elections so the polls are hard to get to; open for only a few hours, as we see in the largest local of the city’s largest municipal union, then the incumbent can win with only 1.75% of the membership, and democracy is truly meaningless.[4]


But notwithstanding UNITE’s president Bruce Raynor, who reportedly insists that democracy isn’t worth “ a rat’s ass”, the transparency and accountability provided by a genuine democracy are worth a great deal. [5] Self-serving, nepotistic officials have less room for maneuver.  In a democratic union, Raynor couldn’t make his brother a six figure international vice president, while much of the membership fails to even earn the minimum wage. [6]


But if Benson justly insists on a regime that protects rights, he’s wrong to limit democracy to rights.  That’s not  “democracy democracy;” it’s just what we’ve come to settle for in America. The founding fathers couldn’t have made more plain their intent to make the U.S. a republic, not a democracy.  The Constitution was designed by them as a prophylactic against democracy -- by which they meant the unruly system of direct rule invented by the ancient Greeks.   According to Madison, democracy led to tumultuous battles between the propertied and the propertyless for control of the state. 


Madison’s formula for checking what he called “factions” and what later writers would call “class struggle” is ingenious but not democratic in the largest sense. He seeks simultaneously to preserve rights and liberties; but also to preserve America from that democracy whose  “turbulence and contention have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property. ”  [7]The founders’ solution is our still admirable Bill of Rights on one hand; but less admirably, a government expressly designed to prevent the majority from getting its way very easily or quickly:  dominated by disabling political speed bumps, moats, detours and dead ends known as judicial review; the electoral college; checks and balances, separation of powers; bicameralism; etc. [8]


French revolutionaries had a more expansive notion of democracy. Robespierre thought the model of ancient democracy unserviceable too. But unlike Madison, he upheld popular sovereignty:  “ A democracy,” he observed,” is a state where the sovereign people, guided by laws that are their work, do by themselves everything that they can do well, and by means of delegates everything that they cannot do themselves.” [9] Popular sovereignty means the people get to act; they exercise a “general will.”  For people to act together; to agree to rule and be ruled by each other, they have to feel they are a people. To struggle for the common interest they have to feel they have something in common.


In the French revolution, the logic of democracy reached a higher, more consistent stage.   In 1789, the Constituent Assembly proclaimed the Rights of Man. But in 1792, the Convention  went beyond liberty and equal rights, including “fraternity” among the regulative political ideals of the democratic revolution. Ever since, democracy’s meaning, for its most consistent advocates would be bound up with what we call now solidarity.


Our union democracy movement, I think, has more to learn from the binocular French democrats who fight for rights and solidarity than from one-eyed American republicans who proclaim rights; but fear popular sovereignty and ignore solidarity. Unions are organized for exactly the “factional” purposes Madison wants to short-circuit.  In brief, they’re established to promote class struggle.  Why would union democrats adopt a model that’s expressly designed to prevent what we seek?


Yes, a democratic regime establishes and protects rights.  But “democracy” can’t only mean safeguarding the rights of individuals and dissenters. Why do we want rights at all?  So we can define and acquire a fair share of collective goods.  Without the ability to achieve collective goods, though, of what value are rights?   Without the capacity to take actions that express a people’s collective will – in a word without broad-scale solidarity – there is no democracy.


Truly democratic labor movements promote solidarity -- feelings of compassion for and identity with fellow workers. But solidarity can’t remain just a sentiment. If there are no organizational means through which acts of solidarity can be channeled, you have the American labor movement. Arguably, the weakest, most fragmented and most susceptible to corruption in the advanced industrialized world.


The older generation of American labor historians has created a large literature devoted to overlooking this fact – celebrating the exceptional movements of the1930’s, concentrating on the world of work and culture, but ignoring how American unions came to play so sorry a role, or how conceivably they could be turned around.  To the extent these questions ever get addressed, the mainstream labor left, echoing the labor leadership, explains weakness in purely external terms: the limits placed on union activity by federal law; media bias; aggressive employers.  Against the slow-moving and brackish current, the UD movement had made a lonely case for a connection between labor’s striking lack of affect and its profound democratic deficit.


Since WWII, the voices of union democracy movement have been drowned out by the most authoritative figures in the labor intelligentsia. They either deny a democracy deficit, or say that it will take care of itself, or while acknowledging a it as a crippling problem, offer no remedy. Richard Freeman and James Medoff exemplify the first position: denial. According to them unions are profoundly democratic; and they have the polls to prove it.[10]  C. Wright Mills, by contrast, says unions are largely undemocratic, but that comes the next economic downturn, the workers will regain their voice. [11] That was in 1946. Much later, in State of the Union,  (2002) Nelson Lichtenstein describes the U.S. labor movement as made up of thousands of little “job trusts” whose leaders are threatened by democratization, and he insists further, that without democratization, “the union movement will remain a shell.”[12]Yet, in his chapter entitled “What is to be done”, Lichtenstein doesn’t say what is to be done.


By contrast Herman Benson, has not only provided a powerful account of union autocracy and its consequences, he’s also presented a clear and distinct reform program: the implement the LMRDA.  AUD’s strategy of combining bottom up efforts by dissidents with top-down efforts of prosecutors has been carried out in more than a couple of dozen union cases, by Benson’s reckoning – including the Laborers, the Teamsters the Miners, Carpenters and the Plumbers.


Still, in 2006, on his union democracy log, Benson says he finds the results “disappointing.” It’s hard to  find a single union where truly democratic, participatory culture has really taken hold.  On the contrary, to the extent there is any political momentum within organized labor , it’s in another direction, the local  job trusts are giving way to more centralized and bureaucratic control.


Where are the rank-and-file members? As Jim Jacobs demonstrates, the battle to liberate the unions from organized crime control has been largely a top down struggle waged by Republican prosecutors from Tom Dewey to Rudy Giuliani.  And even today, Jacobs observes, Cosa Nostra supported officials still win more elections than they lose.  The blame can’t be entirely shouldered by coercive leaders.  The truth  -- rarely discussed in union democracy circles  -- is that a lot of members – a decisive number so far  --don’t want to be liberated.  The problem is not just a stratum of greedy, corrupt leaders, as Lichtenstein suggests, but a wider stratum of workers who depend upon those leaders for steady, high paid work.


It’s not enough to acknowledge that unions tend to take the form of corrupt, undemocratic machines. We have to ask “why?”  Why does the members’ loyalty to the business agent trump their desire to exercise democratic rights; why does the desire for protection exceed the aspiration for freedom.


The answer is that you can change the rules, but giving members rights won’t change the system unless you also change the relations that tie members to the leaders, and the leaders to the employers.   The system has to be seen as a whole.  The democracy deficit can’t be explained solely in terms of a lack of rights;  the lack of rights rests rather on pillars of exclusion and coercion.  These pillars in turn arise from a foundation of monopoly.


If the big error of labor progressives is to overlook union autocracy, the biggest error of union democrats has been a tendency to overlook the economic foundations of autocracy. How to explain why unionized longshore workers earn $110,000 a year; while non-unionized port workers earn as little as $50 a day.  Doesn’t exclusion have a lot to do with it?  Is it just an accident that the ILWU hasn’t gotten around to organizing these workers?  It’s simply not possible to organize all the workers so that they earn $110,000 yearly. To think otherwise is to live in Lake Woebegon where all the children are above average.



Huge, but unacknowledged political consequences flow from acknowledging that much wage inequality in America is union made.  It’s hard to create a political regime that treats members as political equals if the union is organized around the need to protect economic inequality.  It’s hard to create a regime of solidarity if the whole point is to create a separate fiefdom of well-paid workers.


Coercion, like exclusion follows from monopoly foundations. Without making membership involuntary, exclusive bargaining relations would be impossible, and without exclusive bargaining relations the union can’t enforce its monopoly over the jurisdiction.


Lest I be accused of originality, let me acknowledge John Stuart Mill one of the first socialists to write about the economics of trade unions.   In the early stages of capitalism, he observed, in the 1862 edition of Principles of Political Economy, only a few skilled workers can raise their pay above subsistence. Now, he argued, with the advent of industrial capitalism,   “it is time that the better paid classes of skilled artisans should seek their own advantage in common with, and not be the exclusion of their fellow laborers. While they continue to fix their hopes on hedging themselves in against competition and protecting their own wages by shutting out others from access to their employment, nothing better can be expected from them that that total absence of any large and generous aims, that almost open disregard of all other objects than high wages and little work for their own small body, which were so deplorably evident in the proceedings and conferences of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers …Success, even if attainable, in raising up a protected class of working people, would now be a hindrance, instead of a help to the emancipation of the working classes at large.” [13]


ASE did change. Inspired by Mill on unions and socialism,  young Tom Mann  grew up to head the ASE. He was inspired to lead a fight  for “new unions.”  The support of the ASE was vital to success of unskilled workers in the   Gas Workers and General Laborers Union although FE credits ASE’s swing to political work of Marx’s daughter.


Even more powerful movements of the new unions swept across Europe. But despite the efforts of the KL, the IWW and the early CIO, the U.S. has stood pat with the fiefdom model. It’s one way of distinguishing American labor movement from others in the advanced industrialized world. Other countries have general strikes – in an industry; in a community; even in the country as a whole – but such actions are exceedingly rare at the industrial and community level in the U.S. and non-existent at the national level. The last truly general strike in this country took place in 1877 – before the founding of the AFL.  Big Bill Haywood, a co-founder of the I.W.W. explained why almost a century ago in terms that still resonate:


“The A.F. of L. couldn’t have a general strike if they wanted to, “he pointed out to an audience in a 1911 speech,” they are not organized for a general strike. They have 27,000 different agreements that expire 27,000 different minutes of the year. They will either have to break all of those sacred contracts or there is no such thing as a general strike in that so-called ‘labor organization.’ I said ‘so-called’, I say so advisedly. It is not a labor organization it is simply a combination of job trusts.”


Since Haywood’s time we’ve come down to about 20,000 locals. But collective action regularly fails in much the same way as during the Wobbly era. It’s important to see why.


Outside the classic AFL job control unions, there are thousands of locals where the problem is not democracy in the sense of lack of rights. Nor is it blatant corruption. There are no wiseguys intimidating members. Oppositionists put up their websites. There are free and fair elections. Majorities rule.  Lack of democracy takes the form of a debilitating solidarity deficit which guarantees failure to achieve collective action.  Our unions don’t support each other.  They don’t support each other because the entire system is organized around the principle of jurisdictional sovereignty.


Locals of the same union, in different parts of the country, who have the same employer don’t back each others’ strikes.  In 2004, 59,000 southern California grocery workers lost an heroic four month strike in part because local UFCW leaders couldn’t stop squabbling;[14]; and in part because the national grocery chains being struck in southern California were able to operate freely in the rest of the country even as their UFCW contracts expired.  When UFCW members returned to work, it was under worse terms than they’d rejected to go on strike.


International unions in the same industry don’t support each other.  Airline unions celebrated the 25th anniversary of the PATCO disaster by performing the same old rituals of competitive hostility.  IAM which appears to hate its rival AFMA more than any employer, crossed AMFA’s picket lines and signed up “replacement workers” hired by NWA. The IAM stood out, but none of the other unions supported AMFA either.  Not that they wound up with terms much better than those offered AFMA.


Then there was disappointing outcome of last year’s transit strike.  Among the city unions TWU Local 100 has an unmatched tradition of militance. Leaders who simply try to “manage discontent” don’t last long. The membership has been unique in its willingness to defy no strike laws.  But the 36 hour December 2005 strike carried out by the 26,000 member local, shows that militance on the part of the strongest local with immense economic leverage is not enough. After a promising start, backed by a majority of the riding public, strikers were ordered back to work by a leadership under pressure not just from the MTA, the Mayor and the media,; but from the president of their own international union and a united front of top city union leaders who helped persuade TWU president Roger Toussaint to end the strike. [15]  The transit workers went back without a contract; the contract offered by the MTA was narrowly voted down; nearly a year after the original contract expired, the members are still without a contract.


The transit strike demanded city-wide solidarity. The NWA strike and the Grocery strike required unions to act in concert in one industry on a national level. The NYU grad students strike that ended a few weeks ago illustrates,the problem American unions have in achieving collective action even on one campus.


This strike was no war of choice. About a thousand grad students, represented by UAW Local 2110,  went out in the fall semester of 2005 because  the University, buoyed by a favorable ruling by the NLRB, opted not to renew their contract. Since American unionism revolves almost entirely around the contract, refusal to bargain is tantamount to the elimination of the union. If an employer can unilaterally proclaim a union’s death sentence, the implications extended well beyond the 2900 member UAW local. Most immediately Local 7902 of the UAW – the adjuncts unions – located in the same building on University Place. The adjuncts had been able to get a contract from NYU in the wake of the GSOC’s recognition victory.  If the university could dissolve the grad students’ bargaining unit, why not the adjuncts?   Then, too NYU’s move challenged the UAW’s whole campaign  to re-invent itself by securing a foothold on the nation’s campuses.  Finally, the more established academic unions – the AFT –and the AAUP could scarcely ignore such a peremptory challenge either.


No wonder there was such an outpouring of support of national and even international support.  Brazil’s Lula da Silva cancelled a campus appearance. So did Spain’s premier Zapatero and Argentina’s Nelson Kirchner.  America’s most powerful labor leaders joined by top Democratic party officials flocked to the NYU campus to show solidarity. .  In August, there was mass civil disobedience, 76 were arrested including John Sweeney.  A few months later, top labor luminaries returned, with  Sweeney now joined by Internaitonal  UAW president Ron Gettelfinger. “They cannot break up the unions, they can not take away bargaining rights — not in the United States, but especially not in New York City,” Sweeney said, eliciting a thunder of applause. “After all, New York is still a union town.”[16]


 By fall 2006, though, the grad students were back to work without contract.  The job action didn’t fail because of lack of democracy. . There was no betrayal by a self-serving, bureaucratic leadership.  The defeat couldn’t be pinned on the modestly paid president, Maida Rosenstein.




Ultimately the grad students lost because they represented only a small fraction of NYU’s 16,000 employees and fellow campus workers – from star professors to mail handlers – offered only symbolic support.  Local 2110 members by themselves simply lacked the muscle to hurt the boss when they threw their punch.  Of NYU’s 2,700 courses being taught in the fall semester, only 165 used graduate student instructors. And labor support for the strike varied inversely with the distance from the campus. The speech acts of  celebrity labor figures like Lula and  Sweeney couldn’t compensate for the lack of direct action. Led by renowned postmodernist Andrew Ross, two hundred sympathetic faculty – about 5% of the faculty -- established something called Faculty Democracy. They agreed to hold classes off campus. The progressive interpretation was that they were participating in the strike.  But a class held off campus is still a class.  And the other unionized instructors went on with their business too.  About 1300 adjuncts, also represented by the UAW kept working. The head of adjuncts union --- explained, that his members had to teach because of a no-strike clause in their contract.  He was joined by the head of security guards union who explained that their contract forbid even attendance at rallies. “Theoretically, we’re supposed to be the security for the university, so we’re limited in what we can do,” Mike Pidoto told the Washington Square News, “Of course, I always wish I could do more. Sometimes your hands are tied though.”[17]


French Lessons.  While the U.S. labor movement acted out its historic penchant for self-destruction in small spaces, the victory of a nation-wide French labor-student alliance last spring over the so-called First Labor Contract shows that another union world is possible.  U.S. labor experts disparage French unions – the share of dues-paying members, they point out is even lower than in the U.S.; and with nearly empty treasuries they lack a professional staff skilled in political analysis. [18]The CGT, France’s largest union, took in a little over $3 million last year in voluntary subscriptions.  By comparison, in 2003, the NYU graduate student’s union collected nearly $2 million through the automatic dues check-off system.


But the five major French unions – together with the student union UNEF – displayed powers far beyond what our cash laden, but solidarity poor unions could muster.    For one thing, French unions can initiate and sustain a vast, militant and decisive social movement. One capable of putting millions in the streets; shutting down public facilities and transportation, swaying popular opinion and finally reversing the action of the state.


Conservative premier Dominque de Villepin claimed to be responding to high youth unemployment and the 2005 summer riots when he drafted a law that would have allowed French employers to hire young French workers under contracts that gave no protection against arbitrary firing.


From this side of the Atlantic it was hard to see what the problem was.  The law would have simply brought a small sector of the French working class under the rule which 88% of American workers already accept without giving it much thought: employment at will. “You’re lucky to have a job,” they’re told. Many believe it. What choice do they have?  But the French reject as a matter of principle. They can afford to have principles, because they have institutions that support them. CGT boss Bernard Thibault described the anti-CPE struggle as a battle against precarite.


So often in the U.S. strikes that begin with optimism,  a sense of justsice and a conviction that the union can prevail by staying out “one day longer” peter out after the first  missed pay check.   In France, students, joined by workers – from CGT- ete al. Were  able  to mount a movement that gained strength, as time went on, rather rather than pettered ou.  UNEF shut down 64 universities across the country – three quarters of all the institutions of higher learning in the country.  The union alliance issued  an ultimatum demanding that  the government withdraw the law before April 15th.  On the 13th government reversed itself and withdrew the CPE. 


It’s hard to imagine a world in which John Sweeney could issue a similar ultimatum or Bush paying any attention to it.   Even though Sweeney presides over a budget 50 times larger than the CGT’s, his resources are not fungible. He can’t turn transform his per capita tax money into social movement currency. Sweeney can’t turn out millions of determined people; when he comes to a demonstration, he brings only his paid staffers and can only offer himself for a symbolic arrest.


What explains the French-American labor divide?  “The culture,” explains one labor expert.  It goes all the way back to the French revolution.” Perhaps, in some general way it does, but culture can’t survive long unless it’s continually reproduced by institutions. And French and American labor institutions reproduce different types of working class culture.


In Europe, not that many officials get paid; and those who do aren’t paid much. Labor leaders across the Atlantic tend to live for the labor movement rather than off it.  Their aims are constrained by institutional rules: membership in French unions is voluntary; dues are voluntary; There are no exclusive bargaining relations workers vote for union of their choice in elections for workers’ councils.. To get elected, labor politicians need to make broad appeals to wide strata of workers, instead of targeted appeals to selected retainers.  Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between power to tax and the power to build a social movement.


Conclusion.  Union leaders dismiss it as not worth a rodent’s tush; pollsters don’t even bother to include it in a list of national concerns; outside of New York no organization exists to promote it as a cause.  But union democracy still belongs at the top of any national agenda if the main drift towards plutocracy is to be stopped.


That’s why it’s so important to envision democracy with both eyes.  It means rights. But it also means agency: the ability of the agent to act. Democracy means negative freedom: freedom from coercion; but it also means positive freedom: the ability to realize a purpose.


American workers can’t act to realize a common purpose within the present fiefdom model of unionism.  In part because a stratum of workers is tied to existing undemocratic unions with golden manacles; in part because the fiefdoms subdivide workers from each other by thousands of moats called “contracts.” Exclusionary drawbridges further isolate the workers who get protection of the contract from those subject to employment at will.


How practically, do we get from the one-eyed Madisonian view to the binocular French optic that sees  democracy  in terms of solidarity as well as freedom and equality?  The fight for rights inside traditional American unions must continue. But we need in addition, new unions that build on the economic insights  of our wisest democratic socialists  – like John Stuart Mill; on the organizational principles upheld by our boldest American union leaders like Big Bill Haywood; and on the social movement building actions of the most advanced labor movements of the present period like the French anti- CPE movement  What they all teach us is to dry up those moats; take down those drawbridges; create a union democracy movement based on both rights and solidarity.




[1] George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946.

[2] The Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.  (“Landrum Griffin”)

[3] RRR, 189

[4] UDR, August-September, 2003.

[5] Steven Fraser, “Is Democracy Good for Unions?” Dissent, 1998, Volume 48. NO.3.

[6] LM-2 000-381 May 5, 2004, p.8. In UNITE’s last filing, Harris Raynor’s total compensation reached $138,182.

[7] James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers. (1788)) No. 10. New York: Penguin Books, 1987), 126.

[8] The  most illuminating, gripping and fog-clearing guide to our Constitutional contretemps is  Daniel Lazare’s Frozen Republic.

[9] In James Miller, Rousseau: Dreamer of Democracy, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984),157-158.

[10] What Do Unions Do. (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 207-209.

[11] The New Men of Power, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, (1948. repr 2001), 67.

[12] Nelson Lichtenstein, State of the Union. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), 274

[13] John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy.(Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004), 852.

[14] Once literally fighting with each other over a microphone.

[15] Steven Greenhouse, “Strike Ends: End Game, New York Times, December 23, 2005.


[16] Daniel Bogdanov,” Top Unions Rally with GSOC, Washington Square News, December 5, 2005. According to one report, mail service employees – who belong to the security guards union -- were even forbidden to honk in support of the union.


[17] Barbara Leonard, “Other NYU unions back GSOC,” Washington Square News, November 5, 2005.

[18] See for example, Herrick Chapman, Mark Kesselmann and Martin Schlein, (eds.) A Century of Organized labor in France, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

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