Is Democracy Good for Unions?

Steve Fraser

Ron carey s recent downfall as head of the Teamsters Union carried with it genuine overtones of tragedy. His ascension to the presidency some years ago seemed just reward for his own incorruptible dedication to the rank and file and for the indefatigable efforts of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which contributed immeasurably to his rise. Then came the stirring victory over United Parcel Service last summer, an inspiration to all who look to a resurgent labor movement to help prevent the final "incorporation of America." A victory for democracy inside the country s most notoriously corrupt union had led, or so it seemed, to a victory for democracy for all. So when it turned out that Carey was going down, implicated in, of all things, a scam to manipulate his re-election through the misappropriation of union funds, it was dispiriting news indeed.

But this scandal is also a reminder that union democracy has been, for nearly a century, a quixotic crusade pursued, oddly enough, with comparable fervor and little success by both right and left. Today, Ron Carey s disgrace provokes as much lamentation in the columns of the Wall Street Journal as it does in the slimmer pages of New Politics, both journals saddened and outraged by yet another defeat for the cause of union democracy. This dirge has been heard before . . . and even before that. Already by the turn of the century, Daniel DeLeon, Socialist Labor Party and HREF="http://www.iww.org">Industrial Workers of the World founder, had skewered the conventional trade union leader as a "hopelessly gangrened" appendage of the capitalist octopus. Such functionaries were in his eyes inherently corrupt, ruling their fiefdoms much like machine politicians, without any regard for the democratic desires of their constituents. They were, in a word, "traitors." This became an article of faith for assorted left-wing socialists, anarchists, and syndicalists. In some form it remains so to his day, encouraging among a diminished circle of left-wing trade union activists a sense of their own righteousness.

Echoing across the great social divide, the voices of business lobbyists, conservative politicians, and establishment journalists mimicked DeLeon s. Early in this century, anthracite coal barons took up the cause of union democracy, complaining that "the voice of the great majority of the rank and file of the miners . . . can only make itself felt through a more democratic management of the union." Union leaders were "autocratic" and "corrupt" "bosses" who needed to be unhorsed by the secret ballot and guarantees of freedom of expression and majority rule. During World War II, when the reputation and political weight of the trade union movement was in the ascendant, labor s congressional enemies mounted oblique attacks by citing union violations of democratic procedure. This salient became the dominant one in the managerial counterrevolution that immediately followed the war.Taft-Hartley began and Landrum-Griffin concluded, a decade later, a legislative effort whose ostensible purpose was to democratize trade unionism, but whose unspoken agenda was to reverse the balance of power between business and labor established during the New Deal. Today, Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan conducts hearings to ventilate the right wing s concern with the lack of democracy in the Teamsters and other unions, and to promote the Paycheck Protection Act. Worried that for the first time in a quarter century the labor movement might be recovering just a bit of its wasted political muscle, the act would require individual workers to agree to the political deployment of their dues money. Making it more difficult than it already is for unions to take decisive political action, it s a piece of pure legislative hypocrisy promoted as a democratic reform to "give workers a say."

So it s been: union democracy cherished by the left as the passway to social emancipation; discovered by the right as the passway to social counterrevolution. On the Waterfront was an ecumenical docudrama with enough meat on the bone to satisfy everyone: Catholic activists, trade union militants, good-government bureaucrats, responsible businesspeople, the whole family of upstanding citizens. This convergence should not obscure certain contrary elemental truths. First of all and most obviously, the motives of left and right crusaders for union democracy could not be more at odds. Clearly, in the case of the latter we are in the presence of a calculated cynicism. The clusters of Republican congresspeople and corporate flacks who staffed, testified before, and applauded the 1957 McClellan Senate committee hearings into union racketeering (five of the eight senators were from right-to-work states) and who muscled through the Landrum-Griffin Act (otherwise known as the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959) were about as interested in fostering "labor reform" and the democratic rights of the rank and file as King Leopold was in fostering humanitarian good works on the rubber and ivory plantations of the Belgian Congo. If union democracy appealed to them at all, it did so because they thought it might weaken the internal unity and resolve of trade unions. It is hardly a coincidence that Landrum-Griffin was passed during the 116-day steel strike the longest industry shutdown ever.

Partisans of union democracy from the left, on the other hand, were and are motivated by a genuine commitment to one or another version of social democracy, a commitment that can be moral, strategic, or both. For the most zealous, union democracy can become a consuming preoccupation, effacing all other considerations, assuming mythic stature. But even then its disciples redeem themselves by a dedication to the disempowered that exposes the sanctimonious cant of faux union democrats on the right.

So, too, the passions aroused by union democracy on the left and right do not cancel each other out, rendering the issue moot. All sorts of trade unions at various times and in a great variety of indstries have been hopelessly corrupt and autocratically run, ready to resort to everything from the quiet, if systematic, misappropriation and looting of rank-and-file dues money to the most brutal repression of internal dissent. Nor, for that matter, are corruption and autocracy inevitably joined at the hip: Jimmy Hoffa (the disappeared one) meticulously observed all the provisions of Landrum-Griffin; Walter Reuther, who could rise to heights of imperial ruthlessness in dealing with his opponents, was the soul of rectitude when it came to conducting the business affairs of the United Auto Workers (UAW). No, union democracy, or rather its absence, is an all-too-chronic conundrum. Its persistence lends moral and political legitimacy even to such legal remedies as Landrum-Griffin, whose provenance is otherwise so transparently antilabor.

And yet it is also the case that there is no other voluntary, mass organization in America subject to the same intense scrutiny of its internal life, so regularly inspected, interrogated, and indicted with regard to how closely it conforms to democratic norms of conduct. Neck deep in its own failures and betrayals, corruptions and bad faith, the American trade union nonetheless survives on the barren landscape of civil society as a great, if battered, multicultural institution embracing the powerless and disenfrancised; one of a precious few actually capable of challenging the power and privilege of the country s business and political elites. If there is no democracy within unions, there is no democracy without them.

Evolved to cohabit a modern world of complex, bureaucratic organization, the trade union is as far from the vanished and much mythologized world of guild democracy as today s hollowed-out mass political parties and administrative state agencies are from the equally sentimentalized world of participatory village democracy. To decry that leads nowhere. Moreover, unions, unlike other popular formations, are compelled to assume multiple and not always compatible roles: as vehicles of democratic expression and mobilization, as a kind of diplomatic corps engaged in closeted negotiation, as 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."

That inherent functional tension is heightened by the peculiarities of American political and industrial history. The labor movement s failure to form political institutions of its own (a labor or social democratic party of some description) and its inability or unwillingness to erect a system of industry-wide bargaining, have left trade unions to bear multiple burdens. They must function as private welfare states in lieu of government supports, which even at their most generous were hardly generous at all. Sitting atop a large stash of cash in the form of pension and other benefits is not only a temptation in the crudest sense. It is as well an alluring source of influence, opening up the back channels of power and high finance to people hardly accustomed to such access. Unions must function as well like more or less autonomous political deal makers. Because no "labor party" consistently looks after its broader interests, each union is, in many instances, left to fend for itself, its leaders wheeling and dealing with local power brokers. Such political understandings may be necessary and fair or they may not be. But in any event they can be dangerous intoxicants for the bureaucrats who negotiate them, especially because they know they re not accountable in the way they might be for more formal agreements entered into by a political party. Finally, because industry-wide or regional bargaining is such a rarity in the United States, unions too often find themselves competing against one another. Such internecine competition invites corrupt dealings with businesses always looking for an edge. All in all, union bureaucrats are presented with proliferating incentives to hold onto power and opportunites to enrich themselves well beyond what might bedefined as "normal." 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, in the end it would be hard to argue much has changed over that span.

Even though American unions have consistently shied away from establishing a political existence of their own, critics have tended to treat unions as if they were incipient labor parties. They implicitly demand of the former beliefs, principles, and programmatic platforms only reasonable to expect of social democratic political formations. Since, however, they are trade unions, they consistently disappoint. So, for example, when it comes to the labor market, trade unions are natural monopolists prone to defend the interests and express the democratic will of their existing members by excluding others; in America that has meant (and in an alarming number of instances continues to mean) immigrants, blacks, and women. And the question of union democracy is made even murkier by the undeniable record of some union leaders taking the initiative to end exclusionary practices only to be democratically repudiated by a rank and file jealous of its privileges. Similarly, what s often passed over in all the hand-wringing about the Teamster situation is that Jimmy Hoffa (the live one) enjoyed widespread support, nearly enough to win the election, even before it was known that Ron Carey had made his pact with the devil. Indeed, there would have been no devilish pact to begin with had not a worrying percentage of the rank and file displayed its pro-Hoffa sentiments. That, too, is a less attractive face of union democracy, which won t go away by demonizing Hoffa.

Allegorical depictions of the struggle for union democracy depend on a fanciful and ahistorical polarity between a virginal rank and file and a venal bureaucracy. If anything good happens, its source can always be found deep in the soil where the grass roots grow. And if things don t turn out as wished, if the ranks recede and fall silent, there s always a bureaucrat around to blame.

This simple tale of betrayal has been told over and over again, reaching a kind of tragic grandeur as an explanation for the rise and then the sad demise of the CIO as an insurgent force in American life. And it is undeniable that many unions degenerated in just this way, presided over by incompetents, crooks, petty tyrants, or just plain timeservers whose ties to the workaday world of their "clients" had gone extinct. But whatever truth this larger folklore may contain and clearly there is some it effaces a more complex historical logic. Whether in the case of the CIO or in other instances of genuine democratic labor insurgency, the hated bureaucracy emerges again and again as an outgrowth of the upheaval from below. The rank and file is complicit in the creation of the bureaucracy; the bureaucracy is its legitimate offspring, at least in the case of strong CIO-like upheavals. A powerful bureaucracy often signals the strength of its anonymous creators down below. The fact that they were able to fashion an institution capable of standing up to an enemy whose overlordship went unquestioned for so long is an accomplishment, not a mistake or failing.

Frequently formed under beleaguered conditions, it s hardly a surprise the union executive is vested with extraordinary powers, not dissimilar to a nation under siege and prone to the same suspension of full democratic liberties. (After all, the union shop is a kind of compulsory form of solidarity.) Except that in America there s hardly ever a truce, much lss a lasting peace, in the war against unions. Union functionaries, certainly in the formative period and sometimes well beyond that, are themselves the most combat-hardened, articulate, politically alert, and devoted of democratic activists. In a word, especially when the bureaucracy arises amidst the Sturm and Drang of industrial warfare, it represents not the worst but the best the movement has to offer.

The amalgamated clothing workers (ACW), a union about whose history I ve written, pioneered in democratizing industrial relations in an industry notorious for its wild disregard for the needs and rights of its workforce. Before unemployment insurance and subsidized housing became public policy, the Amalgamated had established these democratic reforms in its own domain. And the internal life of the union, at the local level and sometimes beyond, was lively and contentious. Its bureaucracy was largely, although certainly not exclusively, peopled by veteran activists, a sizeable percentage committed social revolutionaries of one sort or another. Yet there is no question the union was often run without regard to formal democratic procedure. What was colloquially known as "the activity," an informal cluster of the most tested and trusted cadre, made key strategic and even lesser decisions. And they were not shy about thwarting the will of local majorities. So they might act to curb the appetites of powerful groups of skilled cutters or to censor factional opponents in ways not prescribed by the union s bylaws. When, to cite an admittedly extreme case, pro-fascist sentiment swelled inside certain Italian locals during the late 1920s and 1930s, the "activity" made sure this noxious voice was silenced. The UAW was a similar case. The fruit of mass upheaval, staffed by cadre with unimpeachable credentials, famous for its freewheeling internal debates, like the ACW an innovator in democratic social reform, and led by a man who might be characterized as a union ascetic, the UAW bureaucracy, under Reuther s command, could also be ruthless in pursuit of its own objectives. The UAW was a one-party state whose challengers, when they dared to raise their heads, might just as readily find themselves in trusteeship as campaigning for election.

From the time of DeLeon and continuing into the late 1960s with the eruption of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and related movements of black workers, internal dissent against union leaders often carried with it a social charge, the explicit promise that the struggle for democracy inside the house of labor was part of the broader confrontation with capitalism and social injustice. Union democracy thereby became a cause attracting the attention of the wider progressive community. That is scarcely the case today. Red purges and Republican-instigated investigations into "labor racketeering" have left behind an unsavory aroma. Together they ve made union democracy the official business of the government. Conservatives feel comfortable with that because they re always able to overcome their qualms about government interference so long as the state s punitive gaze is directed at the enemies of good business and good order. But across the aisle the role of the government in labor matters is viewed more suspiciously. Whatever the past machinations of Stalinists within the labor movement, it is hard to ignore the high hypocrisy that justified the government s intimidating campaign to excise them from the CIO; anticommunist affidavits and star-chamber excommunications were all about crippling the labor movement, not about saving the CIO for democracy. And whatever the truth about criminal infiltration of trade unions and it was considerable the image of "labor bossism" with which it was deliberately conflated was more a publicist s poison arrow than it was an antidote for union autocracy. Only the most dogged persistence by union oppositionists, as for example in the case of the long campaign in the sixties to unseat the David McDonald gang running the Steelworkers, succeeded; and it did so in spite of, as much as because of, the presence of Landrum-Griffin monitors from the Labor Department.

So, too, today the government s own views and pesonnel quickly take precedence over the putative interests of the rank and file it s supposed to be protecting. Standards applied by federal agents to the internal life of unions are tortuously more exacting than for any other arena of public life. Why should the government, after all, be deciding who can run for union office, how and when the elections are to be held, whether or not a union president ought to be elected directly by its members or, as is far more common, by convention delegates? Direct elections, for example, seem eminently democratic, but on closer inspection often turn out to replicate the devitalized practices of contemporary electoral politics, complete with high stakes fund-raising and sound-bite electioneering. Again, the byzantine intrigue that has engulfed officials assigned to monitor and adjudicate the Teamster case is a splendid demonstration of how union democracy under the auspices of the government easily turns into a beltway political brawl that has precious little, if anything, to do with the aspirations of the much-revered rank and file.

All these bedevilments of the crusade for union democracy have registered finally even among those most single-mindedly committed to it as an overriding axiom of their political lives. Once upon a time the direct (rather than convention-delegate) election of union presidents, the tethering of local business agents to their immediate constituents, and similar expressions of direct democracy were considered the elementary forms of the good union. But the all too evident ability of locally elected business agents, for example even those without any taint of corruption to frustrate the will and interests of larger majorities outside their local precincts has cultivated a greater respect for the specific contingencies of living unions and a more fluid, less fixed regard for the forms of procedural democracy. This new flexibility embraces the government s role as well; sometimes it s seen as good, sometimes not so good. Still, there is an abiding sense that whatever rises from below is genuine and progressive; whatever percolates down from above, even if it looks enticing, is to be dealt with, if at all, with kid gloves. Only movements led by rank-and-file militants, only organizers from within and not from the outside, can be trusted to push to the limit and beyond. The recent important victory of the HREF="http://www3.cwa-union.org/home/aboutcwa/cwapubs/9711news/art1.htm">Communications Workers of America at USAir is cited as evidence. There the conversion of workers into activists/organizers made all the difference.

In this compelling scenario democracy, meaning the active involvement and leadership of shop-floor workers, is merged with all hope of resuscitating the labor movement. Only the impure of heart could disagree. Arousing the energies and ideas of working people normally left inert by the tyrannies and indignities of everyday life on the job is not merely smart strategy, although it is that; intrinsically, it is an assault on the hierarchies of power and wealth and social position that root and reproduce in the dark world of production, a realm from which all talk of democracy is officially banished. Here, too, "union democracy" flies the flag of multiculturalism, overturning all the disabling divisions of race and ethnicity that poison the well of fellow feeling and collective action. And here as well "union democracy" breaches the fire walls protecting a favored skill or gender or nativity, daring to open up enclaves of union privilege to the more capacious embrace of working and poor people generally. It is here, finally, that "union democracy" blends seamlessly into social movement building, seeking to articulate desires extending far beyond the borders circumscribed by conventional trade unionism. The boundaries of the institution become plastic, allowing easy migrations back and forth between unions and community organizations as they mobilize jointly to confront the corporate order at and away from work. Down this road lies the permanent revolution, a state of perpetual industrial and social ferment, severing as well the umbilical cord to the Democratic Party, all of which sooner or later must undermine the ground beneath the existing order of things. Somewhere down this road the "union "union democracy" drops out, antiquated, as in no longer necessary or adequate.

Between here and there, however, the institution soldiers on, as does the intractable reality of contesting for power in the marketplace and in the political arena. In this intermediate zone, the relationship of power to democracy is complex, full of compromise and negotiation and even concession. There are some trade union leaders today and they include people utterly devoted to organizing, tactically creative and militant, and 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 where a state of undeclared war against employers demands discipline, secrecy, and decisive action by small groups of outsiders less subject to daily intimidation. From afar it s all too easy to declaim against this preoccupation with institutional power while failing to take account of the precariousness with which these institutions cling to life.

Still others in positions of leaderhip have fashioned a more nuanced relationship between power and democracy. Recent developments in, of all places, the building trades, are suggestive. The reform regime presiding over the Carpenters Union in New England warns against union democracy proceeding in a vacuum as a kind of narrowly focused procedural matter, all the while eliding the question of power and the active involvement of members in ongoing organizing from the equation. Traditionally, local fiefdoms in the Carpenters Union were simultaneously democratic and disempowering. They ve remained hotbeds of a living culture of solidarity, a "brotherhood" of sentiment and skill a phenomenon far rarer in the labor movement generally than it once was and therefore not to be sneezed at. Yet these locals and their leaders (not only in the Carpenters but throughout the building trades) jealously guarded their parochial (often racist and sexist) prerogatives and labor-market monopolies even as the center of gravity of the industry regionalized. To stop the erosion of union power as well as to undermine the ability of local chieftains to frustrate the larger needs of the region s workers, reform meant centralization. Local leaders became accountable to a larger regional structure congruent with the industry s. Democracy in some sense suffered as locals lost some power and control over their own affairs.

But the process of regionalization and centralization was not accomplished by some ukase from above. Rather, encouraging activism at the grass roots was the most effective ally of democratic reform. COMET (Constuction Organizing and Membership Education and Training) is a program aimed at enlisting the ranks in an ongoing campaign against the old forms of exclusivist democracy. It has of course bolstered the position of the new leadership, but at the same time seems a legitimate approach to inviting real membership participation in important union affairs. Similarly, the 1988 grassroots campaign in Massachusetts around the prevailing wage law mobilized twenty thousand people in all the building trades, which together led the way for the rest of the labor movement and established alliances between Massachusetts trade unionists and other community organizations in the state. Without exaggerating what was accomplished, the Carpenters dímarche is invigorating, breaking through the encrusted insularity of the old order, widening the sphere of democratic participation and social interaction. Like-minded efforts at democratic reform from above and below that simultaneously wrestle with the shifting configuration of power in the "market" have marked recent developments in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), in the "Union Cities" strategy most conspicuously successful in Las Vegas and elsewhere.

A labor movement far more inclusive, tactically daring, and politically independent than what we have today is a prerequisite of serious democratic advance. Just how such a labor movement qua social movement is apt to emerge, however, is not prescribed nor neatly described byotherwise unobjectionable formulations about mass organization and union democracy. The relationship between power and democracy has never been a straightforward one. It may be morally consoling, but nothing more, to cling to the illusion of their easy reconciliation.

Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser
From Winter 1999: Arguments

Steve Fraser is the author of Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor and is co-editor of Audacious Democracy: Labor, Intellectuals and the Social Transformation of America. He is a founder of Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice.

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