Unions and Democracy
Steve Fraser Responds

Steve Fraser

Stanley Aronowitz, Herman Benson, and Gordon Haskell adopt an essentially similar approach in disapproving of my article on union democracy. It s an old, if not particularly venerable one, which runs as follows: "If you don t like the message, shoot the messenger." My article tried to grapple with a wide range of reasons to explain why the quest for union democracy, on its face an unexceptionable crusade, turns out to be a highly complicated matter after all. I won t rehearse those reasons here; dedicated readers can refer back to the original essay. But very briefly and selectively, they include: (1) the unique legacy created by the peculiar political and institutional history of the U.S. labor movement; (2) the more recent degeneration of American political practice into a form of high-priced, sound-bite mass maniputaion; (3) the long-lived and ignoble practice of union democracy as a form of exclusion by local majorities defined by race or gender or nativity union democracy as democracy of the volk; (4) the periodic and cynical deployment of union democracy to conceal the ulterior motives of committed enemies of the labor movement and working people more generally; (5) the too easy conflation of democracy with militancy; (6) the problematical role of the government in policing internal union affairs. And there are more.

My respondents, however, rather than wrestle with these questions, have chosen instead to wish them into oblivion by impugning my motives. Each of them insinuates that in some not precisely defined way -- perhaps psychologically, perhaps politically, or, who s to say, perhaps even in some seamier sense -- I am dependent upon or owe some putative allegiance to the official leadership of the labor movement. Although these insinuations are gratuitous, offered without a scintilla of evidence, and are rather slyly stated at that, they do function to deflect the discussion away from the conundrums posed by the article. This of course is not a good way to carry on serious conversation. And in the particular case of Herman Benson, for whose decades of effort I have the greatest respect, I think it unworthy.

Although all of the responses aim at sketching my profile as a lapsed democrat, there are some remarks in Benson s piece that need clearing up. He claims I "distrust" union democracy. But oddly, the examples he alludes to -- my treatments of Walter Reuther, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the Carey debacle -- do not represent the "defects" of union democracy,as he characterizes them, but glaring instances of the lack of democracy. My point here was that among the many perplexing realities that confound the issue of union democracy are the undeniable accomplishments -- arguably accomplishments that significantly furthered the cause of democracy in America -- of people and institutions that nonetheless must be faulted for serious departures from democratic practice. Benson is even harsher when I dare to report on another unpleasant reality; namely, that there are contemporary union leaders of otherwise considerable talent and great dedication who also display a studied indifference to the cause of union democracy. Recording this observation in language Benson finds too salty is tantamount, in his eyes, to justifying repression. Shoot the messenger, by all means. The same impulse surfaces again when he talks about my references to the Landrum Griffin Act. My article did not discuss the provisions of the act that do indeed include protections for the democratic rights of union members. I probably should have discussed them, but I didn t. But Benson goes on to imply that therefore I must oppose them, and in this way he can also avoid the point I was making. I briefly examined the origins of this legislation to illustrate that union democracy has sometimes functioned as a rubric under which the sworn enemies of the labor movement have assembled. They are doing so again today. In the real world, that actually matters and must weigh in strategic deliberations about what to do.

Benson finds my article depressing. I regret that. Developments during the last few years inside the labor movement are, on the contrary, enormously encouraging, especially after such a protracted period when it seemed walled off from its own natural constituencies and potential allies. Moreover, I applaud the struggle of the Association for Union Democracy and take courage from its victories. Benson says I ve undercounted the latter. Stanley Aronowitz would seem to disagree. The truth is no doubt somewhere in between. But it would be Pollyannaish in the extreme to ignore the ongoing and dismal record of corruptions and repressions and exclusions that continue to mar the labor movement. Only by probing more deeply can we hope to improve on this record in the future. That was one of my purposes in writing the article.

Benson believes (and here Gordon Haskell would concur) that I have "belittled" the struggle for union democracy. Since my article opens by noting the heroic efforts of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, elswhere notes the protracted struggle to unseat the old McDonald Steelworkers gang, and in general sharply contrasts the motives of progressive-minded, rank-and-file warriors for union democracy from the motives of those faux union democrats from the corporate and conservative worlds, I m not sure why he and Haskell think I ve "belittled" anybody. I certainly did not intend any such belittlement. But again, I must insist that the issues raised in my article won t go away because we wish them to or decide not to talk about them. For my three critics (and, as Benson notes, for Arthur Schlesinger as well) the discussion ends with a simple affirmation of faith in union democracy. For me, however, I m afraid that s where the discussion begins.


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.

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