Trade Union Democracy


In the recent issue of the "Union Democracy Review," Herman Benson, founder of the admirable Association for Union Democracy, comments on an article on union democracy by Steve Fraser which appeared in a recent issue of "Dissent" magazine. Steve is one of the founders of SAWSJ (Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice, of which am a member), a group of intellectuals supporting the "new" labor movement and one of the main organizers of the first labor-intellectual teach-in at Columbia in 1996.

In the "Dissent" article Fraser makes light of union democracy, arguing that it can cause harm as well as good and, using the analogy of a nation at war, arguing that since labor is in a war with capital, union democracy is an unaffordable luxury.

These arguments are both untenable and dangerous. It is the very lack of union democracy which so screwed up the labor movement, especially after the Cold War purge of the radicals. As recent scholarship has indicated (especially work by Maurice Zeitlin and Judith Stepan-Norris, as well as by Mike Goldfield), those unions with strong traditions of democracy (often those on the left) not only were most socially conscious but also won the best contracts in terms of maintaining worker power on the shopfloor. And how is it likely that an egalitarian society is going to be built if the organizations supposedly fighting for it are not themselves as democratic as possible? And was not the democratic militance of the organizers and rank-and-file in the great struggles of the 1930s what built the unions in the first place? Democracy is still a most radical idea, and this is the real reason why so many labor "leaders" do not like it. In my travels and teaching among labor unionists, I have seen so many sharp and creative persons, people who would thrive in a democratic environment and who would help to build a powerful labor movement. The pity is that so many unions are so very undemocratic and have no use for such persons. This pity is compounded when intellectuals make such terrible arguments as does Steve Fraser. They may win a person favor with the labor bureaucrats, but they will not build a labor movement worthy of the name.

Two years ago, I was teaching a class at UMASS-Amherst in an MA program for union officers and staff. I was having dinner with two of the other teachers. We were talking about the struggle in the United Food and Commercial Workers at Austin, Minnesota around the strike against Hormel a few years ago (the subject of Barbara Koppel's interesting but somewhat flawed documentary, "American Dream"-is this the right title?). They really took me to task for supporting wholeheartedly the position of the militants in the local -P29,who came into conflict with the reactionary position of the (corrupt and undemocratic) national union which forced the local to give up the fight and basically destroyed the local. The national actually destroyed a work of art done in support of the local's struggle. These two teachers actually supported the national union's shameless actions. I was flabbergasted and couldn't sleep the entire night thinking about this and going over in my head the arguments I should have made during the discussion. I thought that if two people who I respected and who were strong champions of the unions could have this perspective, we were really in a lot of trouble. Now Fraser's arguments tell me that we are in deep shit.

What do others think about this?

Michael Yates