Within the last year, those of us who care deeply about the state of union democracy in the labor movement have lost two great allies to the cause; Ed Sadlowski of the United Steelworkers and Larry Hanley of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Both of these union leaders tower over many of their contemporaries in their commitment to a labor movement that is strong and loyal to the principles of union democracy.
It is tempting, when reflecting on the loss of these two leaders, to dwell on the fact that the world is a lesser place without them and that their absence stands as a symbol of the futility of our cause. Not so. What Sadlowski, Hanley, and the thousands of rank-and-file unionists who peopled their campaigns proved was that the fight for union democracy is not, ultimately, a tallying of defeats against an unbeatable foe. They stand as reminders that advocacy can succeed against all odds and true union democrats can triumph with the right wit and wisdom to make it happen.
We at the Association for Union Democracy are proud to have been associated with both of these leaders and seek to help future reformers who wish to tread the same path and do right by their memberships. In the last six months, AUD has already assisted scores of unionists seeking to enforce their rights and help their unions become more democratic:
-In a Letter Carriers local situated in the Midwest, a group of union dissidents managed to prove election violations committed by the incumbent slate and done to the tar the former and slant the electorate against them. By holding the administration accountable, they were able to prove enough malfeasance to provoke not one but two rerun elections, conducted by the Department of Labor. The dissident slate lost both reruns, but were unbowed in defeat, taking solace in the fact that they had done everything in their power to make the election fair and equitable. By running a strong campaign in a hotly contested election, they made their local more democratic.
-A Canadian local of an American International has challenged their American leadership’s imposition of a trusteeship upon them. Many members of the local felt that not only was the trusteeship imposed simply to stifle the then leadership but that the imposition itself was done on shaky legal grounds. AUD often is in contact with union members doing the job of trying to maintain a democratic union structure in the face of trusteeship.
-On the east coast, dissidents within a small factory local have become fed up with what they see as an arrogant and unresponsive local leadership that buddies up to management and displays general apathy vis-a-vis the membership’s concerns. After exploring legalistic approaches to the problem, one of the group is now running for a top office to effect change from within. They now consult our AUD-published book How to Get An Honest Union Election, and call the office frequently for guidance to ensure that the election can is conducted fairly.
-Members of a reform caucus in a local teachers union, in its second foray into union politics managed to get a much higher proportion of the vote in a recent leadership election, both beating out the other well-established opposition caucus and increasing its margin of the vote several fold. This caucus has managed to combine a broadly pro-teacher policy stance focusing on bread-and-butter issues that members face vis-a-vis the administration with a specific interest in enhancing the local’s union democracy, Members of the caucus periodically ask AUD for comment on their proposals for promoting transparency and responsiveness.
-Meanwhile, AUD was in touch with members of a dissident slate in the Transit Workers Union regarding a now deeply contested election. Indeed, thanks to the complaint of the top candidate in that slate the Department of Labor has seen fit to do an investigation into the election’s conduct.
Frustrating as it is to be confronted with the antipathy of management and un-sundry union leaders alike, we must always remember that those stalwart reformers is why we continue the fight. Who’s to say from whence the next Hanley or Sadlowski will emerge? But wherever the next great union reform movement comes from, the Association for Union Democracy hopes to be there, helping members create and embrace democratic and responsive policy. To do so, we need your help. AUD is funded nearly 100 percent by donations from those like you. We need your support in order to respond quickly and effectively to the many inquiries by unionists. To that end we are converting Herman Benson’s books to ebook formats. We ask that you contribute, which will help fund that effort. We hope you can be a part of AUD’s mission to make the labor movement true to its great heritage through democracy.