In Memoriam Herman Benson

 



Herman Benson, union democracy pioneer and co-founder of the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), passed away at his home on July 2, 2020. He was 104 years old, days shy of his 105th birthday.  Over the last 60 years, Benson and AUD were instrumental in creating a body of law to protect the democratic rights of union members within their unions.
 
Benson began his labor related career in 1930 when he joined the Young Peoples Socialist League at the age of 15. In later years, he was a Workers Party organizer in Detroit and New York and associate editor of its publication, Labor Action.
 
In 1933, at 17, he was expelled from New York’s City College, along with some twenty others, for sponsoring a peaceful demonstration against ROTC.  After expulsion he became a skilled toolmaker, working in Detroit and New York.
 
In 1958, Benson launched what turned out to be a 60+ year career devoted to exposing union corruption and advocating for members’ rights and union democracy.  Benson and Yale law professor Clyde Summers were instrumental in helping to secure the passage of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) of 1959. 
 
Summers drafted what became the LMRDA’s Bill of Rights for Union Members which guaranteed rank and file union members freedom of speech and assembly, equal voting rights, due process in union trials, and other civil liberties inside their unions, all enforceable in federal court. The LMRDA also charged the U.S. Department of Labor with the authority to regulate union elections. Until that time there were virtually no meaningful legal protections for union members seeking to democratize their unions.
 
Between 1959 and 1972, Benson published Union Democracy in Action (UDA), a newsletter which rallied support for reformers who were fighting for democracy in the labor movement and against internal corruption and organized crime influence and control   During the 1960s Benson reported on and worked with countless reform groups including in the Painters union where he and associates won a major court victory opening the way for free speech in the union movement  That work  boosted, then and later,   democratic rights for Machinists, Steelworkers, Teamsters, Ironworkers, MMP, Marine Engineers,  Laborers, IBEW, Nurses, and members of  many other unions
 
But after the shocking murders of  union reformers Dow Wilson, Lloyd Green and Jock Yablonski in the Painters and United Mine Workers unions, Benson and  Summers  realized that more was needed to protect reformers. They formed AUD, a not-for-profit corporation, to raise funds to educate and advocate for union democracy. Benson, its first and long-time Executive Director, began publishing Union Democracy Review (UDR) to inform people about what was going on.  A board of directors for the new organization that was in large part composed of the top experts in the developing field of union democracy law was assembled. Over the next 50 years, legal victories created a body of  legal precedents  that secured and buttressed  the rights of union members inside their own unions. The AUD remains active.  
 
Benson, through UDA and UDR, was the chronicler of attempts by unionists, successful and otherwise, to make their unions democratic.  He was the authority in this field and his articles appeared in numerous journals. His ability to articulate convoluted legal and labor issues and make them understandable to everyone was unmatched and serves as a model and a guide.
 
Often criticized by organized labor officials who claimed he was weakening the labor movement, Benson never wavered in his belief that the organized labor movement was necessary for social justice and that internal democracy would strengthen it. His formidable intelligence, wit, persistent inquisitiveness, commitment and utter lack of pretension were indisputable. 

Read the New York Times’ story on Herman.

Benson was an absolutely unique character. In 2014, he wrote, and distributed to his friends, his own obituary. You can click on the link here to read it in full.

Addendum to Herman’s Obituary, by Ellen Benson, daughter

Watch Herman’s Cure, a documentary retrospective about Herman Benson and his involvement with the Labor Movement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z40hDtR6zQ0&t=5s
 

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2 Responses

  1. Herman was my first mentor; he taught me how to write. He would return to me another heavily edited article I had drafted for Union Democracy Review, and toss Strunk & White’s Elements of Style on my desk saying “Read it again.” I appreciated learning from him how to eliminate excess words but I was never able to match his clever, punchy writing style. Our small staff would usually eat our brown bag lunches together and Herman would regale us with stories of his younger days, when he worked in a factory in Detroit and was politically active. He had an incredible memory for the people and issues involved in the labor movement of that time. He felt great compassion for the union democrats who would call or visit the office seeking his wisdom and advice but had no patience for those who wanted Herman, or AUD lawyers, to solve their internal union problems without their commitment to organizing their fellow union members. He was a warm, feisty, brilliant, and sometimes, exasperating, teacher and friend. He is missed.

  2. Herman was a major figure for all of us organizing from the bottom up in the 70s and 80s. Thank you Brother Borgos for the mention of Dow Wilson and Lloyd Green, shotgunned in the union parking lot in San Francisco. Wilson was an advisor in the launching of the first grad students union, AFT 1570 at UC Berkeley.

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