Association for Union Democracy

60 Years of Rebels and Reformers: Honoring Herman Benson on his 100th Birthday

by Shane Mott

Supporters of the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) gathered on October third for a celebration at St Marks Church in downtown New York City. Honoree Herman Benson could be found at the front of the church signing autographs for guests as the festivities began.

Herman Benson signing a book for an event attendee.

A highlight of the 60 Years of Rebels and Reformers event was the premier of our new documentary, ‘Herman’s Cure,’ which features Herman telling stories of the labor movement and the founding of AUD. (For those that missed it, it is available for purchase on our website.)

The speeches began with Kenneth Crowe, a former reporter for Newsday and New York Newsday from the early 1960’s to 1999. He recounted how he phoned the AUD looking for a quote for a story. “Herman came on the line, and we talked all the time after that … and had plenty to talk about. For decades Herman did the exciting and sometimes drudge work of striving to make unions into building blocks of democracy.”

Larry Hanley, now President of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), spoke next. In the 1980s, when he was a young bus driver on Staten Island, Hanley described his local’s membership meetings as the “Friday night fights.” He was assaulted and brought up on internal charges for speaking out. That’s when Hanley first found AUD. With Benson’s help, he faught off the slander charges leveled against him.

But when he mentioned his plans to move up and become a supervisor, Benson cursed him out: “You s.o.b.! You’ve told me the leadership is lousy, the members don’t know what to do, you just took up two hours of my time helping you, and now you’re telling me you’re going to leave the union?”

So Hanley decided to stick with it. “I probably would have left if it wasn’t for you, Herman. So I’ve got one thing to say to you—you s.o.b.!” said Hanley, now the international president of the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Mike Friedman with AUD Directors Paul Alan Levy and Michael Goldberg (pictured left to right)

Michael Goldberg, an AUD Director and a professor at Widener University Law School, spoke about the working relationship between a young Herman Benson and Clyde Summers, and how they helped create a NY State bill dealing with “remedies for union officers who misuse union finances” that later became a law and was incorporated into the Landrum Griffin act as Title 5. Goldberg explained that the federal legal remedy and law later passed by Congress was based on Clyde and Herman’s earlier NY State law.

Tom Robbins, a former labor columnist for the Village Voice, spoke to Herman’s various strengths. “If you’re in city hall – you’re looking for a relatively honest politician or someone who understands politics to be able to give you the lowdown on what’s going on. I think Herman Benson is a much rarer bird among those honest brokers, but that’s exactly what he’s been for guys like me … a rare find for a reporter who’s trying to understand what’s going on behind the news and who the players are … being able to steer you both to the stories and who the individuals are. What AUD was for me as a reporter for all the years I worked for the Daily News and the Village Voice was one-stop shopping. I can’t count the number of calls I’ve had between the office and all the wonderful people that have worked there over the years.”

Next to speak was Larry O’Toole, a past president of the MEBA (Marine Engineer’s Beneficial Association). He spoke about the general progress of the labor movement, specifically the gains made through his time at the MEBA. “Our leader at the time that I joined was Jesse Calhoun who, along with our labor attorney Lee Pressman, developed contracts for us that were the best in the industry. Over the next two decades these contracts only got better and I – along with the rest of the MEBA members – benefit from those contracts that had high wages, good family medical plans and generous vacations. To give you an idea of one of the things we liked, every state room on a US flagship had to have a Lazy Boy chair for the workers. I thought that was kinda’ a nice addition to our contract.” He closed by saying that their favorite benefit was a ‘20 year at any age’ retirement pension plan that was one of the best in the nation.

Larry O’Toole with Herman Benson.
Larry O’Toole with Herman Benson.

James Jacobs, a New York University law professor and a noted legal scholar, spoke next. He began by describing the strengths of union democracy and the role of governmental intervention. “And so it was a part of the story of AUD and the whole history of union democracy that the government’s role was not to save labor unions and not to perfect the democracy or the democratic rights of workers, but to attack the mafia. This became the core anti-mafia strategy within the Department of Justice, and with good reason, because it was the mafia’s position in American unions that was its’ core strength, and which gave them leverage into the political system as well. It’s what put the mafia at the center of power in metropolitan areas all over the United States.”

Throughout his time in the NYS Organized Crime Task Force in the late 1980’s, Jacobs noted that the task force “benefited a lot from Herman – he was their most important advisor.” He closed by saying that this story “really needs to be on the record so that we can understand ourselves and how we got here.”

Ken Paff, the founder and current national organizer of TDU (Teamsters for a Democratic Union), described his first meeting with Herman: “It did not go well. I don’t know if you all know this, but he is deeply anti-ideological and he looked at a young radical that was going to organize truck drivers and said ‘this is not gonna’ happen.’ (Herman) was not real warm initially.” This got a big laugh from the crowd. “There was another (competing) organization working among teamsters called PROD and Herman was really warmer towards PROD, but the good thing about Herman’s anti-ideology is that he applies it to himself, and when he saw that TDU was not seeking to become a small political group he warmed up pretty quickly and then helped to merge the two groups (TDU and PROD) in 1979. And I think that’s the role that Herman plays not only for us – kind of in the background – but it was an important role. I have been learning from Herman ever since.”

Next to speak was Dan Boswell, who detailed his struggles within his local New Jersey local of IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers) and his initial meetings with Herman. “I didn’t really know what to expect when I’d run into Herman, but here sitting behind a typewriter with a t-shirt on typing away was Herman Benson. I introduced myself and he seemed quite excited about the possibilities of what we might be able to accomplish with this case.

Dan Boswell
Dan Boswell

And without his support it would not have developed into a case. It turned out that it worked out we made a new law and changed the IBEW constitution.” He spoke further about when “the legislator discussed Landrum Griffin on the floor of the senate, one of the sponsors actually held the IBEW constitution up and referred to it as the example as to why this law was needed.”

Ed Sadlowski Jr., made the pilgrimage from Janesville, Wisconsin to speak on behalf of his sister, Chicago Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, and about his family history in general. He began with admiration for “Herman, the AUD, Judy (Schneider) and Bill (Kornblum), […] just imagine how privileged I am standing on the shoulders of giants.” Ed spoke for both himself and his father, Ed Sadlowski Sr., expressing that they both felt great solace in “knowing that even a steelworker from the south side of Chicago can head all the way to the Supreme Court in this country specifically because of the work of the AUD.” He closed to cheers from the crowed as he asked all the women to stand up and move to the front of the room where they sang a fond happy birthday to Herman Benson.

The next speaker was Mike Keenan, a founding member of the NYS Public Employees Federation (PEF). He started off by detailing a contentious race in PEF. “A friend of mine in my local ran against one of these candidates you love, he runs perennially and usually gets about ten or fifteen percent of the vote. In this case the candidate won with 85% of the vote and the only thing we could decide is somebody screwed up somewhere.” Mike decided to call up Herman already knowing what Herman was going to tell him, and “as soon as he picked up the phone Herman said ‘Mike didn’t I always tell you, you have to have an observer at the ballot box.’ And he was absolutely right.” Mike closed with Herman’s brilliant suggestion: “They got affidavits from all the members who could vote saying they voted for the candidate who quote unquote lost.” The election board had no

Ed Sadlowski Jr (left) and David Schonfeld
Ed Sadlowski Jr (left) and David Schonfeld

choice but to relent and PEF avoided a sham election in the process.

Next up was Sal Rosselli, the president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Sal began by saying that NUHW leaders “know that Herman is one of a handful of folks that if it wasn’t for him and the work of the AUD, not only NUHW but our movement over the last 25 years would not exist without your help.” Sal moved on to recall that “AUD helped with good strategic and legal advice in our fight with SEIU in 2007-2009 when they took us over.”

The final speaker, Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA), had all the NYSNA nurses in the room come to the podium to present a framed honorary plaque of appreciation to Herman.

NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez (top row center) & members presenting Herman Benson a certificate of recognition.
NYSNA President Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez (top row center) & members presenting Herman Benson a certificate
of recognition.

The successful event closed with Herman’s speech thanking our guests, speakers and attendees. His full speech will be serialized over the next few issues. The first part starts on page 12 of this issue.

AUD’s Board of Directors and staff would like to extend a huge “thank you!” to everyone who contributed to making October 3rd a success. Without your donations, time, and attendence, the film could not have happened and the event would not have been as special as it was. So thank you again, from the bottom of our hearts.

All photo credits Shane Mott 2015.

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Herman's Cure 2016