Association for Union Democracy

Book Review: Hower’s “Big Brother Unionism? The Landrum-Griffin Act and the Fight for AFSCME’s Future 1961-64.”

Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) is an organization of labor educators, and working-class activists who seek to promote public and scholarly awareness of labor and working-class history through research, writing, and organizing.

Joseph Hower presents a fascinating case study of AFSCME dissidents in the early 1960s, just after passage of the Landrum Griffin Act (L-G) in 1959. The study, “Big Brother Unionism? The Landrum Griffin Act and the fight for AFSCME’s Future 1961-64” chronicles a battle between a dissident group led by Jerry Wurf of New York City’s District Council 37 against an authoritarian incumbent regime led by National President Arnold Zander.

Hower’s study leads him to call into question the “conventional wisdom” that the L-G became a key tool for reformers immediately after its passage: “conventional wisdom holds that the protections afforded by the Landrum Griffin Act were crucial to the success of rank and file movements during the 1960s and 1970s… ‘As though unionists had been awaiting the trumpet call,’ activist Herman Benson wrote in 1986, ‘a surge of democratic activity responded to the McClellan committee hearings in 1957 and to the adoption of the LMRDA in 1959.’” For Hower, AFSCME 1961-4 presents evidence that “key elements of L-G went underutilized through the mid-1960s because at least some dissidents were hesitant to invoke what they perceived as an anti-union measure, even when it was in their interest to do so.” Yet Hower acknowledges that for union dissidents reticent to levy suit or appeal to the Dept. of Labor, “AFSCME renegades…proved remarkably adept at wielding the threat of the law to their own advantage.”

In fact as the case study itself shows, L-G is ubiquitous in the four-year battle: its presence affects the actions of both sides and arguably leads to the downfall of the incumbent by forcing him to abide by its provisions, even without a formal L-G complaint from the dissident group. And in the midst of the campaign a key AFSCME local makes a L-G based legal challenge of a Zander trusteeship imposed for political reasons, putting the incumbents on the defensive and encouraging other locals to do the same.

Based on internal memoranda of key members of the incumbent and reformer slates, Hower does show that the dissident slate worried about its reputation if it used L-G against Zander — fearing it would be perceived as anti-union. But perhaps it was the incumbent slate that was most affected by the mere passage of the new law. For years the regime had used trusteeships and “special arrangements” (or formal processes whereby a local organization traded some level of autonomy for additional resources from the national office) to stay in power. The new law’s “stringent” (Hower’s wording) regulation of union trusteeships forced the hand of the incumbents.

Fear of L-G dominated much of the regime’s behavior in this period. Zander’s trusteeships and special arrangements had bolstered his power throughout the 1950s. After the new law’s passage in 1959, AFSCME officials were unclear if their mainly public sector union was within its jurisdiction. To, at all costs, avoid its regulatory power over their trusteeships, Zander and his regime abandoned organizing in the private sector and for private locals already organized into AFSCME, began a haphazard process of either transferring them to other unions or revoking their charters. But the regime had poor information about how many private sector locals it even had. And the strategy backfired as the dissident slate turned this member-shedding initiative against them. The dissidents focused on Zander’s “monstrous betrayal” of the four-hundred-plus members traded to another union in Milwaukee. “Why were Zander and [Executive Assistant Leo] Kramer so anxious to keep our Federation outside the provisions of Landrum-Griffin?,” the dissidents asked. “What did they fear so greatly that they would sacrifice those 425? Strict financial reporting? Restriction on the use of Union funds for political purposes? Rules to insure honest elections? Bill of Rights for union members? Limitations on trusteeships and special arrangements?”

Eventually the national union was forced to stop its purging of non-public sector locals and come to terms with Landrum-Griffin. The National found at least sixty eight locals that were definitely or possibly under Landrum-Griffin, spread over seven district councils: too much to give away. AFSCME notified the Dept. of Labor that it was prepared to accept regulation under Landrum-Griffin.

Even as it became clear that AFSCME was covered, Wurf’s dissident caucus never challenged the trusteeships with a lawsuit. But one of the council’s did. DC 55 covered all of the union’s membership in Michigan outside of Detroit and was under a “special arrangement” dating from the mid-1950s. A group of union officers asked Zander to release the council from the agreement. Zander refused, so the officers took their case to the union’s IEB. The IEB, home to a significant opposition for the first time after the 1962 convention, found no permissible justification for the imposition of the arrangement, which in theory was voluntary, and ordered it lifted at the council’s annual convention in October. Zander responded by pressuring the officers of locals in Council 55 to remain under the arrangement, but the Council voted to lift the arrangement anyway. Three days later, Zander placed the council under trusteeship. He replaced the officers in a Zander-run new convention.

The displaced officers of Council 55 made immediate use of the new law and filed suit in US District Court in Detroit, charging Zander with twenty-eight violations of the union constitution and L-G. The complaint alleged that Zander had imposed a trusteeship “for the sole purpose of eliminating opposition . . .to his reelection at the forthcoming International Convention in April of 1964.”

Wurf’s caucus prepared drafts of a DoL election complaint and a preliminary injunction as the campaign for National President began, but never had to use them. The dissident group successfully pressured Zander to agree to the presence of an outside entity–the Honest Ballot Association–to conduct the election. Wurf defeated Zander by less than 1 percent of the delegates. And the Landrum-Griffin was the “elephant in the room” in much of this struggle.

Hower writes that “over time, there was less reluctance to use L-G and other legal remedies, even as union insurgencies continued to be greeted with a great deal of skepticism within the institutional labor movement.” Union dissidents became more comfortable with L-G as time passed. Though it was bipartisan, the specter of some of the anti-union politicians needed to fade. A groundswell of support for dissident labor movements influenced by the New Left critique of institutional labor unionism also helped, and “the most blatant and violent transgressions against union democracy, particularly the New Year’s Eve assassination of UMW dissident Joseph Yablonski in 1969,” eliminated the reticence. Hower also notes an insecurity that had to be overcome in AFSCME and similar non-industrial unions, that members calling on the “machinery of the state” to resolve internal union conflicts would put their “working class” credentials in question in the eyes of fellow unionists. Industrial unions, no matter what members did vis-à-vis L-G, would never have their bona fides as members of the working class questioned.

Whether or not you agree with Hower’s assertions about when hesitancy to use the Landrum Griffin act began or ended and why, this case study is fascinating and relevant to what unfortunately is still going in today’s labor movement, the use of trusteeships for maintaining political power.

Hower’s article can be found in: Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Issue 12, Volume 11 (LAWCHA, 2014)

Popular Categories

Find curated and hard to find texts, AUD t-shirts, stickers and more.

Choose whatever subscription fits your needs, receive our publications and other benefits.

Connect with like minded reformers, stay up to date on our supporters and events.

Herman's Cure 2016