Association for Union Democracy

Reflections on the US Election: what explains the “Blue Collar” vote?

Editor’s Note: Despite the overwhelming endorsement of Hillary Clinton by US labor leaders, even more than the usual number of union members voted Republican. according to AFL-CIO exit polls, Trump garnered 43 percent of the union household vote,* the highest since Reagan in 1984. There is no shortage of opinion and analysis attempting to explain this. See Micah Uetricht, “Labor Leaders Deserve Their Share of the Blame for Donald Trump’s Victory.” (In These Times, November 10, 2016), or Eric Russell, “Why This Maine Town Pivoted from Obama to Trump.” (Portland Press Herald, Portland, Maine, November 13, 2016). With this in mind, we reprint Chapter 14, “The Power of Union Democracy,” from Herman Benson’s Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers. Benson says yes, union members and their officials have a fundamental disconnect. Officialdom fails to impress the rank and file with its recommendation of who to vote for. Why? For too long, rank and file members have been excluded from basic participation in the affairs of their unions, and thus often feel no connection with their unions or their officers.

Benson: “The Power of Union Democracy”

In 1995 John Sweeney proposed to inject new vigor into the labor movement and restore its influence by a two-fold program: a stepped-up drive to organize the unorganized and an intensified political action program. In his mind, the two objectives were interlinked: Only by enrolling masses of new members would the labor movement be taken seriously enough by politicians to affect government policy. Labor could not go far unless it could lift its membership far above that 13% of the nation ‘s entire work force and only 9% in private industry. Sweeney was – and is­ convinced that the key to advancing the cause of social justice is through strengthening labor’s political power in the nation. Organizing, he argues, will strengthen that power. “Organize the unorganized” has been labor’s perennial theme, usually the subject of resounding convention resolutions. But Sweeney went beyond words, adding money and manpower wherever he could, using the moral authority of his new office to spur leaders of international unions to do the same. He toured the nation proclaiming that ”America needs a raise.”

His exhortations succeeded mildly in changing the mood in the labor movement. Some displayed new activity and sensitivity to organizing their jurisdictions. With effort there have been some organizing successes, notably in low-wage service industries. “A culture of organizing has developed,” he asserted, somewhat optimistically.

And yet with all the concentration on organizing, the graph of success is a roller coaster. In 1999 union membership rose by 240,000, but a year later it dropped by 200,000. At the rate at which new organization now takes place, it would take generations even to reach the previous high, assuming even the current rate could be sustained. In WorkingUSA (Spring 2002), Michael Eisenscher notes, “To raise union density one point requires that the labor movement organize about 1.2 million. According to Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, it costs about $1,000 for each newly organized member. At that rate to increase union density one point would cost the labor movement $1.2 billion.”

As it became clear that the drive to organize was bringing only modest – and so, disappointing – results, a soul­ searching discussion opened among labor activists and pro-­ union intellectuals at universities, an assessment of experiences, a criticism of shortcomings, a multitude of suggestions for ideological, technical, methodological, and organizational changes to make organizing more effective, some of them excellent ideas. But the grim reality remains that even with the most ingenious approach, organizing is bound to be an onerous uphill task in the conditions of American life today. The main difficulties lie not in failures of dedication or strategy but in those harsh realities. The fault is not in unions but in their stars, in cut-throat global competition, in the intensity of employer resistance, in hostile government policy, in the conservative drift in American politics, in the nervous fear even of workers who would like to be organized that now is not the time to jeopardize their jobs. So that unions must try harder to make even modest gains or hold their own today in preparation for a possible massive breakthrough under more favorable conditions tomorrow.

Meanwhile Sweeney summoned all unions to the political battle; and, in reply, the labor movement has poured more money and manpower into the effort. Sweeney promotes a smooth campaign of advertising, television, public relations. Here too, as in organizing, there have been modest but not massive successes. The balance of power in the nation continues to tilt back and forth between the two main trends in American political life. The division of influence remains evenly balanced, seldom so close as in election year 2000.

Labor political action has been effective whenever unions work hard to get out the vote of those who are already convinced. That is, it activates those who already agree with its political aims. And that, in the context of American politics, is sometimes enough to tilt the delicate balance from one side to the other. But it is not enough to effect the big political change which labor needs. It brings to the polls those who are already its political followers. It has not succeeded in winning over that great section of American workers who still vote repeatedly for labor’s adversaries.

It is reported that roughly 60% of union workers generally vote Democratic. But that statistic, by itself, is deceptively consoling for labor leaders. In the year 2000, blacks constituted 15.3% of the total union membership. Their vote choice is not necessarily determined by any special union loyalty; they, like other blacks, voted Democratic by at least 90%. The reality is that the vote of the non-black union workers splits fairly evenly between the two main camps of American politics, just like the general population of voters.

The urgent need is to break out of the political stalemate, change the mood in the country, and create a new balance of power favorable to proposals for social justice and, by that token, hospitable to the rise of the labor movement. The nagging question is: How can the labor movement win the heart of America if it is not able to convince a major section of its own membership? So far Sweeney has succeeded in prodding sections of the unions’ staff cadres; he has rallied support from religious leaders, especially for organizing the underprivileged; he has won back sympathy from intellectuals. Judged by labor’s public image of yesterday, it is remarkable progress. Compared to the needs of today, it is grossly inadequate. With all its concentration on political action, the AFL-CIO has succeeded only in avoiding a total political rout and in sustaining a continuing precarious balance. To fight its way back, labor needs, not a minor momentary political shift, but a major breakthrough.

Here then is the vexing dilemma, a classical Catch 22: To increase their political power unions must organize; but in order to organize on the scale to which it aspires, the labor movement needs political power, power to change the climate of opinion in the nation. For that, there is no open sesame, no get-rich organizational or ideological scheme. It does pose the subject of democracy, democracy in unions – not as a magic bullet, but as preparation for the long haul.

By bringing a measure of democracy into the workplace, the labor movement strengthens democracy in society. In that ongoing conflict in America, the eternal contest between democracy and aristocracy, between people and privilege, the labor movement has been a powerful force for democracy precisely because unions represent the organized power of people against the concentrated power of wealth. The labor movement and individual unions are sometimes right, sometimes wrong, on the political and social issues that face the nation; but, on the whole, the labor movement has been one of the principal countervailing forces to offset the big corporative powers and, by that fact, a principal pillar of American democracy. In effect, these ideas are now embodied in the nation’s law. By adopting the Wagner Act in 1935, Congress acknowledged the special role of unions, embodied the principle of collective bargaining in federal law, and required employers to recognize unions chosen by their employees.

The labor movement, so crucial to our democracy, is far weaker today than it has been for decades. That stubborn fact partially explains the social stalemate in America, which wraps the great issues in fluff, robs our politics of content, and turns election campaigns into television sound bites, image projections, and popularity contests. Compared to its power of yesterday, labor’s weakness today is distressing. Weakened, yes; but still a giant. Its 16,000,000 members remain a powerful potential social force in the life of the nation.
Strain as it may, the labor movement can never come even close to the material resources available to its principal adversary, the big corporations. The assets of a single one of these multi­-billion dollar companies exceeds the wealth available to the entire labor movement. They outspend labor and never notice a burden. But with all their influence and all their money and all their access to the media and to politicians, rich corporations can never match the most valuable asset of all: the power of people. Over sixteen million people are still enrolled in unions. While the leaders devote themselves vigorously, with money and manpower, to the roller coaster of new organizing, the hard practical reality is that, in the political arena, they depend upon those l6,000,000 already organized. Despite the rhetoric, the resources, and the PR, unions have not succeeded in mobilizing this, their own army, as a unified moral force in the nation.

Those 16,000,000 men and women with their families constitute a force of perhaps 50,000,000 people. Even at its ebb tide, here is labor’s unmatched resource, a cross section of mainstream America, all races, all crafts, all religions, all national origins, in small towns and big cities. Right now, a cadre of perhaps 100,000 officers, organizers, and staffers are imbued with a sense of loyalty and active enthusiasm for this movement of theirs. Imagine now if labor could inspire its multi-million member army with that same conviction that this is indeed their movement, that it stands up for their rights outside and inside their unions, that they need not cringe before employer bosses or union business agents to work in dignity, that union hiring halls are fair, that members are welcome to run for office, that they know their rights in society and in their unions. In sum, that their labor movement truly stands for decency and democracy, not only in the nation and at the workplace, but also in their own union halls.

If these 16,000,000 unionists believed all that, in their hearts, they would transmit that message person to person throughout the nation at their social gatherings, at their churches, in shops at lunchtime, wherever people gather to talk. That lesson is, or would be, that here is no special interest but a people’s movement for social justice. That would be the beginning of a new moral majority in the nation because there is no power greater than the message delivered from neighbor to neighbor, greater than anything money can buy. That’s what a flowering of union democracy could do for the labor movement – allow it to emerge as truly a peoples’ movement and a great force for social justice.

Of course, of course! There are limits. By itself, the most beautiful democracy is not enough. Rights must not only be available, they must be exercised, and wisely. Global capitalism, concentration of wealth at the top, competition from sweatshops at home and abroad, taxation, the contraction of mass production manufacturing, race and sex, the environment, free and fair trade, social security, part-time labor and the rise of spurious consultancies; these and so many other great issues confront the nation. And, no one in public life, in politics, in academia, in labor, in the professions has come up with answers that inspire an enthusiastic consensus. It would be absurd to suggest that the spirit of democracy by itself, magically, will somehow supply the answer to all these questions.

The existence of democracy does not eliminate the need for intelligent leadership nor does it automatically supply constructive policies; but it does serve as a means of finding that leadership, arriving at those policies, and rallying public support for them. Meanwhile the discussion, the debate, the political and social battles continue while we search for answers. It is not absurd, in fact it is the essence of realism, to suggest that an infusion of the spirit of democracy in its own internal life will make the labor movement a more powerful force and give it more moral authority in the defense of social justice as the battle over social policy continues.

Transform the mass of dues-payers and draftees into an enthusiastic army of labor. Walter Reuther had that in mind when he told UAW conventions that the union had to do more than organize the unorganized. We must, he said, unionize the organized. Sweeney and co-thinkers seek that aim by rhetoric, by lectures and classes, by teach-ins, by advertising, by devising clever slogans, by union-sponsored credit cards, by every gadget and gimmick of public relations. They look everywhere except to what is most effective: the free independent democratic activity of union members inside their own unions. What makes democracy powerful in our country is the untrammeled right of citizens to organize in free association, to protest, to demand, to run for office. You can teach that effectively in classes only when it exists in reality.
The lesson to the labor movement is: Open up! Let members run for office without niggling restrictions or intimidation. Let them speak their mind without fear of retaliation, without blacklisting. Fair trials before truly impartial tribunals. Open union papers to dissenting views. Expand the right to elect stewards and business agents and to vote on contracts. The idea, simple but powerful, is union democracy. Is it a realistic idea? For union leaders, everything else that must be done to restore labor power requires long hard work. The strengthening of union democracy requires only the will.

The divided soul of American labor leadership

The labor movement usually can be counted on to stand up for democracy on the outside, in the nation. But on the inside large sections of the labor leadership are uncomfortable with democracy in their own unions, even hostile to it. That hostility to internal union democracy, in large measure, accounts for the inability of the labor union leadership, of its bureaucracy, to inspire its own membership, to “unionize the organized.” Here we reach the great paradox of the American labor movement: democratic for the outside; restrictive and bureaucratic for the inside.

This then is the divided soul of labor leadership: In most of the great issues that face the nation, in the key political conflicts that separate the parties, the labor movement places its power on the side of liberalism, enlightenment, civil liberties, egalitarianism. It stands on the side of people against the privileges of wealth, for workers’ rights against corporate power. But on all the issues that involve the rights of workers inside their unions, that same labor movement, as represented by most of its top officials, stubbornly defends limitations, restrictions, repression.

In court cases, high and low, state and federal, enlightened union leaders stand on the side of decency and social justice whenever the interests of workers – and of the nation – are threatened by the greed of profiteers. But Dr. Jekyll becomes Mr. Hyde. In more than 50 years since the adoption of the LMRDA, in every case that has come before the courts involving the rights of workers in their unions, those same union leaders resist democracy in the interests of their own authoritarianism. They are on the right side on issues that affect public life but almost always on the wrong side of internal union life. (And I write “almost,” just to be on the safe side.) A host of entrenched officials, not secure enough behind the stockade of mere centralized incumbent power, buttress their position by an assortment of supplementary devices, some legal, some illegal.

Where union officials control job referrals, as in the construction trades, they use that power to freeze critics out of work and to build a political machine of favored kneejerk supporters.

Control over the unions’ trial and disciplinary machinery permits them to fine, suspend, or expel rivals. Control over the election machinery permits the manipulation of dues referendums, contract ratification, and the selection of officers. In some of the most egregious cases, critics are threatened or beaten.
Intricate meeting attendance rules are enforced, disqualifying over 90% of the membership from running for office. According to a study in 1994 by AUD legal interns of ten international union constitutions and of nine other unions involved·in lawsuits, unions with a total membership of 4,447,000 enforced such rules. That year, when the U.S. Labor Department requested briefs on the subject, 15 unions and the AFL-CIO favored unchanged enforcement of those rules; not one union called for any change. Only AUD and one small law firm called for their abandonment.

Despite Section 105 of the LMRDA, which requires unions to inform their members of the provisions of the Act which protects democratic rights, only one union, the Masters, Mates, and Pilots, was in voluntary compliance forty years after the 1959 law was adopted.

Most major unions disqualify aspiring candidates from running for union office unless they have remained in continuous good standing, usually for the two years immediately before nominations. Union members who have held membership for 20 years or even more are disqualified if union records show that they have inadvertently fallen behind just a few days in a single month.

Local unions which displease their international officers, can be placed in trusteeship and their autonomy lifted, or they can be dissolved or merged out of existence. Collective bargaining contracts can be imposed on union members by their internationals without membership ratification, a familiar event in the construction trades.

Practices like these led to the adoption of the LMRDA in 1959. Some of these malpractices continue even though they violate the law. Others persist because of loopholes in the law. And so the labor movement sends out contradictory signals to its own members. In confronting its corporate adversary in politics, in organizing, in strikes, in demonstrations, its message is: Speak out. Stand up. Rights of Americans. Demand justice. Human rights before greedy profiteers. Fair play for all. Justice. Democracy. Integrity. Decency. But in everything related to the union’s inner life, the message conveyed, sometimes brutally, sometimes subtly, is: Sit down and shut up, and pay your dues. Don’t rock the boat.

Critics, election opponents, those who demand fair hiring, information about staff salaries, contracts, union constitutions, mark themselves as troublemakers. Jump these hurdles if you want to run for union office. Maybe you’ll get an honest count. Maybe not.

It would be misleading to charge that all these malpractices are widespread in all unions. They are not; in important sectors of our labor movement, membership rights are duly respected, at least minimally. But almost everywhere, at one time or another, one or another of these restrictive provisions are imposed, creating the mood that alienates members from their unions.

The drive of the labor officialdom for stability as a bureaucracy conflicts with the needs of the labor movement as a movement for democracy and social justice. As a bureaucracy, it seeks restrictions and its own security; but the labor movement needs openness and the spirit of freedom.

What is union democracy?

What is this union democracy we keep talking about? In posing this question we risk soaring into a dizzyingly thin stratosphere where commentators delight in rendering all things profound, what someone (was it Jesse Jackson?) characterized as paralysis through analysis.

Those who are uneasy with the advocacy of ‘union democracy’ because it is too “simplistic” remind us of the debates so familiar in those far off days when, if you called for democracy against dictatorship, you were confronted with- analysis. How simplistic! Is democracy superior to equality? to security? Can a starving person eat it? Do you mean bourgeois democracy or proletarian democracy? Peoples? social? industrial? economic democracy?

To bring the subject down from the Olympian heights, we must talk about our familiar democracy, that is, the kind of rights written into the U.S. Constitution and into federal law in the LMRDA: the right to free speech, free assembly, to select or remove representatives in free and fair elections, due process in trials before impartial tribunals, the right to criticize officials without intimidation or repressive retaliation.

Some are put off by the sometimes disorderly behavior of a robust democracy and feel more secure when it is restrained and restricted by a strong authoritarian hand. They might reflect on the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who surveyed American democracy in the early 1830s: “If a certain moment in the existence of nation is selected, it is easy to prove that political associations perturb the state and paralyze productive industry; but take the whole life of a people, and it may perhaps be easy to demonstrate that freedom of association in political matters is favorable to the prosperity and even to the tranquility of the community.”

Union democracy as an abstract idea has been legitimized inside the labor movement. That change in mood is one of the great moral victories of the last decade. The principle was clearly written into federal law in 1959 and sank firm roots in the life of unions after more than 40 years of insurgent and reform activity. By now, most labor leaders accept the idea or are at least reconciled to it. The heads of those big unions who organized inside the AFL-CIO to elect John Sweeney as an insurgent gave an impulse, involuntarily or not, to union democracy. If it was legitimate for these leaders to organize against Kirkland, it is legitimate for critics to organize against their leaders. Those who give lip service to the principle of union democracy but violate it in practice pay homage to its virtue.

However, while the principle of union democracy, as an idea has made great headway in unions in the last generation, the practice of union democracy as an active reality still falls far short of that ideal. Its full potential, for the labor movement and for the nation, is yet to be unleashed. The defense of union democracy is not a narrow “labor” issue, because it fills needs that go beyond unions.

The three faces of union democracy

1.Every decent labor leader on every level of authority respects the power of democracy in mobilizing workers under the banner of unionism. When the union appeals for workers to join; when it organizes strikes, and boycotts, and demonstrations; when it rallies voters to the polls at election time, it calls upon workers to stand up, to speak out, to act together, to demand respect. Most labor leaders welcome this aspect of union democracy with an enthusiasm they share with activists, radicals, and reformers of every stripe.

2. However, a second aspect of union democracy is not so universally popular: union democracy as a weapon for union members to control their own officialdom, to criticize, even to replace them. Here, the ardor of even progressive leaders often cools. The AFL-CIO publishes loads of informative literature and runs excellent courses in its institute on how to advance the rights of workers in society and defend them against abusive employers, but not much about the legal rights of workers in their unions and nothing about defending themselves against abusive union officials.

3. There is a third aspect of union democracy, neglected but just as vital: union democracy as a means of releasing the power of workers in the cause of democracy and social justice in the nation. At Sweeney’s initiative, the AFL-CIO council endorsed those gallant words, “to bring economic justice to the workplace and social justice to our nation.” To achieve so sweeping a change in American life requires more than “organizing” as commonly understood. It requires the intervention of a new moral force capable of moving the conscience of the nation. In their understandable preoccupation with recruiting new members, our labor leaders underestimate the power of the old. The force that can move the nation is already available. But only as a potential: those 16,000,000 union members. The monumental task is to release that power. The instrument is democracy, union democracy.


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