We boast of a “free labor movement” in the United States. To be truly free the labor movement must guarantee certain freedoms to its members: the right of free speech in the shop and on the union floor; free press—the right to distribute leaflets and papers to fellow-members without censorship; free assembly—the right to meet with fellow unionists to discuss union affairs and form caucuses; fair elections with an honest count; fair trials before impartial trial committees. To put it in a nutshell: union democracy means civil liberties for members inside their unions.
There is no effective substitute for strong, democratic unions to defend the workers’ standard of living, their safety on the job, their working conditions, and their dignity as employees. And there is no substitute for internal union democracy to combat racketeering, get rid of corruption, and oust self-serving officials. Unions were created to serve the interests of all their members. Only democratic unions can be depended upon to fulfill this purpose effectively.
In many unions democratic rights are as real and unquestioned as in most of American society. They are written into federal law, enshrined in union tradition, extolled by union leaders. But in large sections of the American labor movement these rights are trampled upon and must be restored. Anti-union employers and their ideologues and publicists spread the notion that racketeering and violation of democratic rights are inherent features of trade unionism. But they are not. They debase, distort and undermine the very foundations of genuine unionism.
Who Needs Democracy?
Everyone who already belongs to a union or who needs one also needs union democracy. But in addition, union democracy is so important to our whole society that unions are the only type of non-governmental organization for which Congress has found it essential to legislate democratic rights. In the Wagner Act (1934) Congress determined that the public interest required the right of workers to select unions of their own choosing for collective bargaining. In the Landrum Griffin Act (1959) Congress determined that the public interest also required that workers have the right to elect union officials of their own choosing. To this end the law contains a “bill of rights” for union members modeled after the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. In legislating for democratic unionism, Congress was not serving some narrow pressure group intent on special privileges. It recognized rather that a free, democratic labor movement is a distinguishing mark of a free nation; that for millions of members, democracy within their unions has an impact on their daily lives even greater than civic freedom in general; that only a membership armed with democratic rights can get rid of racketeering and end the looting of union health and pension funds; and that all Americans benefit from a clean, democratic labor movement. Who needs union democracy? All of us. When democracy is repressed in any union, the bell tolls for all American democracy.
Who Fought for Democracy?
The men and women who have worked and fought for their democratic rights in the labor movement are numbered in the thousands. Some even died in the cause. Only a few people knew about Dow Wilson and Lloyd Green, murdered in San Francisco in 1966 because they led the fight against corruption in their Painters union. Four years later, the name of Jock Yablonski became nationally known when he was murdered, along with his wife and daughter, for leading the fight to democratize the United Mine Workers. “Union democracy,” said Yablonski, “is the single most important issue in the campaign for election of a new UMW president.” Only a few knew of Frank Schonfeld’s battle to reform the Painters union in New York City in the ’60s but Ed Sadlowski’s efforts for honest elections in the Steelworkers, beginning in the early ’70s, were known to millions. Most impressive was the rise of an effective reform movement in the Teamsters union beginning in the ’70s and continuing with increasing strength to this very day. In a union whose top leadership was infiltrated by organized crime, where dissent can mean discharge, beatings, and even murder, the survival and growth of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union is a token of the great power of the union democracy principle.
Who Uses Democracy?
Union reformers are usually referred to as “dissidents” or “insurgents” or “rebels.” But these labels are inadequate. Like reformers everywhere, union reformers are critics of the status quo in their organizations and of the officials who run them. Actually, by standing up for democracy and decency union reformers work for social justice in their arena of life, just as others do in their own. There are civil libertarians, and civil rights activists, and consumer advocates, and peace workers, and fighters for women’s rights and dedicated union leaders. And there are also union reformers.
See AUD’s mission.
For more on the long fight for union democracy see this excerpt from Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: how insurgents transformed the US labor movement.
See also AUD’s Union Democracy Benchmarks