Defending Union Democracy

Defending Union Democracy

Herman Benson’s Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers

Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers:
How Insurgents Transformed
the Labor Movement
by Herman Benson,
Association for Union Democracy, 2004
195 pp $22


In 1958, Herman Benson, a longtime socialist and labor editor of a weekly New York tabloid, Labor Action, received a call about three leaders in a Chicago Machinist union local. They had challenged the questionable financial practices of the union business agent, but the union’s international president was more upset about their distribution of handbills to members than any malfeasance by the business agent. He put the local under a trustee who promulgated rules banning distribution of any literature (even the Bill of Rights). As the local leaders carried on their protest, two of them were expelled by the president, A. L. Hayes, after he suppressed the results of an internal trial and issued his own verdict. It’s an appalling story, but the kicker is that Hayes was also chairman of the new AFL-CIO Ethical Practices Committee.

The case set Benson, now ninety and still fighting, on a crusade for internal union democracy that has won some victories but has often been lonely and frustrating. In this memoir, Benson tells the story of his work, including the publications Union Democracy in Action and its successor, Union Democracy Review, and the formation in 1969 of the Association for Union Democracy. There are heartwarming tales of rank-and-file union members who stood up against corruption and gangsterism in their unions. But there are also just as many heartrending accounts of union officials who looked the other way (or worse) and of the suppression, harassment, beatings, and even murder of union members simply because they wanted a clean and honest union controlled by fellow members and responsive to their needs.

Almost since its founding, Benson has also been writing accounts in this journal of fights against corruption and for democracy in the Mineworkers, Steelworkers, Teamsters, and other unions. What stands out in his Dissent articles is not so much his exposés of the bad guys in the labor movement but his indictment of the large number of decent union leaders and pro-labor intellectuals who make apologies for undemocratic practices in unions.

The heart of Benson’s argument is simple. “The future of democracy in society, I was convinced, depended upon the working class,” he writes about his early conversion to the cause. “But if this working class cannot defend democracy within its own class institutions, within its own unions, how can it be a dependable force to defend democracy in society? For me, union democracy had become no narrow ‘labor’ issue . . .”

Benson grants that unions are generally forces for democracy on most big political issues. But he was convinced by the McClellan hearings on union corruption in 1957, as well a...