Steve Fraser Replies

Steve Fraser Replies

Stanley Aronowitz, Herman Benson, and Gordon Haskell adopt an essentially similar approach in disapproving of my article on union democracy. It’s an old, if not particularly venerable one, which runs as follows: “If you don’t like the message, shoot the messenger.” My article tried to grapple with a wide range of reasons to explain why the quest for union democracy, on its face an unexceptionable crusade, turns out to be a highly complicated matter after all. I won’t rehearse those reasons here; dedicated readers can refer back to the original essay. But very briefly and selectively, they include: (1) the unique legacy created by the peculiar political and institutional history of the U.S. labor movement; (2) the more recent degeneration of American political practice into a form of high-priced, sound-bite mass maniputaion; (3) the long-lived and ignoble practice of union democracy as a form of exclusion by local majorities defined by race or gender or nativity—union democracy as democracy of the volk; (4) the periodic and cynical deployment of union democracy to conceal the ulterior motives of committed enemies of the labor movement and working people more generally; (5) the too easy conflation of democracy with militancy; (6) the problematical role of the government in policing internal union affairs. And there are more.

My respondents, however, rather than wrestle with these questions, have chosen instead to wish them into oblivion by impugning my motives. Each of them insinuates that in some not precisely defined way—perhaps psychologically, perhaps politically, or, who’s to say, perhaps even in some seamier sense—I am dependent upon or owe some putative allegiance to the official leadership of the labor movement. Although these insinuations are gratuitous, offered without a scintilla of evidence, and are rather slyly stated at that, they do function to deflect the discussion away from the conundrums posed by the article. This of course is not a good way to carry on serious conversation. And in the particular case of Herman Benson, for whose decades of effort I have the greatest respect, I think it unworthy.

Although all of the responses aim at sketching my profile as a lapsed democrat, there are some remarks in Benson’s piece that need clearing up. He claims I “distrust” union democracy. But oddly, the examples he alludes to—my treatments of Walter Reuther, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, the Carey debacle—do not represent the “defects” of union democracy, as he characterizes them, but glaring instances of the lack of democracy. My point here was that among the many perplexing realities that confound the issue of union democracy are the undeniable accomplishments—arguably accomplishments that significantly furthered the cause of democracy in America—of people and institutions that nonetheless must be faulted for serious departures from democratic practice. Benson is even harsher when I...


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