Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser

Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser

There may be no more contentious issue in today’s labor movement than union democracy. Almost everybody agrees that members should have the right to elect officers, hold regular meetings, and approve contracts negotiated by their leaders. But not everyone agrees that a vital labor movement needs an active rank and file that participates in running its own unions—by making policy decisions and by taking the lead in organizing, bargaining, and other activities such as education and political action. Indeed, the distinction between those who favor a leadership-controlled labor movement and those who advocate rank-and-file power may be the great divide of the 1990s.

Steve Fraser has done a service to the debate by publishing a cautionary, even critical article about union democracy (“Is Democracy Good for Unions?,” Dissent, Summer 1998). Although Fraser vaguely favors a “democratic” labor movement, he remains unconvinced that union democracy is vital to labor’s revival; indeed, the burden of his article is to place reliance on visionary leaders. His argument boils down to two points:

(1) Some of the most effective union leaders, “utterly devoted to organizing, tactically creative and militant, and who’ve achieved remarkable success…don’t care a rat’s ass for union democracy; indeed consider it an actual hindrance where a state of undeclared war against employers demands discipline, secrecy and decisive action by small groups of outsiders less subject to daily intimidation.”

(2) Advocates of union democracy have misconstrued the nature of trade unions. Unions are not political parties of the social democratic or labor type but instead are “natural monopolists” in the labor market, “prone to defend the interests and express the democratic will of their existing members by excluding others; in America that has meant (and . . . continues to mean) immigrants, blacks, and women.” Often, union leaders who attempt to break with these exclusionary practices are “democratically repudiated” by the rank and file. And, he insists, the bureaucracy that emerged with the broad industrial union upsurge of the 1930s was the product of pressure from below: “The rank and file is complicit in the creation of the bureaucracy; the bureaucracy is the legitimate offspring, at least in the case of strong CIO-like upheavals.”

Fraser repeats the most celebrated argument against union democracy, offered at the time of the 1955 AFL and CIO merger by Arthur J. Goldberg, the general counsel of the Steelworkers and the AFL-CIO. Although unions are technically voluntary organizations, in reality, according to Goldberg, they are best characterized by the metaphor of an army, with its chain of command and iron discipline. Consequently, genuine rank-and-file union democracy might be destructive to unions and to labor’s more progressive social platforms.

Whatever Fraser’s democratic sympathie...