Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser

Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser

Steve Fraser has been a prime mover in rallying active public support for the labor movement among independent liberal intellectuals, that is, those who are not bound to unions by financial or organizational ties and are free to speak their minds. He took the lead in assembling the forty-one eminent authors, scholars, and educators who in 1995 called for “rebuilding the labor-intellectual alliance.” The declaration inspired more than a thousand enthusiasts to attend a “teach-in” on labor at Columbia University in 1996, which was followed by similar gatherings in other universities. The group Fraser gathered has now become a full-fledged organization: Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice (SAWSJ). For all this he deserves a full measure of credit; there’s been nothing like it for decades.

These events are of exceptional significance—symbolic and practical—to our labor movement. Union activists find it heartening when even so mild a turn effected by John Sweeney, accompanied by great promises, can win the sympathies of writers and thinkers who begin to view the labor movement as a fresh force in American life for social justice. It is a sign of how powerful an impact a truly democratized and refurbished labor movement could make on the nation. Labor signifies potential power to intellectuals. Intellectuals bring to labor the kind of approval that it needs so urgently as it seeks to lift itself out of the doldrums. The social power of labor linked to the moral power of intellectuals can become a force to change the nation.

But nothing is perfect.

From the very outset, this new intellectual movement appeared to be diffident on the subject of internal union democracy, not hostile to the abstract principle of union democracy but uncomfortable with the advocacy of union democracy. The Fraser group’s original draft declaration of 1995 omitted any reference to this delicate subject; the final draft ultimately gave union democracy a friendly tip of the hat, but this came only at the insistence of Arthur Schlesinger, who, as an old friend of Joe Rauh, was familiar with the long battles for reform in the Miners and the Steelworkers. At the time, this lapse seemed like an accidental oversight of no significance. Now, after Steve Fraser’s piece in Dissent (“Is Democracy Good for Unions?,” Summer 1998), we can’t be so sure.

Our established labor officialdom, not entirely but on the whole, distrusts those who talk too earnestly about internal union democracy and loathes unionists who campaign actively to strengthen it. The labor movement has a long way to go before the barriers to a robust union democracy are lifted. A delicate problem intrudes: is it possible for intellectuals to collaborate amicably and fruitfully with the leadership of the top labor movement on behalf of worthy causes and at the same time defend membership rights against abuse by that same lead...