Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser

Unions and Democracy: Replies to Steve Fraser

Steve Fraser’s article renders me virtually (but not totally) speechless. He doesn’t claim, directly, that democracy, as a general system of governance, is bad for unions. Had he done so, it might be easier to have a clear discussion. Although he makes a number of points worth thinking about, they are buried in and surrounded by a turgid swirl of irrelevancies and non sequiturs, all of which give the impression that it is possible, or even probable, that in many instances unions would be better off with less rather than more democracy.

Nowhere does Fraser suggest what alternative system of governance he thinks would be more likely to produce strong and effective unions: kleptocracy? gerontocracy? patriarchy? cronyism? rule by a family? All of them have been tried in the American labor movement, and more than once. But no, he’s not for anything so clear-cut.

And that’s because Fraser presents leadership and democracy as incompatible values. Your choice is between democracy, as rule of the mob; and rule by wise, dedicated, professional autocrats. The idea of strong, responsible, duly elected and replaceable officers vanishes in between.

Fraser portrays the struggle for union democracy as somehow unworthy or irrelevant because it has gone on for a long time, and shows no sign of ending in a decisive and final victory (like, “comes the revolution. . .”). How about the struggle for democracy in society at large? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?

And he belittles it by implying that those who fight the good fight have a narrow, technical fixation on picayune procedural issues, while the real leaders (those in office) deal with big-size, major problems of power in society. In forty years of involvement with union democracy struggles, I have observed a number of fights over turf; some by people of factions primarily interested in bellying up to the trough; and even a few fanatical “rank-and- file” nuts. But overwhelmingly, the men and women who were thrown out of union halls; blacklisted on the job; barred from running for office; or beaten up in back alleys were hardly fixated on the niceties of parliamentary procedure. They were determined to make their union an effective instrument of social struggle, a defender of the dignity and livelihood of its members.

Finally, and this is what rendered me almost speechless, Fraser makes the stunning point that democracy does not always assure good leadership; that the ranks may, at times, prefer crooks to honest and capable folks. Really? I guess we should have given up on democracy in America when the people elected Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to office! And this I have to read in Dissent!


Gordon Haskell was the first president of the Association for Union Democracy. He has been active in union and political struggles for sixty years. He was recently honored (together with his w...