Unions: Can Unions Be Democratic? Some Are

Unions: Can Unions Be Democratic? Some Are

David Carper derides the “fashionable fallacies” of those who “dissent against unions” but he has compiled a bulging anthology of his own. Consider his comments on union democracy.

It is false, all false, he argues, that “unions are less democratic today than they once were.” Does he mean to say that unions are democratic today? Not particularly. He merely insists that it is naive to think they ever were. What is he driving at? The “dissenter” whom he might convince would simply abandon the notion that unions are no longer democratic for the far more drastic one that they never have been. All of which would be depressing, if true. But it is false, all false.

Democracy in unions as in society at large, is a matter for constant effort, its forms decay and need to be reestablished. The United Mine Workers which once could boast of a vigorous democracy is now bureaucratized; the International Ladies Garment Workers Union lost the lively democracy that prevailed at least into the postWorld War I period. The AFL was once accustomed to spirited debates; now custom prescribes a public unanimity among Federation officials.

In Teamsters Local 107 in Philadelphia, men who opposed a forcible seizure of their union by thugs were beaten with lead pipes. One elected officer, in fear of his life, was physically chased out of his office. In the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, it was a crime (before Landrum-Griffin), subject to expulsion, for a candidate for convention delegate to pass out cards asking for votes. In the International Association of Machin. ists, A. J. Hayes keeps a Special Trial Board on tap to punish intolerable offenses like passing out handbills.

But union democrats need not seek consolation only in the past. Rival parties exist today in the International Typographical Union. In the Masters, Mates, and Pilots Union where men were expelled nine years ago for passing out leaflets and meeting in caucus, handbills now flutter like confetti. In the United Papermakers and Paperworkers, a newly formed Better Union Committee campaigns to invigorate the union’s democracy. In the United Auto Workers Union, caucuses have the right to function freely. In the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, a new spirit of democratic and decent unionism has arisen as an example to the labor movement. Union democracy is not the dream of an aloof critic; it is a reality. If he were not so determined to shock his readers, Carper would agree.