No one in America knew as much about democracy in trade unions as Herman Benson, who died on July 2 at the age of 104. No one was a stronger foe of leadership oligarchy and corruption. Candidates in union elections all over the United States sought his help getting a fair election: painters, carpenters, nurses, steelworkers, teamsters, machinists, miners, electricians, dockers, autoworkers, teachers, and hospital workers. The record of his tireless efforts is told in the archives in the cramped Brooklyn office of his Association for Union Democracy.
A lifelong socialist, Herman was witty and plainspoken, and a careful listener. Over the years he built a network of dedicated attorneys who would take on the legal troubles of challengers in union elections. This did not always make him popular in official union circles, especially after 1959 when he and the late Yale Law professor Clyde Summers crafted and helped secure passage of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. That “Bill of Rights” for union members, and all the work it takes to realize its democratic intent, is Herman’s enduring legacy.
Below are some of the many articles that Herman wrote for Dissent, stretching from 1961 to 2009.
“The Sickness of the Unions,” Summer 1962
“The crisis of unionism is not a crisis of diminished numbers and lessened power. It is a crisis of moral standing. Unionism is in trouble not because it is weaker but because the liberal community has come to distrust its power.”
“The Divided Soul of Labor Leadership,” Summer 1980
“In their identification with a great social movement, in their capacity as workers’ leaders, most union officers would surely rejoice to see a labor movement purged of corruption, wholly dedicated to its membership, honored for its democracy and enlightenment. But they continually fall short of their own ideal standards; as union politicians—as distinguished from union leaders—they are men of power, driven by the need to hold tight to that power.”
“Hybrid Unionism: Dead End or Fertile Future?” Winter 2009
“As a cooperative partner, unions could offer much to consenting employers. If employers let unions grow, the partners can deploy their masses to mutual advantage. A strong labor movement can mobilize political power to help employers shed the heavy costs of health insurance and pensions and socialize them on to the backs of consumers.
“How many employers will take the bait? That question poses only one side of the issue, and not the most important one. There is another: how will the labor movement evolve as it comes increasingly under the influence of the new union-company creation?”