by Herman Benson
I was asked by Congressman Harris W. Fawell,
chairman of the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations,
to testify on June 25 at the second session of its hearings on
"Impediments to Union Democracy," a subject impossible
for us to ignore. The hearings had been opened a month before
by Clyde Summers whose testimony became an expert's lecture on
the rights written into the LMRDA, the federal law intended to
protect the basic principles of democracy in labor unions and
drafted in part by Summers.
Naturally, our friends had misgivings. Were
these hearings simply another Republican ploy to bash unions,
this time under the pretext of a concern for workers' rights?
But the direction of the questions and the free-wheeling testimony
proved quite different. Mr. Fawell, who is not running for reelection,
presided actively, but gently and tolerantly, over what often
become an informal cross discussion among participants. The hearings
provided a platform for rank and file unionists, most with complaints,
but not all. Fawell was obviously attentive to their grievances
but never suggested, not even by a hint, that the solution lay
in curbing the strength of unionism.
But the big opening event on June 25, not
even listed on the program, happened by chance even before the
formal committee sessions were called to order.
What made this a great experience was the
presence of a battery of rank and file Carpenters who came to
Washington to bear witness. A bus load of 30 or 40 from Philadelphia,
led by William Rugh, all wore T-shirts inscribed "Carpenters
for Democracy." Another delegation, perhaps 15 or 20, came
from Baltimore. Clemens Wittekind was there from Michigan to testify.
A half dozen came from New York. And they weren't all of one mind.
Most came to criticize McCarron; but others came to show support
for his reorganization plan. There were good unionists on both
sides, and that difference of opinion provoked a lively discussion
of union democracy.
Before the hearing, the committee staff summoned
a few of the witnesses to a big hall for what was to have been
a preliminary briefing. But it never took place because some 30
or more Carpenters, arriving early, piled into the room. With
the committee staff simply listening, and a bit overwhelmed, we
ignored their preparations and plunged into a bang-up exchange
on construction trades issues, as energetic as any that has ever
taken place under AUD auspices: corruption and racketeering, the
right to vote, blacklisting, favoritism in job referrals. As the
views were batted back and forth, more Carpenters drifted in.
By the time the official hearings began, we were all warmed up
and ready to go.
For some reason this second session was preoccupied
with the Carpenters union, perhaps because its new president,
Douglas McCarron, has embarked upon a national reorganization
program to centralize authority by mergers of locals, reducing
local autonomy, and shifting power to district councils. There
has been considerable opposition to the plan in the union, and
apparently Fawell decided to air the differences in public. In
any event, the Carpenters union provided the springboard for an
illuminating discussion of democracy in the construction trades.
Each of seven witnesses got a flexible five minutes for a presentation.
I was the only non-member of the union. Then came five rank and
filers, one from Michigan, four from New York. Douglas McCarron,
who was there to defend his policy, spoke last. Then the real
discussion got going.
I opened the formal session by explaining
how union members, utilizing their rights under the LMRDA, had
effected a great improvement in the state of democracy inside
the labor movement. Serious abuses remain, however; the law should
be strengthened and the weaknesses eliminated.
As I sat at the witness chair, floor level,
I could look up to the dais and see a staff member handing the
chairman a copy of AUD's booklet: "Union Democracy and Landrum
Griffin," to which he referred from time to time, complimenting
AUD and its authors for their record of service. Obviously if
Joe Rauh, one of the three authors were still alive, Fawell would
have insisted on hearing him too.
Clemens Wittekind reported that, in the course
of McCarron's reorganization, Carpenters in Michigan suddenly
found their locals dissolved, their headquarters locked up, and
the entire state reconstituted into a remote statewide collective
Jack Durcan, a unionist for 26 years and
a rank and file member of Local 608, spoke in favor of the restructuring.
Durcan has been a friend of AUD and has campaigned for democracy
and against corruption in the Carpenters union for years. He argued
that a strong hand was needed to eliminate crooks from the union.
"...our District Council was mob infested," he said,
"... forty years of degradation has been undone in one stroke
by our General President."
But the other witnesses from New York were
critical, charging that they were losing the right to vote. In
elections under a federal trusteeship in New York, Carpenters
had elected district council officers by direct membership vote.
Local members elected business agents. But under McCarron's reorganization
plan, council officers will be elected by a delegated body and
business agents will be appointed.
McCarron took his ten minutes to wind up
the formal presentations, but he entered a bulky sheaf of printed
testimony into the record, most of it dealing with the long and
sordid record of corruption in the New York District Council which
impelled him to impose a trusteeship.
McCarron makes a good impression, seems like
an affable, intelligent union leader, one who is comfortable relying
upon persuasion and reason rather than a belligerent display of
raw power. He departed from this stance only in passing when he
suggested that anti-labor elements would criticize his plan because
they opposed strong unions that could stand up to the right-wing.
But he touched on this provocative charge so lightly that it almost
went unnoticed. How he does it inside the union remains to be
The union, he said, faced a crisis. While
whole sections of the trade were going nonunion, the union is
split into fiefdoms controlled by narrow-minded local officials
content with their own private perquisites, unable or unwilling
to organize the unorganized, incapable of resisting corporate
power. Unless the union could cut through these parochial interests
and solidify its power, it was doomed.
His reorganization scheme will merge small
locals and submerge all locals into district councils with broad
area jurisdiction. The councils, composed of delegates from locals,
will take over collective bargaining powers now enjoyed by the
locals. Delegates, not the members, will elect council officers
who, in turn, will appoint business agents, negotiate and sign
contracts, control the hiring halls, and dominate all collective
To dramatize the urgent need for change,
he pointed to the New York Council of Carpenters, which has been
under federal monitorship and which he proposes to reorganize
according to the standard plan. His written statement excoriates
the council in words that could have been plagiarized from UDR
except that his account is blunter than anything we have ever
printed. He charges that the council was dominated by racketeers,
that union officials built corrupt machines by starving out critics
and intimidating opponents, that they sold out to the bosses,
took payoffs for violating contracts and permitted bosses to go
nonunion. That, he argued, proves the need for his restructuring
All that, we have known for years. Like most
construction trades in New York, the Carpenters union was a cesspool
of corruption. If any union was ripe for reorganization, this
was it. The real news is that McCarron is now saying out loud
what reformers have been shouting in vain.
Racketeering in New York was outrageous enough
to justify drastic action by McCarron. But he defended his plan
on broader grounds, because the new structure was to be grafted
on the whole union all over the country. Clemens Wittekind explained
that there was no crime problem in his state and yet the Michigan
Carpenters have been subjected to the same kind of new regime
as the racket-infiltrated New Yorkers.
McCarron's testimony ended the formal presentations,
and then a really thought provoking discussion began as Chairman
Fawell and subcommittee members threw out questions to the seven
witnesses, and we tossed answers back and forth in a kind of round
table give and take. I was asked for comments on all the major
issues, which can be summarized as follows:
Centralization and democracy: McCarron argued
persuasively for the need to modernize the union structure, but
he could not effectively defend the measures that would undercut
membership rights. Why, in reorganizing, is it necessary to ignore
the right of the membership to vote on contracts? Why must they
lose all direct control over business agents? Why are they denied
the right to elect council officers directly? He had no convincing
If it is essential to solidify and centralize
the union structure, it is just as essential to strengthen membership
rights to offset the inevitably bureaucratic tendencies in any
centralized structure. McCarron argued that the Carpenters needed
a new structure just as the early United States needed a new Constitution
to replace the ineffective Articles of Confederation. The analogy
is apt. But McCarron forgets that precisely because the new Constitution
created a strong central authority, a Bill of Rights was necessary
to protect citizens' rights. His plan calls for central authority
without the corresponding bill of rights.
Why direct election of council officers?
McCarron's plan subordinates locals to the district council and
then gives enormous powers over collective bargaining to the council
officers. But these officers are elected not by direct membership
vote but by vote of council delegates.
The system evades a basic requirement of
the LMRDA. When the law was adopted in 1959, it required that
local officers be elected by secret ballot of the membership,
and it established clear enforcement provisions. At that time,
locals were the basic governing units in unions and had extensive
authority over collective bargaining. The right to elect officers
gave members a powerful tool to correct abuses by voting out corrupt
or undemocratic officials.
The McCarron plan transfers all meaningful
authority out of the locals and turns it over to the council.
The locals become powerless administrative shells; members lose
direct control over the new center of power: the council officers.
They still elect local officers; but these officers become impotent
figureheads. The new system is an end run around the LMRDA provision
for direct elections.
At this point in the discussion, the assembled
audience of Carpenters burst into a round of sustained applause.
The issue was obviously close to their hearts.
Is election by delegates good enough? In
New York, council officers would be elected by some 150 delegates.
McCarron insisted that this system afforded democracy enough because
delegates would be themselves elected in the locals by secret
ballot membership vote.
Not so, was the reply: The delegate system
is no substitute for direct elections. A membership of thousands,
armed with the right to vote, cannot be easily manipulated by
the officers above. But a delegated body of 150 can readily be
dominated by an officialdom which dispenses favors and perks to
only 76 lucky delegates. Direct elections allow the member-voters
to control the officers. Election by delegates allows the officers
to control the delegate-voters.
Democracy and efficiency: In this case, it
was argued, democracy must give way to efficiency. By centralizing
power in the hands of an honest leadership, you eliminate the
ability of small-time business agents to exploit members, you
protect insurance funds, you end corruption.
The problem with seeking efficiency by undercutting
democracy is that the cure creates the same kind of evils it is
intended to correct. Once a centralized authority, even the most
well-meaning and honest, cuts itself loose from membership control,
corruption and irresponsibility follow, and not simply on a low
level but at the very heights. Carpenters may be willing to arm
McCarron with extensive powers because they trust him. But who
will follow him?
In one classical case, authoritarian efficiency
degenerated into autocratic corruption. While John L. Lewis, a
great labor leader, ruled the United Mine Workers as an effective
absolute dictator, sinister forces gathered strength within the
union. When he died, Tony Boyle assumed his powers and used them
to murder his rival, loot the insurance funds, and betray miners'
Strengthen the LMRDA? At the June 25 hearing
and at the first session a month before, unionists complained
of abuses which went unresolved in their unions. McCarron insisted
that it was not necessary to amend federal law to eliminate "impediments
to union democracy" because unions themselves could remedy
any defects. A subcommittee member asked me whether the labor
movement had any effective appeals procedures for hearing the
kind of grievances voiced by members at these hearings.
I said there is no such effective agency,
certainly nothing resembling what we expect in normal public affairs.
Labor union government differs sharply from public government.
Our national government is based upon a separation of powers among
the executive, legislature, and courts. The balancing of these
forces affords citizens an important measure of recourse against
injustice. Union government effectively concentrates all these
powers into the hands of the international officialdom which makes
laws, enforces them, and acts on appeals. Members have no recourse
within the labor movement to any body which is independent of
the union structure.
Moreover, a two-party system dominates the
political life of the nation; and, in the contest between these
parties, citizens can count on a measure of protection against
abuse. But union government generally resembles a one-party state.
The incumbent administration is highly and permanently organized
as a caucus, sometimes called "the official family."
By and large, the power of the membership is unorganized and diffused.
Oppositions, when they do appear, are usually
thrown together ad hoc. It is precisely this concentration of
power at the top and dispersion below which made the adoption
of the LMRDA essential, not to interfere with union self-government,
but to make self-government by union members a reality. A strengthening
of the LMRDA is necessary to strengthen union democracy.
The hearing sessions recessed twice, about
a half hour each time, when the committee members had to leave
for a vote on the House floor. My luck was that Paul Levy was
in the audience so that I had lots of time to talk things over
in the intermissions and tap into his expertise. That turned out
to be quite helpful when committee members, from time to time,
called for my comments.
Summary: The exchange of opinion at the prehearing
sessions, testimony and discussions at the hearing itself, and
comments during the recess periods make it clear that the reorganization
of the Carpenters union has raised intricate issues. There is
no clear line up of good guys v. bad guys. There are good, dedicated
unionists on both sides.
Those on McCarron's side were willing to
assign greater authority to a central power as a necessary measure
for eliminating corruption and making the union more effective.
Those on the other side charged that the membership was losing
control over their own union as power was centralized at the top.
After McCarron's presentation, verbally and in a lengthy printed
statement, it was obvious that each side had it half right---but
only half. The question now is whether these two views can be
Unions still under international trusteeship
Once upon a time the Labor Department published
annual accountings of its LMRDA enforcement activities, but no
more. However, upon request it will send you a list of trusteeships
imposed by national unions upon subordinate bodies. We have received
the list as of June 10, 1998 which makes interesting reading.
On that date, 311 trusteeships were on record.
That figure does not include trusteeships that may not yet have
been reported, nor does it include public employee unions which
need not be reported.
The undisputed champion of them all is still
the Steelworkers which reports 66 trusteeships, the oldest of
which dates back to February 19, 1982. That's 16 years. But the
very, very oldest of them all is Chemical Workers Local 223 which
has been lingering in trusteeship since June 20, 1977. That's
21 years! There must be some explanation, but none is forthcoming,
why these and so many other locals remain under trusteeship for
years and years and years even though the Title III of the LMRDA
presumes a trusteeship invalid after 18 months.
And there must be something about the Steelworkers.
One of its unity partners, the Auto Workers, has only two locals
under trusteeship. The other, the Machinists, does not list even
a single one.
The American Federation of Government Employees
is right up there with 22 trusteeships. Other high scorers with
15 or more include: Carpenters, 15; Chemical Workers, 23; Hotel
and Restaurant Employees, 23; Teamsters, 28.