BY COURT D. GIFFORD
Two prominent authorities on union democracy
and the law were enlisted by the retiring chairman of the House
Education and the Workforce Subcommittee on Employer-Employee
Relations, Rep Harris W. Fawell (R-111.), to draft legislation
introduced in the closing days of the 105th Congress calling for
changes in the 1959 Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure
Fawell, who held four hearings this year
on complaints from rank-and-file union members, turned to Clyde
Summers, law professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania
School of Law, and Herman Benson, founder of the Association of
Union Democracy, a union watchdog group, to draft legislative
language to correct what they regarded as the most obvious weaknesses
in the law.
Both men, who were also called as witnesses
in the hearings, agreed on the need to focus on two areas: the
abuse of trusteeships by international union officers and the
erosion of rank-and-file influence and control over union business.
Summers was among the experts asked in 1959
by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy to write the original law. His role
in the more recent collaboration was to draft amendments in consultation
with Benson, who has made a career of analyzing and exposing undemocratic
practices within the labor movement. Their recommendations became
the heart of the Democratic Rights for Union Members Act of 1998
(H.R. 4770), which was introduced by Fawell on Oct. 9, only days
before the 105th Congress adjourned sine die (44 CLR 827, 10/14/98).
For any action to be taken in the next Congress, the bill will
have to be introduced by another member because Fawell did not
In an interview with BNA, Benson said he
was not optimistic that the bill will become law in the near future
unless there is a dramatic shift in the balance of power on Capitol
Hill or "a real renaissance inside the labor movement."
Few Democrats, he said, are likely to openly embrace the concept
of extending the rights of union members unless they receive encouragement
from their allies in organized labor. This is not likely to happen,
he said, given what he said is a "gentlemen's agreement,,
among top union officials that prevents the leaders of the more
democratic unions from criticizing the internal practices of other
Nevertheless, Benson said he and Summers
regard the amendments as essential to the fulfillment of the original
intent of the LMRDA which was to maximize the power of rank-and-file
union members to influence the affairs of their union.
Unfortunately, he said, that power has been
eroded over the past 40 years by the formation of "intermediate"
bodies that usurp the authority of local union members to elect
their representatives, vote on contracts, and make other important
policy decisions. Intermediate bodies, he said, are defined in
the LMRDA as those units above the local level but below the international
In a typical intermediate-level setup, Benson
said, locals are consolidated into district councils, which choose
their own leaders and take over the collective bargaining rights
and responsibilities that formerly were the province of the locals.
Ultimately, he said, the locals are "reduced to mere administrative
shells. The members continue to elect local officers, but these
officers are essentially powerless. Real power passes into the
hands of district officers." While technically not illegal,
Benson maintains that the practice erases the law's central objective
of protecting the right of union members to choose their own leaders.
Suit in Connecticut Highlights Problems.
Benson said the problem is most acute in the construction industry,
where the authority to bargain with employers on large construction
projects has been placed in the hands of district-level union
officers. The consequences of this practice, he said, recently
came to light in a lawsuit filed in federal district court in
Connecticut against the Connecticut District Council of the Laborers'
International Union by Local Union 665 in Bridgeport (Laborers'
Local Union 665 v. Connecticut Laborers' District Council).
Local 665 members charged in the suit, which
was settled on Nov. 2 (44 CLR 941, 11/11/98), that the council,
which is run by the business managers of 10 construction locals
in the state, had illegally raised the dues of approximately 3,200
members. It also alleged that patronage was a significant factor
in the distribution of funds to the locals.
Benson said unions legitimately create intermediate
bodies to increase their bargaining power with employers and to
increase efficiency and service to members. But in so doing they
undermine democratic principles, he said, if the authority to
elect officers, vote on contracts, and make other decisions is
taken away from the membership and moved up the chain of command.
In the settlement of the Connecticut case, district council officials
agreed to submit future proposed dues increases to a secret ballot
vote of the members of each affiliated local and to distribute
funds to locals on a basis proportionate to each local's share
The settlement, Benson wrote in an analysis
for members of AUD, has implications that extend beyond LIUNA
and beyond the state district council. "It is of special
interest in the construction trades where internationals have
been combining locals into district councils and then circumventing
the provisions of the LMRDA. . .," he wrote.
Benson said the Fawell bill would restore
the rights originally intended under the LMRDA. It would require
the direct election of district officers by the membership, rather
than by council members, if the body takes over from locals the
responsibility for negotiating contracts, handling grievances,
and performing other functions that previously were carried out
by the locals.
Benson said he and Summers had the United
Brotherhood of Carpenters in mind when they drafted the proposed
provision. Under UBC President Douglas McCarron, the union has
instituted an aggressive restructuring program to merge local
unions and district councils into regional councils. Under the
restructuring program, local union officials are appointed by
regional council officials who are elected by council delegates.
Within each council, delegates elected by rank-and-file members
debate and decide policy.
In testimony before Fawell's subcommittee
in June, McCarron acknowledged that his restructuring program
has not been universally well received (44 CLR 461, 711/98). But
he said it was necessary in order to update the union's administrative
structure, which had been in place for more than 50 years. McCarron
testified that the union had implemented a "representative
democracy" that is "well-suited to represent our members
in today's construction industry."
Benson said McCarron was "probably correct"
that the union needed a better organizational setup. But he said
the new structure undermines democratic principles by taking
away the members' right to elect the individuals who represent
them. The Fawell bill, he said, would act as a "countervailing
force to the centralization" of the union by mandating the
election of district level officers by a vote of the membership.
Bringing Trusteeships Under Control.
According to Benson, trusteeships are almost as common today as
they were in 1959 when hearings by the McClellan committee exposed
widespread abuse of power by union leaders. The purpose of Title
III, he said, was to prevent union officers from using trusteeships
to stifle dissent, prevent the replacement of corrupt officials
by reformers, loot local treasuries, or manipulate the votes of
locals in referendums and at conventions. But as time has passed,
those who want to use trusteeships for devious aims have learned
how to "thwart and evade" the purposes of Title III,
The Fawell bill would address that problem
by repealing the law's current presumption that a trusteeship
is legitimate for the first 18 months after it is imposed. The
proposed amendment would not prevent union leaders from imposing
a trusteeship over a local for legitimate reasons, Benson said.
But he said it would give added protection against arbitrary trusteeships
by allowing the courts and the Department of Labor to seriously
consider complaints from union members who believe they are being
victimized by their international union. Secondly, the measure
would permit the local membership to reappoint former officers
or re-elect new officers when the trusteeship is lifted voluntarily
by the union. If a court orders the trusteeship lifted, then a
new election would be conducted under the supervision of the Labor
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