Union Democracy Review

 

No. 120 Published by the Association for Union Democracy

 

At the House hearings on union democracy

 

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 bargaining unit.

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 seen.

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 bargaining affairs.

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 plan.

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 reply.

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' interests.

 

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 reconciled.

 

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.