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The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: How insurgents transformed the labor movement, by Herman Benson, published by The Association for Union Democracy. The full table of contents follows. To order.

(from) Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: How insurgents transformed the labor movement

By Herman Benson


Three hundred and fifty unionists and civil libertarians, assembled in 1983 at the conference of the Association for Union Democracy, remained standing for a few moments in silent tribute to five who died in the battle for decency and democracy in unions. Moved by the gesture, Victor Reuther, veteran leader of the United Auto Workers, said that it was the first time in all his experience that union insurgents, killed for battling for union reform, were publicly honored by so many colleagues.

John Harold, once chief counsel for the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists, remembered John Acropolis, his friend and client, president of Teamsters Local 456 who had been murdered for resisting the mob at the Yonkers raceway and in Westchester County, New York.

Joe Rauh, the eminent civil rights and labor lawyer, spoke of his friend and client, Jock Yablonski, the insurgent miners leader, shot to death along with his wife and daughter at the command of a corrupt union president.

John Burton, former Congressman, recalled Dow Wilson and Lloyd Green, the two leaders of Painter locals in the San Francisco Bay Area, assassinated because they fought for union democracy and threatened to expose union officials and employers who were embezzling workers benefit funds.

Attorney Dan Siegel told of Roberto Flotte who had put together a caucus of white, black, and Mexican worker In Longshormen's Local 6. Murdered outside the union hall.

Just two years before the AUD conference, Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo were assassinated right in the hall of Cannery Local 36 in Seattle. As leaders of an insurgent caucus pledged to oust racketeers, they had just won the election, only to be murdered.

Sudden death made these few memorable. But there have been others, many others, unwept, unhonored, and unsung, who fought that same battle in the labor movement. And others who helped them.

In the last 40 years or more, certainly since the adoption of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959, thousands of good, active, loyal unionists have fought within their unions, some to defend basic internal democratic rights; some, to end corruption; some, to eradicate organized crime; some, to fight for equality in job referrals; some, to do it all. For most, it required courage. Some were beaten, lost their jobs. A few were killed. I know about them because I worked with many of them, told their stories, and tried to help them defend their rights in their unions and in the courts.

Only a few were successful, and few of their efforts led to permanently organized oppositions. But in one union then in another, they were there, constituting a broad movement, affecting most major unions in the United States. The seeds were widely scattered and only a few sank hardy roots. But their species remains a hardy perennial. Their persistence up to this very day, is transforming our labor movement. It was the proliferation of these insurgent movements that validated dissent in unions. It was the 1991 Teamster reform victory which tipped the balance in the AFL-CIO. Forty years of broad rank and file reform activity provided both the moral legitimacy and the power that made possible Sweeney's insurgent quest for the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995.

For decades, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, one of the largest, richest, and most powerful labor unions, had been dominated by organized crime and expelled for corruption from the AFL-CIO. In all this time, no force in the labor movement, no coalition of labor leaders, with all their members and resources, had been able to shake this union --- or any other --- loose from racket control. This corrupted union remained so powerful that many AFL-CIO and independent unions, from right to left, continued to genuflect before it. And yet, beginning in 1972, a rank and file reform movement, without the material or moral support of a single top labor leader, by its own agitation, leaflets, demonstrations, and conferences built a force strong enough to rally around Ron Carey, then a local union president, and overthrow the racketeer infiltrated administration in 1991.

That year, 1991, recorded the most important single event of our generation in the internal life of the U. S. labor movement. At that point, the racketeers who had been allowed to dominate the powerful Teamsters union were defeated by reformers. Teamster insurgents performed what no other combination of forces had ever been able to accomplish. For the first time in over 50 years, organized crime had suffered a major set back in unions. The record of these Teamster reformers is the most persistent, the most dramatic, and the most effective but theirs is only one of the insurgent movements that have influenced most major unions in the United States.

The organized labor movement is one of the great forces for democracy and social justice in America. If that was the whole story, it would hardly need repetition, for it has been the frequent theme of talented writers. But the anomaly persists: this great pillar of democracy is itself nibbled away by the mice of bureaucracy. In this, labor organizations resemble all the other great institutions of democracy, even democratic government itself. To paraphrase Emerson: "Bureaucracy is in the saddle and is riding mankind." By battling for democracy inside their unions, union reformers strive to keep the labor movement on course, true to its own ideals. And, precisely because that labor movement is so indispensable a nutrient for the nation's democracy, the quest for democracy in unions is one facet of the broader striving for social justice in the nation.

In one respect, the union reformer stands alone.

In the nation, when the principles of the Declaration of Independence are violated in practice, aroused citizens and organized movements ride to the rescue. If you stand up for human rights, civil rights, women's rights, even animal rights, for the environment, against unbridled global capitalism, for immigrants, for minorities, for religious rights, for civil liberties, for the elderly; and you are in trouble, you can turn to a multitude of dedicated nongovernmental movements and organizations for moral approval and practical support. If you need help against oppressive employers, there are unions.

But if you are a loyal unionist, and you need assistance against arrogant officials to keep your union honest and democratic, you search in vain for an influential ally.

Ironically, the need for union democracy is enunciated in law as a principle but neglected in practice. In the thirties, the Wagner Act recognized the need to protect the right of collective bargaining through unions to offset concentrated corporate power and to assure a measure of industrial democracy. That law has been effective because its enforcement was bolstered by a powerful constituency of organized labor and liberals.

But, as Clyde Summers has written so eloquently, if unions are to serve effectively on behalf of democracy in industry, workers must be assured of democracy in their unions. And so, the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 (Landrum-Griffin) recognized the need for federal protection of the rights of members inside their own unions to keep them democratic and free of corruption. But the LMRDA has been feebly implemented because no organized influential constituency has ever come forward to demand its vigorous enforcement.

The miracle is that despite this lack of enthusiastic public support, but encouraged by the mere existence of the new 1959 law, an insurgent reform wave rippled through the labor movement, in one union then another, and another. By exercising their rights, they freshened up the stale moral atmosphere in the labor movement. It was a demonstration of the power of democracy in action from below. Theirs is an untold story and neglected. What follows here is intended to record the efforts of some of those union reformers and of the tiny band that came forward to help. This account in not complete --- none can be so; it is based mainly upon my own experience as a founder of the Association for Union Democracy and earlier as publisher of the newsletter, Union Democracy in Action; but it is a necessary beginning to fill a gap in contemporary labor history. But this is not simply a narrow 'labor' subject; it is an inseparable part of the quest for social justice in America.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, understandably alarmed over the decline in union membership, focused the attention of labor leaders on the urgent need to recruit new members. But in their preoccupation with organizing the unorganized, they lose sight of the social power of those who are already organized. Even at this ebb in membership, 16,300,000 people are enrolled in labor unions. With their families, they make up a huge part of the national population and constitute an enormous political potential. The difficulty is that union leaders are unable to summon this army in reserve as an effective force because our labor officialdom, on the whole, is a bureaucracy so obsessed with retaining its own power over their unions that it curbs the rights of its own membership. To release the latent power of that million-person army as a solid force for social progress requires an infusion of democracy into the life of unions.

Such is the main thrust of this account. I am convinced that such a goal --- unleashing union democracy to make labor a powerful force for social justice --- is no Utopian fantasy, because I know that for the last 40 years, thousands of active unionists, in most major unions in the United States, --- as individuals, in caucuses, in slates for union office, as publishers of independent newsletters --- have been striving for integrity, for decency, for democracy in their unions. And I have been associated, in one capacity or another, with many of them. This is their story.

--Herman Benson

Table of contents

Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How insurgents transformed the labor movement


Prologue: At the 1995 AFL-CIO Convention

Section I: Circa 1929. Democracy v. Corruption
Chapter 1. Labor's Uncertain Trumpet. IAM Lodge 113 and the Demise of the Ethical Practices Committee
Chapter 2. Union Democracy Then and Now
A. The McClellan Hearings
B. Impact of the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959

Section II: Origins of the Association for Union Democracy, 1959-1972
Chapter 3. Intellectuals and the Lonely Union Reformer
Chapter 4. "Union Democracy in Action" 1960-1972
Chapter 5. Interlude: The Painters' Union
A. Schonfeld Fights the Mob in New York
B. Wilson and Green Murdered in California
Chapter 6. Early Activities of AUD

Section III: Battles for Union Democracy
Chapter 7. Victory of the Miners for Democracy
Chapter 8. The Quest for Honest Steel Worker Elections
Chapter 9. In the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Chapter 10. In the Construction Trades

Section IV: The Public Impact on Union Democracy
Chapter 11. "Outsiders" and the Nature of Union Government
Chapter 12. The Labor Department Labyrinth

Section V: Years of Promise
Chapter 13. The Teamster Revolution
Chapter 14. The Power of Union Democracy


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