Review: Union Reform History in the First-Person

“Herman Benson launched the union democracy movement almost single-handedly, nearly 50 years ago,” says Ken Paff, TDU national organizer. Now Benson has written a book about the history of the union reform movement he  took part in: Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement.

Benson writes the account of union reformers in the United Mine Workers, the Laborers, the Longshore Workers, the Teamsters, and other unions—all “independent-minded unionists who are loyal to unions because they cherish the values of decency, democracy and dignity, and who resent injustice.”

Benson has been a toolmaker and machinist, and a member of the UAW, the Rubber Workers, the United Electrical Workers, and the International Union of Electrical Workers. He is a cofounder of the Association for Union Democracy, and Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers is also the story of AUD.

One of the first reformers with whom Benson worked closely was Frank Schonfeld. In the early 1960s Schonfeld took on corrupt officials in New York Painters District Council 9. At that time almost no one inside or outside the union was willing to say out loud that its officers were corrupt.

Using New Rights
When those officials tried to silence Schonfeld with internal union charges, Benson found attorneys who successfully defended the reformer using the newly enacted Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act. To forestall an election, the Painters International imposed a trusteeship. But the reformers won a court order lifting the trusteeship and mandating independently supervised elections. Schonfeld proceeded to win two terms as Painters DC 9 secretary-treasurer, and won wage and benefit gains unheard of under the old regime. (Schonfeld also hired Benson as part-time newsletter editor for the District Council.)

Benson writes that it was us, the Teamsters, who took reform to a higher level in 1991:
“It was the proliferation of these insurgent movements that validated dissent in unions. It was the 1991 Teamster reform victory that 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.”

Benson paints a sweeping picture of changes in the labor movement, but some of his most interesting material is from the trenches in unions that didn’t see major national reform. In many of those struggles, AUD has acted as reformers’ attorneys. So be prepared to read plenty of everyday-English descriptions of legal battles won and lost.

Herman Benson’s Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers is available from the Association for Union Democracy. Paperback, 200 pages, $18. Phone 718-564-1114 or visit www.uniondemocracy.org.


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