Union Democracy and the Landrum-Griffin Act


After the massive and largely successful wave of strikes that followed World War II, the labor movement established itself as a permanent and powerful force in the United States. Once the movement’s power was established, a wide-ranging debate developed over the proper role of trade unions in American life. This debate often focused on the relationship between unionism and democracy and, in particular, on the nature of internal union democracy.

During the postwar period, a broad spectrum of views on union democracy was expressed. In American Trade Union Democracy,’ William Leiserson set out to “challenge common assumptions about union democracy.” Leiserson argued that the lack of democracy in certain parts of the labor movement was not aberrant, but rather an “expression[ ] of a trend away from American democratic principles.” Leiserson added that “[n]o one knows enough about American union governments to give a definitive answer to the question whether organized labor is actually becoming a menace to freedom, or whether despite serious lapses among the organizations into autocratic patterns, its overall movement is toward more democracy and enlarged freedom.”

Max Ascoli, editor and owner of the Reporter, editorialized about “the limited amount of democracy organized labor can bear.” Ascoli asserted that democratic principles could not be directly applied to the labor movement, adding that “democracy is weakened and defiled whenever the attempt is made to extend it beyond the range of public government.”” Even so, Ascoli was a strong believer in the advantages of federal intervention and of guarantees of individual rights.

Arthur Goldberg, adopting a more moderate stance, agreed that unions ought to be democratic, but insisted that most unions were already sufficiently democratic. Goldberg’s conception of union democracy was narrow  and limited, however. In 1958, before he was Secretary of Labor, but while he was counsel for the United Steelworkers of America and for the AFLCIO Ethical Practices Committee, Goldberg explained:

In discussion of union democracy it is often assumed that the ideal would correspond to democracy as practiced in our political institutions…. The absence of competitive politics at the international union level, at least in most American unions, is regarded as a symptom of a lack of democracy.

But is it true that we can uncritically transfer to unions the standards and criteria which we apply to governmental politics? I think a moment’s examination will show that we cannot?

Then, Goldberg expressed an idea that is often advanced to explain why too much democracy might not be a good thing for the union movement:

If there is analogy to political government, the analogy is to a political government which may simultaneously face uncertainty as to its continued existence, that is, face a revolution, and which is periodically at war. The constraints which by common consent we accept temporarily in the political arena when such conditions exist may perhaps explain and justify the existence of similar, although permanent, restraints in the practice of union democracy.

In sharp contrast to any theory defending “permanent restraints” on union democracy, the American Civil Liberties Union adopted the following position: “Unions, in the exercise of these powers derived from government, should maintain the same democratic standards required of government itself.” In 1947, the ACLU proposed that Congress enact a Trade Union Democracy BillI 0 that would guarantee union members freedom of speech, due process, and democratic elections.

In enacting the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act of 1959 [hereinafter referred to as “LMRDA” or “the Act”I, Congress resolved much of the debate over union democracy by adopting many of the ACLU’s proposals. In interpreting the LMRDA’s election provisions, the Supreme Court in effect stated that Congress had embraced the ACLU position when it wrote that “Congress’s model of democratic elections was political elections in this country …. ”

Thanks in large part to the LMRDA, internal union democracy is more secure and robust today than at any other time in the last thirty-five years. Nevertheless, the LMRDA has not made every union a paragon of democracy.

Suggested Reading

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