When it comes to union reforms like those recently advanced by the International Longshoremen’s Association, Herman Benson is a hard sell. Benson, 90, was the co-founder of the Association for Union Democracy, a Brooklyn-based organization that has served as a bulwark for rank-and-file union members trying to make their voices heard in unions that often don’t welcome opponents. As an often lonely reformer, Benson has heard and seen it all before.
“The corruption in the ILA goes way back,” said Benson. “They can make the argument that they’ve turned over a new leaf, but it’s not a very strong claim. There have been corruption convictions there ever since I can remember.”
That’s a long time. Benson started out as a Norman Thomas–brand socialist in the 1930s, working as a machinist and toolmaker, a member of the United Auto Workers and other unions. Inside the unions he witnessed a curious dilemma. “On most political issues, the labor movement could be counted on to stand up for democracy in society,” he wrote recently. “On the other hand, union officials could almost universally be counted on to stand for repression and authoritarianism inside unions.”
Benson recounts his confrontations with union bureaucrats in his new book, Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement. Sometimes the repression was doled out by authoritarian officials who rode roughshod over members’ rights. But often, as in the ILA, the strong-arming came from racketeers with their own agenda, and members spoke up at their peril.
“The people who are more or less responsible for the corruption now say they’re going to reform,” Benson told the Voice last week. “Let’s see what happens.” (Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers is available from Association for Union Democracy, uniondemocracy.com).