Left Out: Reds and America's Industrial Unions

Efficiency of Factionalism, Fatality of Discipline
July 7, 2004

There’s a common tendency, even among organizers and activists, to assume that in some sense George W. Bush is right when he says “A dictatorship would be a heck of a lot easier.” We all support democracy in our unions and in labor media, but not of course in order to make our unions more efficient, rather to keep our members happy even at the understood risk of slowing down the important business of organizing and negotiating contracts.

If that’s the way we think, the following book should make for interesting reading: “Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions,” by Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin. This book is the result of an extensive study of the unions of the CIO, and in particular of the 18 or so CIO unions in which Communists held considerable power. While reviving Communism is not a serious option, studying the way these unions operated may be worth our while. The CIO officially became an independent labor organization in 1938. By 1947, it represented roughly 80 percent of the country’s industrial workers. The significance of this is staggering if we imagine the country today with 80 percent of service workers organized.

Of primary interest in the findings of Stepan-Norris and Zeitlin’s study is not that the Communist unions tended to be more democratic, but that the more democratic unions — whether Communist or not — tended to be stronger and to win more for their members. This conclusion is the result of extensively documented and quantified comparisons.

And by democratic, the authors don’t mean something formal or structural, a set of procedures functioning smoothly because all the members are white males between 30 and 40 who listen to the same kind of music and agree on everything. No, one of the key measures of democracy developed in this book and used to rank the unions is factionalism — powerful factions within a union being evidence of the freedom of oppositionists to organize and vie for power. And among the findings is that the more democratic the unions, the more progressive they tended to be in fighting for the rights of women and racial minorities.

The authors describe in detail the internal politics of UAW Local 600 in Dearborn, Mich., which was in effect a two-party system. How many unions today have such strong democracies that two or more established parties regularly vie for power within the union? How many labor newspapers serve as forums for such political debate? The importance of asking that question is not to determine how good we can feel about ourselves, but to determine how strong we can make our unions, how likely to withstand the attacks of management and to be able to expand and win meaningful rights for our members.

Although “Left Out” does not focus on labor media (and I wish someone would do that study), labor media is a part of the story it tells as well as a source of information gathered. That story comes down to this: by encouraging factionalism we make our union stronger and more efficient, while by enforcing discipline we limit what we can win and our chances of survival. But how can that be? If we expend our energy fighting among ourselves, how can we have more energy than before with which to fight management?

But that’s the entire beauty of democracy! By involving and energizing more people, you create more power. Haven’t we learned this yet? With 50 percent of the country not voting in national elections, it may be that we have not.

Shifting our national focus to involving those 50 percent, and focusing our unions on developing internal political factionalism would require a serious recognition of this simple fact: people are not stupid. Democracy is not threatening once we’ve recognized that.

In “The New Labor Press” Edited by Sam Pizzigati and Fred J. Solowey, former Managing Editor of the United Mine Workers Journal Matt Witt described the democratization of his paper in the 1970s. It opened itself up to debate, interviewed members on serious topics, published letters regardless of whom they might offend, and stimulated debate. Among the results, of course, were increased reading of the Journal, but also increased popularity of the top union leaders. How could their popularity be increased by publishing opposing points of view? People are not stupid.