Special Orders  

 Lipset's Union Democracy After 40 Years

Michael Goldfield
Wayne State University

Union Democracy is a pathbreaking work, well worth reading over 40 years after its initial publication.1 Its immediate focus is on the conditions that allowed the International Typographical Union (ITU)--a secondary, national labor organization whose members were mainly skilled printing typesetters, compositors, and set-up men--to be a relatively democratic union for over a century. The book is also much more. It attempts to generalize about the conditions that lead to oligarchic or democratic control in voluntary organizations, as well as in the society and polity at large. In combining both a narrow focus and an interest in broad general political and social questions, Union Democracy exhibits many of the themes and approaches that have characterized all of Seymour Martin Lipset's lengthy and productive scholarly career. 

Among the recurrent themes in Lipset's corpus that underlie this book are the following: the centrality of labor and labor organization in modern industrial society; the major role played by the labor movement "in fostering the institutions of political democracy in the larger society and in fostering the ideology of equalitarianism" (462); the role of left political groups, in particular, in valuing democratic control in organizations and society. While Lipset does not reject the importance of formal guarantees and written constitutions, he sees the social basis of political life as being central. With these concerns in mind, Lipset and his collaborators ask why many organizations which are ostensibly committed to democracy end up being oligarchically controlled. It is, of course, not surprising that conservative groups with little concern for democracy should be controlled by a self-perpetuating elite. But why is there a natural tendency to oligarchy, even among those left-wing and socialist groups committed to democracy? Readers will, of course, recognize this as the famous question posed by sociologist Robert Michels; his answer was the "iron law of oligarchy." And, it is here that Lipset and his collaborators begin, although they amplify Michels' views and deepen his analysis. 

In examining the ITU, Lipset wants to know what were the conditions that made the ITU an exception to the rule, allowing it to lead a generally democratic existence. Union Democracy has all the hallmarks of those features which have earned Lipset a reputation as perhaps the twentieth century's foremost social scientist. The book combines meticulous empirical examination of history and data, with an interest in the broadest of social and political questions. It draws on classical sociology, from Weber and Durkheim to Michels. It raises questions of political theory from Aristotle to the moderns. And, in what is a distinguishing feature of Lipset's work, he makes use of the Marxist tradition, which he treats with a knowledge and subtlety and seriousness that set him apart from the simplistic and distorted caricatures of most mainstream commentators, as well as many putatively on the left. The book is based on extensive historical material, over 500 interviews (whose format was tested and revised several times), detailed union election data (broken down by local) over many decades, and much more, all of which are discussed in nuanced, circumspect methodological sections. Vintage Lipset. 

In briefly summarizing Lipset's analysis, let us begin with the history of the ITU. The union was founded in 1850, as a confederation of numerous pre-existing locals. For its first several decades it had no full-time officers. Officers and organizers became permanent paid employees of the national organization during the period from 1884-1888. The union was made up of two types of locals. There were small locals with less than 100 members, who were completely dependent on the national office for their activities, including collective bargaining with employers. On the other hand, there were large relatively autonomous locals which had existed before the founding of the national organization, often with over 1000 members, located in cities including New York, Chicago, Boston, Washington, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The New York local alone had 10% of the union's over 90,000 members. From early on, the union had two stable factions which vied with each other for control of the national organization: a conservative one that urged "moderation and conciliation" towards employees and the government, and a militant one which was more aggressive and left-wing (35-7). From 1920 to 1955 (i.e., up to the time the book was written) five incumbent international presidents were defeated for reelection. In the New York local, seven of the last 14 elections resulted in the defeat of the incumbent president. The democratic ethos of the union and formal democratic rights were strengthened historically by a series of campaigns throughout the union's history. These included the late nineteenth century struggle to ban secret societies (which gave job preferences to their members), the change to direct election of officers from a system where they were elected at conventions, and the removal of hiring and job placement from management, giving workers assignments based on formal criteria established by the union. After the passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the union attacked the Act with special militancy and refused to comply with its provisions (including the filing of anti-communist affidavits by the leadership); in good part this strenuous resistance was a result of the Act's barring the closed shop, an integral part of ITU rights. 

Lipset and his collaborators offer a number of compelling reasons why the ITU seemed to stand out as a unique case. First, it must be noted that they largely agree with Michels that there are oligarchical bureaucratic tendencies in all organizations. They argue that "Bureaucracy is inherent in the sheer problems of administration, in the requirement that unions be 'responsible' in their deals with management . . . in the desire of workers to eliminate management arbitrariness . . . and in the desire of the leaders of unions to reduce the hazards to their permanent tenure of office." (8) 

Union Democracy suggests a number of factors that existed in the ITU that are allegedly responsible for countering this tendency toward bureaucratic oligarchy. The first and perhaps most important has to do with the way the union was founded. Unlike many other unions (e.g., the CIO's United Steel Workers of America, USWA, and numerous other craft unions) which were organized from the top down, the ITU had a number of large, strong, local unions who valued their autonomy, which existed long before the international was formed. This local autonomy was strengthened by the economy of the printing industry which operated in largely local and regional markets, with little competition from other geographical areas. Large locals continued to jealously guard this autonomy against encroachments by international officers. Second, the existence of factions helped place a check on the oligarchic tendencies that existed at the national headquarters. Leaders that are unchecked tend to develop large salaries and a more affluent lifestyle that makes them unwilling to go back to their previous jobs. With a powerful out faction ready to expose profligacy, no leaders dared create sumptuous personal remuneration. These two factors are quite compelling (more about this later). 

Lipset and his collaborators also cite a number of other factors which are specific to craft unions in general and the printing crafts in particular, including the homogeneity of the membership, with respect to their work and lifestyles, their identification with their craft, their more middle class lifestyle and pay. For this latter point he draws upon Aristotle who argued that a democratic polity was most likely where there was a large, stable middle class, and the extremes of wealth and poverty were not great. Finally, the authors note the irregular work hours which led shopmates to spend more of their leisure time together. These latter factors are less persuasive, since they do not apply to many industrial forms of organization, where the greatest amount of trade union democracy has developed in recent times. 

Let us begin with some of the more compelling points. First, the distinction between those unions that were organized from the top (the steel workers are the prototype example) and those that were composed of previously existing, strong units is an important one. The steel workers has remained one of the least democratic of all unions, with its history reinforced by a largely undemocratic set of rules and organization. The same can be said of the conservative International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) set up in 1949 to challenge the more left-wing United Electrical Workers (UE). CIO unions formed by amalgamations, like the packinghouse workers, the electrical workers, the wood workers, and the auto workers, enjoyed initial periods of democratic control. While this factor is important, one must not reify it. Democratic challenges have taken place in even the most rigidly controlled unions, including the steelworkers (where Ed Sadlowski won election as the director of one of the largest regions, and then unsuccessfully challenged for president), the teamsters, and the mineworkers. 

The importance of large locals in maintaining democracy and challenging top leadership is a central point. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, in perhaps the most nuanced analysis of trade unions, argues that trade unions must be highly centralized, especially in industries where they confront a small number of employers. Effective dealing with an employer requires unity in strikes, but also discipline in maintaining production once an agreement has been reached. Industrial unions, according to Gramsci, are inherently conservative, centralized, and bureaucratic. Gramsci thought that the emergence of more democratic workers' organizations required the establishment of parallel workers' councils in times of crisis, which would themselves be more democratic.2 The importance of large locals in providing direction, initiative, and resistance to this bureaucratic domination and in fighting for democracy in general was highlighted by V. I. Lenin, in his discussions of the political strike waves that took place during the 1905 revolution. It was always these large locals, especially in the metal industry, that raised and struck for demands for democratizing tsarist society. Their size seemed to give them self-confidence and strength.3 

The large locals in the ITU not only had an independent existence but provided a countervailing force to challenge the oligarchic tendencies of the national office. One can see in many industries historically strong locals which have provided bases of opposition, including the UAW Local 600 at Ford's River Rouge plant. But it is only when there also exists a strong opposition faction at the national level that this base of support is most effective. For it is the existence of factions that are challenging for office, supported by strong locals, that help to keep the oligarchical tendencies of the central officers in check. 

Lipset's work on countervailing forces fits into a long tradition and is also sustained by more recent evidence. The authors note that Marx and Engels were relatively sanguine about this question and assumed that democracy would increase as large numbers of workers gained political sophistication. Bukharin, as Lipset and his collaborators point out, did not believe in the importance of countervailing factions in the Bolshevik Party until he himself was in the minority. Yet, Lipset and his coauthors might also have noted that Lenin, who was concerned with the bureaucratic tendencies in the Soviet state from the beginning, argued that the trade unions needed to be autonomous and not controlled by the government, so that workers would be able to defend their interests against their own workers' state.4 The importance of factions and competition for leadership also receives support from an examination of NLRB union certification elections. The union movement has always regarded competition for workers as a bad thing. Yet, contemporary data shows that unions do far better in winning workers when another union challenges them in the election.5 The analysis of factions and competition is one of the richest parts of Union Democracy and provides much food for thought. 

While I have argued that Union Democracy has many features which make it a permanent classic, it also has certain secondary features that mark it as a period piece, reflecting the knee-jerk anti-communism of the 1950s. Recent scholarship has shown that the most undemocratic unions were not necessarily those controlled by Communists, or in which they had substantial influence. The aforementioned steelworkers under Phillip Murray, and the Mineworkers under John L. Lewis, both relatively conservative unions, were among the most dictatorial. The unions that dealt most harshly with factional opponents (and violated any pretense to the norms of democracy in doing so) were often those whose leaders claimed to be democratic socialists (the old International Ladies Garment Workers Union during the 1920s factional fight; the United Auto Workers during the 1950s under Walter Reuther). In contrast, the Communists, despite their allegiance to an extremely authoritarian foreign regime, look no worse and often better than their factional opponents.6 And, when it comes to issues of race, which must certainly weigh heavily in any accounting of democracy, the non-communist unions were often among the worst.7 

The elimination of factions in the industrial union movement during the late 1940s and early 1950s, however, was not a consequence of the "iron law of oligarchy." Rather, it was a result of the crushing of left factions (not largely by democratic means) by the more conservative forces, aided to a considerable degree by employers and the state, the latter including secret police agencies, arrests, and congressional investigating committees. This dragnet, while aimed initially at Communists, also repressed the non-Communist left, civil rights activists, Blacks, and Jews, and even those at times connected with the NAACP (a vehemently anti-communist organization). It was this political offensive, not the iron law of oligarchy, which helped destroy democracy in many formerly democratic unions.8 

Status of Union Democracy Today 

Today the ITU is no more, the compositors craft largely eliminated by mechanization, the remnants of the union amalgamated into the broader union movement. There is, however, more democracy in today's unions than at the time Union Democracy was written, much of it in industrial unions, where left factions have reemerged. In the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers, for example, there is a rank and file executive board (no one can be a full-time officer), whose members are replaced regularly. This board often rejects the leadership of the full-time officers. In the UE, secretary-treasurer Bob Clark was elected in opposition to the incumbent, leadership-supported candidate, with little attempt to destroy Clark's candidacy. The UMWA, a formerly dictatorial union, was opened up as a result of the 1970s struggle of an opposition movement, Miners for Democracy. Their leader Jock Jablonsky was murdered while challenging the incumbent president Tony Boyle. As a consequence, the eventual victory of Miners for Democracy instituted a number of more democratic forms of control, many of which are still operating. Finally, in the most well-known case, the emergence of a left-wing insurgency in the teamsters union, unfortunately aided by the state, has challenged the old guard for control of the union. As one would expect from reading Union Democracy, the opposition groups are rooted in large locals, different segments of the industry (the Carey forces are especially strong at UPS), and in different geographic areas (the Hoffa forces being especially strong in the Midwest trucking centers of Chicago and Detroit). 

While it is too soon to know whether the United States is in an era of broad resurgence of union democracy, and perhaps more significantly of renewed union growth after a many decades-long decline, it is clear that Union Democracy will be an important guide in understanding whatever the future may bring. 

Michael Goldfield is a professor at the College of Urban Labor and Metropolitan Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit. He has published widely in social science journals, including the American Political Science Review and International Labor and Working Class History. Among his books are The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (University of Chicago Press, 1989) and The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New Press, 1997). He is currently working on a book on race, southern labor organizing in the 1930s and 1940s, and its implications for current American politics. 


1. Seymour Martin Lipset, Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1956). 

2. For a discussion of his views on trade unions, see Antonio Gramsci's 1919-1920 articles from the Italian journal Ordine Nuovo, especially "Unions and Councils II," 12 June 1920; reprinted in New Left Review 51 (1968):28-58. 

3. See, for example, V.I. Lenin, "Lectures on the 1905 Revolution" [1917], Collected Works 1963:23:236. For additional references see footnote 17 in Michael Goldfield, The Decline of Organized Labor in the United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), 150. 

4. V. I. Lenin., "The Trade Unions, the Present Situation, and Trotsky's Mistakes," Collected Works 1963:32:24-25. 

5. See Goldfield, op. cit., 208-210. 

6. Judith Stepan-Norris and Maurice Zeitlin, "Insurgency, Radicalism, and Democracy in America's Industrial Unions," Social Forces 75 (September 1996):1-32; Zeitlin and Stepan-Norris, "The Importance of Union Democracy," in Reexamining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset, eds. Larry Diamond and Gary Marks (London: Sage, 1992). 

7. For a summary of information and extensive references, see Goldfield, "Race and the CIO: The Possibilities for Racial Egalitarianism During the 1930s and 1940s," International Labor and Working Class History 44 (Fall 1993):1-32. 

8. For a summary of my argument with references, see Goldfield, The Color of Politics: Race and the Mainsprings of American Politics (New York: New Press, 1997), 222-226, 269-272. 

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