Unions of Their Own Choosing

A graduate of Yale, GEORGE W. BROOKS has in recent years been engrossed in trade union administration, helping local unions that are in trouble, and, when circumstances permit, setting up training for local union officers. He is today director of the Department of Research and Education of the International Brotherhood of Pulp‚ Sulphite and Paper Mill Workers.


THERE are few thoughtful people in the United States today who will deny that unions have been, on the whole, a substantial advantage not only to labor but to the entire nation. Prior to the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, the mass-production manufacturing workers, the office and professional workers, the service trades, and the agricultural workers were almost totally unorganized. In the past twenty years union organization lias been reinforced in those places where it had existed earlier and has been extended to manufacturing industry. About 25 per cent of the gainfully occupied in the United States are now represented directly by unions.

The union introduces into the relation between employer and employee a new kind of law and order. Most employers will acknowledge that they get from a union a far better notion of what their employees want than they ever had under unilateral determinations. More important, there is a firmer belief on the part of the employees in the fairness of the employer-employee relationship.

The written collective bargaining agreement is now a generally accepted institution, the embodiment of the wages and hours and working conditions that unions have succeeded in winning — or that employers have been willing to give — depending upon how you view the two sides of this old coin. But the really important thing about the agreement is not the conditions it has produced but the way those conditions came into being.

The president of our union, John P. Burke, says that the only crucial thing about collective bargaining is the agreement. He uses the word “agreement” precisely, to distinguish it sharply from “contract,” the legally enforceable written document which may or may not represent the result of agreement. What he means by agreement is the active process by which, over a period of years, the employer and his employees, represented by a union, arrive at a multitude of large and small understandings about their ways of doing everyday things. It is a system of continuous adjustments to each other and to the pulls and pushes of an ever-changing economic situation. These arrangements are marked by a great deal of flexibility and participation on the part of many people. At every level, from the lop to the bottom, accommodations, interpretations, and reinterpretations are being made daily, all on the basis of some mutual understanding arrived at by spokesmen for the two sides.

No system of rules and regulations promulgated from above or outside could possibly take the place of this, although in any particular case some wiser decision (in terms of some broad or social economic objective) could have been achieved by other means. But such a decision would not be better in the sense of being more durable. It is the essence of collective bargaining that every result, no matter how preposterous, no matter how apparently unrealistic or even discriminatory, is arrived at by agreement and consent. Thus it has a force and durability which adhere only to settlements reached in this way.

The process of agreement, the essential characteristic of collective bargaining, rests upon the maintenance of an active union organization. Alert and responsive leadership is essential to give a general sense of direction. An aggressive paid staff must keep in touch with the members through local people, who constitute the backbone of the union. But perhaps more than anything else, what is needed is active local unions, people who are committing a considerable portion of their tree time to maintaining a vigilant watch over the employer-employee relationship.

The men and women who engage in this activity are a widely varied group. Some of them are idealists, aiming at the elevation of the workingclass. At the other extreme are men who have learned that a local union office is a steppingstone to a supervisory position or a paid job with the union. In between are all kinds of people, many of whom happen to find in union work the satisfactions others find in the church or the Eagles.

The maintenance of the union — independent of employer interference, direct or indirect — is absolutely indispensable to the maintenance of collective bargaining. The value of an agreement depends upon its acceptance by the employees. Skillful bargainers can estimate what will be required to get that acceptance through the multitudinous lines of communication that have been developed. But not all the time. Sometimes the guesses go wrong. It may take a strike to re-establish a condition of general acceptance on both sides, but more frequently acceptance can be accomplished through the politics of the local union. If Brother Jones, president of the local union and chairman of the negotiating committee, advocates dropping the requested adjustment for mechanics in favor of another cent on the base rate — and has guessed wrong — he may be removed from office at the earliest opportunity.

Recently on the West Coast a local committee in a paper mill took a grievance involving a disciplinary layoff through the first three steps, and then dropped it. Local union leaders told the committee they wanted to win this particular case, whether the committee thought it was a good one or not. The committee, troubled by either some rumblings of conscience or an embarrassing relation to the company industrial relations officer, said ostentatiously that they would “resign rather than take the case any further.” A motion was made and promptly adopted to accept the resignations, much to the bewilderment of the committee. This is part of collective bargaining.

This fundamental process of agreement gives union organization its justification, its character, and its democratic form. It is now threatened from three sources:

First, it is threatened by racketeering and corruption.

Second, it is weakened from within by a decline of the forces which brought it into being.

Third, it is threatened from the outside by legislation.

These three dangers, widely different in their origins and motivations, nevertheless have this one characteristic in common: all of them tend to affect adversely the capacity of the union to respond promptly and intelligently to the desires of the employees whom it represents — that is to the only reason for its existence.


Of these three dangers, I risk the guess that corruption is the least important. I do not intend to imply that I minimize the seriousness of corruption and racketeering. Quite the contrary. But corruption and racketeering have the advantage of being readily identifiable and of raising relatively clear moral issues.

Unfortunately, there are too many people who expect to eliminate corruption and racketeering through the short cut of new legislation. This approach has a kind of glamour which permits us to close our eyes to uncomfortable facts, such as the failure to enforce existing legislation and the continued (and closely allied) corruption in municipal and state politics.

Meanwhile, the congressional investigations have performed the useful service of forcing attention upon certain problems in labor-management relations which needed airing. They have had the effect of strengthening the hand of those forces within the labor movement which are committed to clean unionism. No one can have anything but admiration for the steady determination with which Mr. Meany and his associates have grappled with their problem.

It would be a mistake to expect too much from house cleaning. The AFL-CIO cannot by itself eliminate the evils of racketeering and corruption, any more than the old New York Stock Exchange could clean house before the 1930s. The Securities and Exchange Act was adopted because an issue of public policy was involved; no one would have left the problem then, or would leave it now, to self-policing by members of the Stock Exchange.

The AFL-CIO is a loose federation of autonomous organizations, each governed by its own constitution adopted by its constituent local unions and subject to change by them. Autonomy is essential to free collective bargaining. And autonomy is an insuperable barrier to house cleaning.

The AFL-CIO could not police its affiliates even if it were desirable for the organization to have power to do so. The AFL-CIO has only one weapon or sanction: expulsion. But expulsion is far too crude and undiscriminating a weapon to serve the purposes people now have in mind. Should a union be expelled because its president has been exposed as a crook? What then if only a vice president proves to be a crook? Or a local business agent, against whom the international union takes no action?

Replying eloquently to James B. Cross of the Bakers Union, at the AFL-CIO convention, President Meany said that Cross was violating fundamental democratic principles even at the very moment that he was being charged. For example, he was said to have fired staff people who had opposed him. Even worse, he had forced small local unions which were opposing him to merge with large local unions which were supporting him.

Mr. Meany’s argument is basically an acknowledgment of the dangers of one-party rule. But oneparty rule is almost universal in trade unions. This is the heart of the problem and the reason why it is so difficult to solve. The best and perhaps the only real check against abuse within any democratic system is the presence of an opposition. No one has ever found a way to make democracy work without building the rights, practices, and existence of an opposition into the machinery of the body politic. Unions characteristically do not have such a structure. But traditionally there have been external forces which have operated in its stead. One of these was the hostility of the employer, and the other was rival unionism. To acknowledge is not to praise. Both of these phenomena have hazards. Employer hostility, unchecked, frustrates the employees’ efforts to organize and bargain collectively. Rampant rival unionism produces instability.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the revelations of congressional investigations is the story that they tell about the destruction of the process of agreement. It is often remarked about both Beck and Hoffa that they “did a good job for the members.” It cannot be shown that Hoffa’s prestige in the Teamsters Union depends solely upon bribery, corruption, and political manipulation. To a very considerable extent, he enjoys the adherence of the business agents and the members because of his bargaining accomplishments. He enjoys some of the same kind of adherence that the coal miners have given John L. Lewis. It is a loyalty that does not depend upon the processes of formulation, debate, approval, and disapproval which we associate with democratic practices, and it is this which ought to worry us. The fact is that the desires of workingmen to control their own fate can be seriously weakened by a steady flow of economic benefits. Corruption thus robs the unionist politically at the same time that it robs the consumer economically.


Bigness is another hazard. A major cause of the decline of self-determination by unionists is the growing size of the bargaining unit. The post-war merger movement in industry is intensifying a development in bargaining which had its beginnings years ago. Increasingly, unions have to deal with large companies with plants all over the continent, run on the basis of highly centralized industrial relations policies. In addition, there are multi-employer units, growing out of the employers’ own desire to have bargaining conducted on a single-unit basis. Directly as a consequence of the multi-plant unit, and encouraged by political compulsions within the labor movement, unions are seizing the opportunity to enlarge themselves and eliminate rival unions.

One consequence of this development is that bargaining is conducted more and more by officers and representatives of the national union on behalf of the local unions. Intensifying the effect is the increasing dependence upon professionally trained personnel, both those on the union staffs and those serving as consultants. To some extent this development is a consequence of the technical character of many subjects in bargaining. But the use of technical staffs for pensions, health and welfare plans, incentives, and job analysis is also promoted by a desire to substitute an orderly, manageable procedure for the riskier process of haggling.

There is room for a great deal of honest disagreement as to whether these trends are desirable or undesirable. No one could characterize them as either wholly good or bad; nor are they inexorable. Bigness, and more of it, seems to be a fixed fact of our economic life; but not all that goes with bigness is necessarily inevitable.

Large-scale bargaining has consequences quite different from those of dealing face to face. Its effectiveness must be judged by the extent to which it reproduces in the minds of the principals the kind of conviction and consent which would have taken place on a face-to-face basis. There are three conditions necessary to preserve the essential elements of collective bargaining in a unit so large that only a few of the people involved can take any direct part:

First, it is necessary that the issues involved be understood by the people who are affected. This offers no problems in the case of a general wage increase or many of the other conditions of employment, but it presents a very real problem when the bargaining involves, for example, the negotiation or modification of a pension plan. (It is possible, of course, to convert even the discussion of wages into a jargon which the principals do not understand.)

Second, the people who are affected by the agreement must feel that they have, and always will have, some control over it. This is the importance of the strike. It is not the strikes that occur which are important, but the fact that the idea of strike is present at every negotiation. What gives a settlement its final sanction in the minds of the employees is not that it was “fair” or “generous” or “correct,” but rather that it was “all we could get without striking.” The members of a union have a two-edged weapon in the strike, and all the persons at the bargaining table are aware of this. Management knows that an offer which is not adequate in the opinion of the employees may bring about a strike, but union negotiators know that they must not press their point so far that the employees will vote not to strike.

Third, the employees must feel that the union is genuinely their champion all the time. In my opinion, the members of a union believe in unionism not because they think “two heads are better than one” or because they happen to like the union better than the company. I think, as a matter of fact, that most industrial workers do not feel any conflict of loyalties between working for a company and belonging to a union. They have a lively appreciation of the fact that over a very large area, and sometimes for long periods of time, the interests of owners, managers, and employees are parallel. But they believe that there are times when management must inevitably make a choice between the interest of the employees and some other interest. At each of those times, the employees want to feel that someone is protecting their interests — not as a statesman, but as an advocate committed wholly to the proposition of winning their case, good or bad. Since a union leader represents his members, he cannot afford to act like a statesman, but must continuously press for whatever advantage he can get for his members.

The maintenance of these three conditions of successful large-scale bargaining will be neither automatic nor easy. Thoughtful union leaders are very much aware of the dangers, and in many cases are trying to do something about them. The United Automobile Workers is an outstanding case in point.

But the task is a difficult one and becoming more so all the time. This is not because of any malevolence on either the union or the company side, but because local self-determination and participation, at any particular negotiation, are likely to be expendable. The union is not alone in cherishing the big multi-plant bargain. Management is also driven in the same direction by a legitimate search for stability. If the union can “deliver” (this word is often used), why have all the fuss and confusion which attend separate local discussions? In a highly geared economy such as ours, the drift toward centralization of the bargaining process is very strong.

But the drift toward centralization clearly threatens the essential process of agreement. If this tendency is accelerated by legislation, the dangers to free collective bargaining and democratic unionism are very serious indeed. Therefore, it is all the more important that the legislators keep in sharp focus the importance and meaning of the process of agreement in their efforts to formulate measures to protect the common welfare.


Judging by past experience, it would be overoptimistic to expect new legislation to be wise, useful, or even to the point. As Mr. Meany has pointed out, the Taft-Hartley Act was triggered by economic strikes, about which it did nothing. The current impulse to enact new legislation comes from racketeering and corruption, but may very likely end up as “right to work” legislation, which is surely irrelevant. The difficulty appears to be a real lack of comprehension of what we are aiming at.

Legislation is to be judged good or bad precisely to the extent that it helps or hinders the process of collective bargaining. Legislation directed at disclosure and reporting is obviously relevant and useful by this test, unless it operates in too technical a framework and forces local unions to abdicate their responsibilities to paid outsiders. Anything which tends to illuminate the facts about a pension plan or health and welfare fund ought to aid the members’ understanding of the bargaining in these fields. It is a good thing to place upon the bargainers the necessities of explanation which disclosure and reporting will entail. No similar argument can be made on behalf of numerous other proposals which are current.

More than most people realize, our problems today are due to the decline of certain informal practices for which we have not yet devised an adequate substitute. The trade union movement of the thirties was largely self-regulatory. But this was due not only to the constitutional provisions and administrative practices of the unions and of collective bargaining agreements. It depended also upon a large amount of rivalry among unions who vied with one another for the adherence of employees.

With the passage of the Wagner Act the rules were changed, but rival unionism was still a vital force. However, changes were set in motion by that law which greatly reduced the area in which rival unionism could act as a regulator. The central problem confronting lawmakers and administrators in this field is the issue of freedom of choice versus stability.

The National Labor Relations Act says that workers shall be free to choose their collective bargaining representatives. The Labor Board decides in individual cases what limits shall be placed on that freedom. Last December the issue was dramatized in New York City under a regulation which set up a single bargaining agency for all subway and related transportation workers. The decision had been in the interests of stability, as represented by a single bargaining unit and a single union. But significant groups of workers who had been under this system for many years were so profoundly dissatisfied that they took the great risk of shutting down an essential service.

Undoubtedly the story of the New York subways is vastly complicated by the multifarious interests and political strands which make up the giant city. But essentially, the issue in the New York subway strike was the same issue that arises elsewhere in simpler framework and form. To what extent shall workers retain their freedom of choice to be represented by one union or another in one unit or another? Or shall workers be required to yield up this freedom in the interest of the stability of an established bargaining arrangement?

The federal and state labor boards decide these crucial issues in the performance of their function of ordering and conducting elections. Electoral “units” must be established. Shall a unit include all the employees of a company, or shall a small group — the motormen, for example, or the machinists or the patternmakers — be allowed to have its own election? Should an existing contract be regarded as a “bar” to an election, or is it now time to let the employees choose among competing unions? To a great extent the board’s intrusion has replaced the older processes of agreement among the workers affected and their employers.

An example in manufacturing industry is the craft versus industrial union issue. This is no simple, black-and-white issue. The pulp and paper industry demonstrates very well the myriad forms and accommodations which are possible. For many years before the Wagner Act, the unions in the industry worked out arrangements permitting the existence of both industrial units and semiindustrial units combined with small craft units. All of them associated themselves as a single unit for collective bargaining purposes. Stability has been reasonably well served within the arrangements worked out in the pulp and paper industry precisely because they have been built on the process of agreement.

The dilemma is not confined to the law. Management wants large and stable bargaining units, which means that it often prefers one large union (whatever they say at NAM conventions). Unions want to stabilize their positions and eliminate rival unionism. These are legitimate objectives. Their pursuit has resulted in large bargaining units, long-term agreements, the AFL-CIO merger, the No-Raid Pact, and NLRB decisions which make it difficult for workers to upset existing collective bargaining arrangements. It is generally believed, both inside and outside the labor organizations, that these have been desirable developments. But insufficient attention has been given to the consequences of having lost the self-correcting effects of rival unionism.

Union members traditionally have not sought relief from major grievances within the structure of their union constitution and administration. They have simply changed their affiliation, and the ease with which this could be done was a major determinant of both union and employer policy. It did not matter whether the complaint was the corruption of a union official, a poor bargain, or a backdoor contract. The remedy was the same in every case, with the employer often lending a hand.

The disadvantages of this method of regulating industrial relations are obvious. But although the parallel should not be pressed too far, union rivalry has an effect not unlike the effect of competition in business. We place our main reliance for regulation of price and other significant aspects of the economic machinery upon the active efforts of businessmen to improve their relative positions, and this objective can be accomplished only by pleasing customers. Wherever a concentration of power is permitted, for example in the cases of natural monopolies like public utilities, we are conscious that the system does not work, and we attempt to compensate by direct regulation.

Direct regulation of unions and industrial relations may be the answer. But it seems unlikely that we can preserve the most important aspects of collective bargaining if we go down that road. Our faith might better be fixed upon that first premise of the National Labor Relations Act, that industrial relations will be at their best when employees are represented by unions of their own choosing. Anything that interferes with this is harmful, whether it be a racketeer or a law.