Longevity isn’t in the cards for everyone. But Herman Benson, who died last month at his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. at the age of 104, was one of the lucky ones. And those of us who make a living fighting corruption and gangsterism in organized labor are luckier for it. Benson, in his lifetime, edited a weekly tabloid; helped draft the Landrum-Griffin Act, which is the basis for union financial accountability in this country; and for the last half-century ran the Association for Union Democracy (AUD), a Brooklyn-based nonprofit advocate for honest unionism. Though of the Left, Benson’s legacy is instructive across the political spectrum. “He was a one-man army in the union democracy movement for over 50 years,” notes Ken Paff, co-founder of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.
Make no mistake, Benson was a labor socialist. Yet he displayed a consistent willingness to denounce union leaders who operated as racketeers. Born in 1915 in the Bronx to Jewish parents, he got an early taste of union activism in the 1930s in various factory jobs, the first of which was making Shirley Temple dolls. A member of the Machinists union, he developed an affinity for socialism albeit independent of the Soviet regime. In 1939, along with several other trade union socialists, he formed the Workers Party, eventually running for mayor of Detroit in 1947 under its banner. After that experience, he returned to New York, writing for a party newspaper and exposing corruption at the nation’s unions. In one late-Fifties case, he exposed how A. L. Hayes, president of the International Association of Machinists, had covered for thievery by expelling members who tried to expose it. Ironically, Hayes chaired the AFL-CIO’s Ethical Practices Committee.
Given his growing expertise in the area of union corruption, Benson came to know many lawyers who prosecuted union crooks. This led to his role in shaping law and policy, most importantly, his collaboration with Yale law professor Clyde Summers in drafting the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act, also known as the Landrum-Griffin Act. This landmark 1959 law, enacted following lengthy hearings convened by Sen. John McClellan, D-Ark., gave federal officials overdue tools to detect, apprehend and remove criminals from the nation’s unions. The McClellan committee, whose staffers included Robert F. Kennedy, might not have exposed union corruption as effectively in the absence of Benson’s assistance.
A prolific writer, Benson authored numerous articles and several books – Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement (2004) is a must-have insider’s view. But it was his creation of the Association of Union Democracy (AUD) in 1969 that would give him a national platform. The Brooklyn-based organization provided a storehouse of information and ideas on how to challenge entrenched labor oligarchies. Whether a particular dispute was over an election, a trusteeship or a workplace grievance, Benson always held union leaders’ feet to the fire, knowing that they frequently employed tools of deception and intimidation such as blacklists, sweetheart deals with employers, threats, beatings and murders.
And murders were a reality, not just a possibility. In the spring of 1966, three years before AUD’s founding, two Painters union reformers in the San Francisco Bay Area, Dow Wilson and Lloyd Green, were murdered on orders from Ben Rasnick, secretary-treasurer of a Painters district council. Thanks to the efforts of Benson and an ad hoc committee he put together, Rasnick was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Two employer insurance fund trustees, Normal Call and Max Ward, also were convicted of murder. Predictably, neither the Painters union nor the AFL-CIO seemed much interested. Three and half years later, on New Year’s Eve of 1969, United Mine Workers dissenter Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, along with his wife and daughter, were murdered in their Pennsylvania home on orders from incumbent UMW President Tony Boyle after Yablonski had lodged a complaint following his defeat at the hands of Boyle in what almost certainly was a rigged election. Boyle eventually would be convicted of three counts of murder in April 1974. Benson followed this case very carefully. And he stepped up his research on union corruption through the fledgling AUD that much more vigorously. Much closer to home, in 1996, Herman Benson’s wife, Revella Benson, was murdered at the doorstep of their Brooklyn home in what appeared to be a robbery. The culprit was never caught. Whether or not this outrage was related to his exposing union corruption, he was not going to abandon his mission.
Herman Benson, being of the Left, was primarily focused on how unions can foster institutional change in the larger society. As such, he downplayed the right of individual workers to say “no” as well as “yes” to union representation. Ironically, his research and advocacy, if unintentionally, amplified the case for the Right to Work. Why, after all, should workers be forced to join or pay dues to a union which they believe to be corrupt or violent? A union is a means by which workers can improve their lot, not an end unto itself. If a union cannot deliver on its promises, its members and would-be members ought to have the power of refusal. Solidarity is a fine feeling, but it can’t be forced.
That said, Benson’s published work displayed an unceasing passion for reforming union self-governance. Embezzlers, fraudsters and other bad apples needed to be exposed, but the major villains, as he saw it, were union leaders more fixated on their position, power and money than on serving the employees they represent. Unions could never be effective advocates for democracy in the larger society if they won’t practice democracy in their own organizations. In an article for Dissent magazine (“The Divided Soul of Labor Leadership”), Benson wrote: “In their identification with a great social movement, in their capacity as workers’ leaders, most union officers would surely rejoice to see a labor movement purged of corruption, wholly dedicated to its membership, honored for its democracy and enlightenment. But they continually fall short of their own ideal standards; as union politicians – as distinguished from union leaders – they are men of power, driven by the need to hold tight to that power.” Those words were written in 1980, but they seem all too applicable today. Unions could use a few more people like Herman Benson.