Unions, Democracy, and Corruption

Often it is charged that unions are not democratic enough or are corrupt.

In reality, unions are some of the most thriving democratic institutions
in our society and serious corruption exists in only a tiny minority of

Much of the data for the following statements come from WHAT DO UNIONS
DO?, a 1984 book by Harvard University economics professors  Richard
Freeman and James Medoff.

The most complete survey available on union democracy is a 1977 survey of
union members by the University of Michigan Survey Research Center.  They
found that of workers who had been at a company more than three years:

76% had gone to a union meeting
73% had voted in a union election
16% had been elected to or nominated for an office in the union
28% had taken advantage of union services to file a grievance

Only 3% of union members surveyed cited lack of democracy as a serious
problem in their unions.

Other studies (cited by Freeman and Medoff) have shown that local union
leaders are replaced at rates of 20 to 60% each time elections are held, a
turnover of officers at the local level that goes against the stereotype
of local "bosses" holding onto power for long periods of time.

In the Steelworkers for example, a review of locals showed in 1973 that
42% of local Presidents were in their first term, 55% of vice-presidents
were new, and 40% of treasurers were new to their office.

There is less turnover at the national level.  Roughly 9 to 12% of
national presidents are replaced each year.  The average term of a
national union leader is eight years, still a quite reasonable term of
office when compared to other democratic institutions in our society.

How about improper conduct in elections? The US Department of Labor found
that from 1965 to 1974, there were only 239 charges of improper conduct
out of over 200,000 elections held in the period, a rate of violations of
approximately 0.1%.  This is consistent with the survey of union members
which shows that lack of democracy is minimal in unions.

So unions are quite vibrant and democratic institutions with high
participation and high turnovver of leadership, two signs of their
democratic nature.

So, what about corruption?  There are a small minority of union locals
that are corrupt, focused in a few building trades areas (New York is
notorious) and the Teamsters.

In 1978, estimates by the Attorney General's office were that 300 local
unions had serious corruption problems.  However, this was 300 out of
65,000 union locals, so less than 1% of union locals had any serious
corruption problem. 

Let's compare that result to a survey by FORTUNE magazine  in 1980 of corrupt
acts in 1,043 large US corporations.  They defined corportate corruption as
"bribery, criminal fraud, illegal political contributions, tax evasion,
and criminal anti-trust violations."  The FORTUNE survey found that 117
corporations, or 11% of the total, had at least one serious violation in
the period and some had been cited more than once.  In total, there were
188 citations.  Since the study excluded foreign bribes and kickbacks, it
underestimated the possible violations.  If the study had been extended to
smaller companies, FORTUNE notes that the violation rate probably would
have been higher, since "the bribing of purchasing agaents by small
manufacturers and the skimming of receipts by cash-laden small retail
business are a commonplace of commercial life."

So compared to businesses, unions are more honest on average and engage in
much less corruption.  And the scale of corporate corruption, from S&L
fraud to environmental crimes is much more costly to society.

The media, however, focuses its attention on the union exceptions.  Most
unions are honest and democratic as the above information shows.