Herman Benson, Who Fought Union Corruption, Dies at 104


Business News - Opportunities - Reviews



Herman Benson, a former machinist who crusaded against corrupt labor leaders and introduced democratic reforms to entrenched trade unions, sometimes overcoming the resistance of fellow unionists, died on July 2 at his home in Brooklyn, a week shy of his 105th birthday.

His death was confirmed by his daughter, Dr. Ellen Benson.

Mr. Benson put an early stamp on organized labor in the 1950s, when he helped draft landmark federal legislation with Clyde W. Summers, a Yale University law professor and a leading authority on organized labor.

The legislation, passed in 1959 as the Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act but better known as the Landrum-Griffin Act, granted rank-and-file workers guarantees of free speech, assembly, fair hiring and other civil liberties. (Its sponsors were Representative Phil Landrum, Democrat of Georgia, and Senator Robert P. Griffin, Republican of Michigan. Professor Summers had also worked with a young Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts in drafting the legislation.)

“That Bill of Rights for union members, and all the work it takes to realize its democratic intent, is Herman’s enduring legacy,” said William Kornblum, an emeritus sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

In 1969, Mr. Benson helped form the Association for Union Democracy, a nonprofit in Brooklyn to advocate for fair union elections, and edited its newsletter, Union Democracy Review.

“He was a one-man army in the union democracy movement for over 50 years,” said Ken Paff, founder of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which helped elect Ron Carey, a United Parcel Service driver from Queens, as the Teamster’s president in 1991.

Mr. Benson’s reach was wide: He helped empower the rank and file in unions representing painters, mineworkers, machinists, steelworkers, ironworkers, laborers, electrical workers and nurses.

His left-wing credentials dated to when he was 15, when he joined the Young People’s Socialist League, earning him a place on a federal government list of radicals who could be peremptorily interned during a national emergency. Still, he was scorned by some liberals, who argued that his democratic reforms could undermine organized labor’s solidarity.

Mr. Benson disagreed, saying that only a truly democratic union would best serve workers and the working class, and that unions that were undemocratic in their procedures would appear hypocritical when preaching democratic values in the United States and abroad.

“Unions organize first where workers are best situated to win their battle,” he wrote in 2010 in the socialist journal New Politics. “As they raise the standards of those who are victorious, they tend to lift the standards of the class, even those not organized.”

Herman William Benson was born on July 9, 1915, in the Bronx to Samuel and Lillian (Edelman) Benson. His father owned a Studebaker dealership in Washington Heights in Manhattan.

Mr. Benson graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and attended City College, but was expelled in 1933 for participating in a demonstration against the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program on campus. (He later received a draft deferment because of a hearing impairment, his daughter said.)

His affinity for labor drew him to factory jobs; his first was making Shirley Temple dolls. He went on to work as a machinist in New York and Detroit. In 1939, he and other breakaway socialists, including Max Shachtman and Hal Draper, formed the Workers Party, positioning it as an alternative to American capitalism and Stalinism. He ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Detroit in 1947 as the Workers Party candidate.

Mr. Benson then returned to New York and, over the next two decades, wrote for a weekly Workers Party newspaper and consulted with a Jewish vocational organization.

But his primary focus was the Association for Union Democracy, particularly after the assassinations of Joseph Yablonski, a labor leader with the United Mine Workers, and two activists in California, who had challenged the painters union establishment there. (Mr. Yablonski was murdered along with his wife and 25-year-old daughter in their southwestern Pennsylvania farmhouse, an incident that shocked the nation.)

“My dad, Jock Yablonski, relied on the pathbreaking work Herman had performed before he, my mother and sister were murdered,” Joseph A. Yablonski Jr. said in an email.

Credit…The Association for Union Democracy

In 1996, Mr. Benson’s wife, Revella (Sholiton) Benson, who worked for the United Federation of Teachers, was murdered at the doorstep of their home in the Windsor Terrace section of Brooklyn in a robbery. The culprit was never caught. Mr. Benson installed a granite and marble marker in the front garden that read, “May her killer rot in hell.”

“We were married 50 years,” he told The New York Times in 2000. “Her life for a time revolved around the house. Me?” he added in a self-mocking way, “I was trying to liberate humanity.”

In addition to their daughter Ellen, an emergency room doctor, Mr. Benson is survived by a son, Larry, who was a deputy chief of the New York City Fire Department. After his wife died, Mr. Benson lived with his partner, Lucy Dames, who died in 2014. He is also survived by her children, Tamar and Lisa Dames.

In 2015, Mr. Benson married Cherril Neckles-Benson. She, too, survives him, along with her children, Avellena McLean, Lerone Neckles-Bleasdille and Leonie Neckles-Shaw; nine grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

In 2014, as he approached 100, Mr. Benson prepared his own obituary, writing in the third person: “At the age of 60, after learning that those with a college degree had higher lifetime earnings, he got a B.A. in labor relations from the Empire State College; it didn’t help.”

In the obituary he viewed even his mortality through the prism of activism.

“Herman Benson waged a long, courageous, effective campaign against Old Age,” he wrote. “He seemed on the verge of success; but at the age of ??, just before the final battle, he died.”


Business News - Opportunities - Reviews



Leave a Reply