American labor unions resemble private representative democracies, complete with formally constituted conventions and officer election procedures. Like other democratic institutions, unions have repeatedly experienced highly charged conflicts over the integration of ethnic minorities and women into leadership positions. In Becoming a Mighty Voice, Daniel B. Cornfield traces the fifty-five-year history of the United Furniture Workers of America (UFWA), describing the emergence of new social groups into union leadership and the conditions that encouraged or inhibited those changes.
This vivid case history explores leadership change during eras of union growth, stability, and decline, not simply during isolated episodes of factionalism. Cornfield demonstrates that despite the strong forces perpetuating existing union hierarchies, leadership turnover is just as likely as leadership stagnation. He also shows that factors external to the union may influence leadership change; periods of turnover in the UFWA leadership reflected employer efforts to find cheap, non-union labor, as well as union efforts to unionize workers. When unions are threatened by intensified conflict with employers and when entrenched high status groups within the union are obliged to recruit members of lower socioeconomic status, then new social groups are likely to be integrated into union leadership.
Becoming a Mighty Voice develops a theory of leadership change that will be of interest to many engaged in the labor, civil rights, and women's movements as well as to sociologists or historians of work, gender, and race, and to students of political and organizational behavior.
DANIEL B. CORNFIELD is associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.