"Why Should the Business Agents Be Bigger Than the Organization?": A Study of Failed Rebellion in New York City’s Painters’ Union, 1947 to 1973

Document Type




Format of Original

21 p.

Publication Date



Sage Publications

Source Publication

Labor Studies Journal

Source ISSN


Original Item ID

doi: 10.1177/0160449X09337901


Union democracy has tended to result in prolabor contracts in the American labor movement. However, many rank-and-file movements attempting to transform staff-led unions into democratic ones have experienced failure. The author examines some of the reasons why insurgent democracy movements are often unable to institute lasting democratic structures and militant reforms in the building trades, through an in-depth analysis of a failed rebellion in New York City’s painters’ union from 1947 to 1973. In contrast to recent literature that explains success and failure by emphasizing the traits of the general membership and the tactics of insurgent reformers, the author argues that fuller attention should be given to the union characteristics that generate staff power. In particular, the author shows that job allocation through the hiring hall is one means by which a corrupt staff can discipline an insurgent membership. The author also shows that when these conditions are undermined through contestation, staff-employer collusion can continue to make discipline through job allocation possible.


Labor Studies Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3 (September 2010): 322-342. DOI.

Michael McCarthy was affiliated with New York University at the time of publication.