Clyde W. Summers, legal scholar who advocated union democracy, dies at 91

Clyde W. Summers, a major force in the movement to democratize unions, died Oct. 30 at age 91.
Clyde W. Summers, a major force in the movement to democratize unions, died Oct. 30 at age 91. (Courtesy Of University Of Pennsylvania Law School)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 22, 2010; 10:06 PM

Clyde W. Summers, a legal scholar who was a major force in the movement to democratize unions, died Oct. 30 at a retirement home in Germantown, Pa., of complications from a stroke. He was 91.

As a professor at Yale University and later at the University of Pennsylvania, he was an activist and intellectual leader in the effort to protect the rights of individual employees in the workplace. A staunch believer in the role of labor unions, Professor Summers was just as resolute about ensuring that they allowed free and fair elections as well as dissent among members.

"Clyde Summers was not the first, and certainly not the only scholar in the mid-twentieth century to focus on union democracy," Widener University law professor Michael J. Goldberg wrote earlier this year, "but he was without doubt the most prolific and the most influential."

Professor Summers rose to prominence in the 1950s with a series of reports for the American Civil Liberties Union and scholarly articles about the need for union democracy. Late that decade, when a high-profile Senate committee found evidence of mob influence and other illegal activities among unions, Professor Summers was tapped to help craft a new law in response.

Professor Summers told a congressional subcommittee in 1999 that his proposals were "founded upon the accepted facts that we must have democracy in industry as well as government" and that meant "fair participation by those who work in the decisions vitally affecting their lives and livelihood."

Those proposals became the foundation for the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, a bill of rights for the rank and file that ensured freedom of speech, regular secret elections for union officers and a promise that the Labor Department would review any alleged election improprieties.

The law's provisions revolutionized unions' internal affairs, giving workers a new tool to ensure their voices were being heard and heeded by union leaders.

Over more than half a century, Professor Summers continued to shape union democracy's scholarly framework as the author of dozens of articles and several important casebooks.

He also worked outside academia, serving as an adviser for plaintiffs' lawyers in hundreds of cases that arose from the Landrum-Griffin Act and for many years as a member of the board of directors of the Association for Union Democracy.

He wrote widely in other areas of labor law and was a prominent voice in the effort to change the common-law policy of employment at will - or what Professor Summers called "the anachronistic legal rule that employees can be discharged for any reason or no reason."

Clyde Wilson Summers was born Nov. 21, 1918, in Grass Range, Mont. He moved with his family several times before settling on a farm near Winchester, Ill. After his mother died while he was young, he helped his father run the farm until he went to the University of Illinois at 16.

He graduated in 1939 and, after contemplating a career as a Methodist pastor, received a law degree in 1942.


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