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Few New Ideas
Let’s face it: the labor movement has come up with only one new, good idea in well over half a century, and I’ll get to it. Otherwise, it’s been the same old guys steadfastly not rocking the boat for a while and then bringing in a new generation of “leaders” whom they assiduously trained not to rock the boat. And then the cycle repeated, again and again.
The leaders of both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win group are still the same as before. Sure, they talk a little better, they now realize that unions are in big trouble, and they can describe a bunch of external causes of unions’ problems, but they cannot see principal problem: it’s them!! They do not see they are clones of their predecessors and that all of them together have led us into this dead-end canyon.
I surely do not say that those leading this country’s (and Canada’s) unions today are not dedicated people. Most are. And I do not say that they have no regard for the lives and problems of their organizations’ members. Most do, some more than others, of course. Historically, the situation has been like a bunch of vampires looking into a big mirror. The union movement’s leaders since the 1930s had no reflections and saw everything else but themselves sucking the life out of the union movement. Thus, they could not find a path around the spot unions are in these days. I think today’s leaders are trying harder, but as yet have not done any better.
The Good Idea
What was that one really good idea I mentioned? About four years ago, the leadership of the AFL-CIO publicly called for new ideas and suggestions as to how the labor movement could revitalize itself. Contributions gushed in, from members and non-members alike! While some were better than others, all showed a great interest in the welfare of unions and a desire to see a better future for them.
The AFL-CIO posted the letters and statements on its web site for all to read and think about, at www.aflcio.org/ourfuture. Unfortunately, the organization has since password-protected the location of those contributions, to keep out the rabble, I guess. If one has an exact link to a particular contribution, it can still be accessed, but one cannot just go there and browse anymore.
The key element of this public discussion is, of course, how did the AFL-CIO and member unions take advantage of this outpouring of support, interest and thinking about the future of the labor movement? The short answer is that it didn’t!! The leaders of labor let this great store of ideas sink, with barely a ripple.
Reduced to Nothing
Perhaps my friend, a retired OCAW1 staff member, didn’t notice it at the time, but he saw this happen right before his eyes, at the same time I saw it, at the back-to-back PACE 2/USWA3 merger conventions in 2005. He and I spoke to each other there, after a retired OCAW officer brought me over to where he was sitting. Here’s what happened: Rich Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, spoke at both conventions. First, at the PACE convention, Trumka talked from the podium about the federation’s public discussion and the great influx of ideas. And then he said something like “I’m sure that you want to hear what some PACE members contributed” and proceeded to read a few letters that said words to the effect of “Hey, brother, you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work!”, signed, PACE member Joe Blow. Applause!
Then, a day or so later at the USWA convention, Trumka talked from the podium about the federation’s public discussion and the great influx of ideas. And then he said something like “I’m sure that you want to hear what some USWA members contributed” and proceeded to read a few letters that said words to the effect of “Hey, brother, you’re doing a great job. Keep up the good work!”, signed, Steelworker member Fred Schmoe. Applause!
And that was that! All of the thought and effort of all of the contributors to the discussion was reduced by AFL-CIO leaders to using little bits of it to get themselves a few pats on the back by pandering. They just wanted to generate a little patriotic applause at those two union gatherings, and who knows how many others. Nothing life-changing, nothing union-building, nothing otherwise controversial or significant has ever come of any of it, as far as I can tell. It was all squandered!
Lots of People Want To Help Unions
I know full well that I’m not the only person who has noticed all of this. For decades, there have been individuals, groups and even on-going organizations like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, that have been trying to change things in their own ways. They have not only noticed the state of unions, but made great efforts to do something about it and assure that unions really do have a future.
My own former union, the OCAW, provides as good a microcosm of the situation as any, and examining it a little will help understand why the union movement as a whole is failing. Longtime OCAW members remember what happened. After years of slow decline due to automation, government policies and the loss of some of its most spirited members in Canada, who wanted to go their own way, the OCAW was starting to fade away. And this was despite the fact that the union was one of the most democratic in the U.S., had practically invented industrial health and safety and was one of the main forces behind passing OSHA.
The person who was behind those notable achievements was a very creative and original thinker, the late Tony Mazzocchi. He didn’t do it all alone, of course, and had lots of members and even non-members assisting him, many of whom were creative and original thinkers in their own right.
Struggle for Leadership
By the time that the slide really started to show, when the 1979 convention came around, Tony ran for the union presidency. He lost, but tried again in 19814, with a program to turn the OCAW around so that it was facing the future. Tony and his supporters did not want to see the union just doing the same old things that were letting it slip slowly into obscurity. Although most everyone now puts Tony on a pedestal, in 1981 he and his supporters were viewed by the union leadership as an evil empire. It was a time when the OCAW leadership tried nearly every dirty trick in the book to be able to defeat Tony’s candidacy and continue doing the same old things, regardless of consequences for the union. (Many OCAW members supported the incumbent, because there was no free flow of ideas in the organization, except for what the incumbents said. Much of the membership didn’t really understand what Mazzocchi was all about until years later. Besides, in such organizations there are always a significant number of delegates who will vote for the current leadership no matter what!) And the leaders of nearly all other unions, as well as the AFL-CIO itself, were acting exactly the same.
I remember it very well, of course, because I was one of Mazzocchi’s supporters in the tightly-controlled District 1, on the west coast. Incumbent president Bob Goss5 was from the Long Beach local, 1-128, and vice president Joe Misbrenner6 was from my local, 1-547, locals which have since merged to form local 675. Anyone with the temerity to display different ideas from the OCAW’s leadership was supposed to be squashed like a bug, democracy be damned!
Tony lost the election narrowly, but it was personally more disastrous for me. Because of the machinations of local and district officials, under orders from the OCAW leadership, I was arbitrarily denied my elected convention delegate status, I lost my job, I lost my local union offices and seat on the executive board and I lost my position as the elected chairman of my bargaining union, never to regain any of them. (You can find a short description of the events in Les Leopold’s biography of Tony Mazzocchi.)
The other half of the equation is what the OCAW lost. It lost the leadership of Tony Mazzocchi, and all of the creativity that it implied. (Although Bob Goss and his successors eventually had to admit that Tony had the better program, their adoption was half-hearted at best, a day late and a dollar short. Further, the adoption was done with the understanding that their dominion over the OCAW would not be questioned.)
There were many OCAW members and staff that were stifled and scattered to the four winds. Others learned the severe lesson that they should never allow their best ideas to see the light of day in the OCAW, because they might then suffer what other Mazzocchi supporters and I endured. And, for better or for worse, the OCAW lost whatever talents and skills that I might have been able to bring to the service of the union over the years. I had to find my own way elsewhere.
Insult and Injury
That was, however, neither the end nor the worst of it. Other local 1-547 members and I filed charges against local leaders because of their actions around the 1981 convention. After two years of pushing them through OCAW channels, they came before the delegates at the 1983 convention. Then, with the efforts of some Mazzocchi supporters and me (I was by then out of the union), our charges were supported by the majority of the delegates and we prevailed. It was a pyrrhic victory, however. Goss, still the OCAW president, outright refused to do anything about it. (I still have his letter, along with everything else. I had spent much of my free time from 1981 to 1984 trying to train and encourage a new generation of leaders in local 1-547 who had come out of the 1980 strike and the 1981 Mazzocchi fight. They eventually prevailed and began leading that one local in a better, member-oriented direction.)
Goss and his successors decided to add insult to injury. In 1981, they had promised a delegate a position as an international representative if he would throw the votes he had been elected to cast for Mazzocchi to Bob Goss, instead. Those votes would significantly help Goss win the election. They finally delivered on the promise of the staff job, and sent this corrupted individual to, you guessed it, local 1-547. There he started in on his own life of corruption. He recruited some thugs and started pushing local members into falsely submitting claims for overtime, and kicking back part of the proceeds to himself. This went on until the new leaders of the local union caught wind of it and turned in the rep to the FBI, who prosecuted and convicted him and some who assisted him. Another red-letter day for labor!
The End of the OCAW
All OCAW members know what has happened since. The OCAW disappeared, merging with the Paperworkers, an even less democratic union with a more stodgy and old-fashioned leadership. But the slide continued, eventually leading to PACE itself disappearing into the much larger Steelworkers union. This was a union that had been organized and run from the top down from its very beginning, never even having a member-run history to look back on.
The current generation of Steelworker leaders seem intelligent, concerned and capable, in a traditional sort of way, and have been reaching out to similar organizations in other countries. (The USW’s president, Leo Gerard, is a Canadian, and those folks up there have a few things they can teach us down here. But they also must get used to the ways of people who don’t put pictures of foreign royalty on their money.) However, even with all of the different unions the USW has absorbed in recent years, it has still not come up with any great and new ideas for itself and the rest of the labor movement.
Ideas — If You Don’t Ask for Them, You Won’t Get Them
Most unions around the country have followed a similar course to the OCAW. Instead of inviting participation from lots of members and coming up with a plan for answering the challenges of our country independently, unions’ leaders have lived corporate lifestyles, assumed that they themselves were the only ones with worthwhile ideas and continuously suppressed the unions’ creative engines. Worse, they relied, not on independent power, but on the Democratic Party.
Up into the 1930s, the U.S. labor movement consisted of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), a collection of mostly old-fashioned unions fixated on organizing workers by craft. One day, in the living room of Harvey C. Fremming, president of the Oil Workers International Union, a predecessor of the OCAW, plans were laid for a new labor federation. This new organization, later called the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), would organize the millions of industrial workers in factories all over the country and do the work that the AFL had refused to do. The key event in separating the new group from the old was when United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis punched Carpenters Union President Bill Hutcheson in the nose at the AFL Convention in 1935. Lewis went on to be the first leader of the CIO.
Natural and Unnatural Selection, or Survival of the Fattest
Some of the details have changed, but in general unions are operating as in the past. Looking at employment ads for union staff positions, one will very often see something like “must be committed to social justice.” This sounds a little mysterious at first, perhaps, but it becomes quite clear once one understands that it isn’t an referring to any special competence, but is really a code. Having a “commitment to social justice” is a code for insisting that job applicants have a left-liberal/progressive/socialist ideology. It’s an indicator of a generational change in some unions’ leaderships in a leftward direction. I don’t mean to say that this is a bad thing. Whether or not one agrees with that ideology, it does signify a certain learning of lessons from the past and a degree of openness to change. But using such an expression in hiring advertisements indicates that the union leaders are still looking for clones of themselves, people more likely to say “yes!” than “why?”
Any kind of narrow selection or closed-mindedness toward applicants for a union staff position is a bad sign. So long as applicants support the mission of the union, any ideological criteria mean that the idea-pool of the organization is getting narrower instead of broader. Moreover, any insistence that staff positions be filled from inside a union and not by people from the outside, does the same thing. Science has found that genetically engineering plants for particular, narrow characteristics, such as more seeds, better flavor or easier harvesting, also increases the probability of the strain being wiped out by the next disease that comes along. When breeding for certain characteristics, the strain loses breadth and some of its ability to survive adversity. It’s the same with the labor movement. Whether the old guard or the new, filling the organization with a narrow spectrum of people will limit the organization’s intelligence and creativity, making it more likely to succumb when times change.
The point of all this is that we never know where the next great idea will come from. We don’t advocate fist-fights, but by golly, it worked in 1935. Union leaders today sycophantically follow the Democrats, but Lewis was a life-long Republican. If labor leaders only consider things that are safe, and preserve the status quo and their own positions, the doom of unions is sealed.
The Purview of the Labor Movement
Just what is within the purview of a labor union? The initiation oaths that I recall defined the union as a “labor and fraternal” organization. The labor part concerns, at a minimum, improving the members’ wages, benefits and working conditions in the workplace. In addition to such representation, it would also include related political activity, such as improving the way the health care system is run so that the members get the best care possible, but also considering what employers and the country can afford.
A union’s scope should also include solidarity with other unions, and even with workers not yet organized into unions, because doing these things would benefit its own members. Also reasonable would be the more generalized political activity of insuring that the country as a whole functions democratically and does not favor other groups in society over the needs of working people. However a union doing this must use caution and remember that diverse memberships might contain different views. It should educate members about all of the possibilities, and the various points of view of the membership must be taken into account.
The organization has a responsibility not to allow the needs and views of its members to be ignored or neglected by any political organization in which the union participates. To do this faithfully means that a union or collection of unions must have a significant degree of control over any political party it supports, and needs to have a role greater than begging when a political platform is created and candidates for office are chosen.
The fraternal activities of the organization includes looking after the individual, not-in-the-workplace welfare of members and the communities in which they reside. This would include assistance to individual members facing some major challenge, donations to charities, blood drives, etc. It means members helping members and members and participating in their communities.
Issues Are Poison
Practices that ought to be outside the latitude of union activities are those that attempt to tell people, members or not, how to live their lives. For example, unions should not be saying either it’s okay to have an abortion or that it’s not okay. Providing factual information that can help folks in voting their consciences is one thing; suggesting how they should vote is another. This is where union leaders’ active or passive support of issues like gun control (more on this below) hurts them. They are making a decision that usurps the members’ right to decide for themselves. Worse, they are not even considering the issue fairly, nor the cruciality of individual liberties to their organizations’ existence. Still worse, they are letting an outside political organization decide for them.
There are many issues floating about in the country today, be they guns or illegal immigration or global warming. They can be pure poison for a labor organization. The more ideas a person must agree with to join an organization, the fewer people are going to want to join. Unions need to allow room for the various views of different members, perhaps providing facts and education, but not taking a position. That is, unless they want their members to go elsewhere in search of political guidance! That is exactly the position the labor movement finds itself in today.
General-Interest or Special-Interest
For much of the history of unions, they were looked upon as general-interest organizations. Unions earned that view by trying to improve the whole of society. They didn't just concentrate on narrow goals for their own memberships, but took on child labor, adulteration food and drugs, robber barons and monopolies, pollution, wages, working hours and conditions, workplace health and safety, and more. Now, however, unions represent only a small percentage of workers in the country and they have let themselves lose the power to take on the big problems. They have allowed themselves to spend more time and energy on issues of behavior and, for the lack of a better expression, “political correctness.” Although unions still view their role as the same as always, they have allowed their opponents’ propaganda machines to portray them as special-interest organizations. This makes it more difficult to sway the public back to the idea that the society should allow unions to advance and grow, because that would be good for society as a whole. And the root of the problem is what labor leaders have done (or not done) or allowed to happen in their organizations.
Resident Evil — The Democrats
Oh how unions have suffered from their dependence on the Democratic Party! Not only didn’t the Democrats help unions, even when they were the majority party, and get rid of odious legal provisions that weakened unions and their ability to organize, they went in the other direction. They helped pass laws like Landrum-Griffin. They helped business power grow and deindustrialize the country. They helped pass so-called “free trade” laws like NAFTA.
And, like whipped curs, the leaders of American unions and the AFL-CIO kept wagging their collective tail and supporting their master. The members (and potential members), never educated nor encouraged by their continually re-elected leaders, never objected either. They had been given no alternative program by their leaders and their attention just drifted away.
The slavish devotion to the Democratic Party by labor leaders had even worse, more insidious effects. For the last four decades, the Democrats have been slowly, and except for the recent election, increasingly driving their own supporters into the arms of the Republican Party. They have been adopting contradictory attitudes, at the same time both more liberal-and-democratic and less liberal-and-democratic. They haven’t yet fathomed that, as Harry Truman once quipped, “If you give the people a choice between a Republican and a Republican, they’ll choose the Republican every time.”
Our Way or the Highway
The Democratic Party leadership’s attitude toward folks who disliked it has been “Like it, or vote for someone else.” Labor’s leaders have chosen not to ask questions and went along. Many union members and supporters chose the opposite path and decided to vote for someone else. The Democrats got weaker, and dragged unions down with them. The Republicans got steadily stronger, with many workers seemingly voting against their own interests and supporting them. The leaders of labor are still scratching their heads over this and have been vainly flailing about hoping to reverse the trend, while not even trying to understand it. Were it not for the complete and utter stupidity and incompetence of George W. Bush’s presidency, the electorate would have put yet another Republican in the White House. Obama didn’t win because he was so great, but because the opposition party had so debased itself.
The primary example of this political behavior is gun control. Up through 1968, at least, gun control was always something used to keep Blacks in an inferior position. It was something very sordid. The National Rifle Association was viewed differently then, and was not very political, especially when it did things like training African Americans in the South in the use of firearms to protect themselves from marauding racists. Even traditional liberals like John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey were members.
Starting in the 1970s, liberals started pushing gun control, in contradiction to their generally more open-minded positions on other issues. Democrats started saying that opposition to gun control was a conservative issue. After having that idea repeated often enough in the media, folks started to believe it. Working class people especially, because they had a tradition of using guns to put food on the table and to protect themselves, and to protect the country in war, knew viscerally and instinctively that there was something wrong with that position. They understood that the Second Amendment was written for a reason. In light of the position that the Democrats were drumming into them, many, even union members, felt more and more that they must be conservative. Of course, the Republicans welcomed them with open arms.
Guns Better than Butter
The more the Democrats pushed gun control, the more people they drove away. The more workers were alienated by such policies, the less they admired and trusted their union leaders, who followed the Democrats unquestioningly. (Over the years, AFL-CIO leaders passed several resolutions supporting gun control.) It became a spiral. More people voted Republican, so labor leaders clung more tightly to the Democrats, who touted gun control more strongly, alienating more union members. Unfortunately, it really didn’t matter whether 10% or 40% or 80% of the members opposed gun control. Many union leaders actively or blunderingly took a position that a significant number of members opposed, one that was not within the purview of the organization’s mission. They neither explained themselves nor educated the members, so they suffered a loss of respect.7
After a dozen years of Republicans in the White House, a potential break came. A southerner, obviously more conservative than the Democrats of the past, ran for the office. People who had been told that they were more conservative, even though their views in total were more Democratic, thought that this Democrat might be different and voted him into office. Unfortunately, he turned out to be the worst of all, passing laws that seriously abridged peoples’ rights under the Second Amendment (along with a terrible civil liberties record8), and his arrogant wife became even more hated than he was. The political polarization that had been growing in the country quickly ratcheted up a few notches, and the Republican propaganda machine seized the opportunity. Despite advice from Democratic Party politicians that supporting such laws would cost votes for the Democrats, Clinton persevered and the Democrats suffered in Congress.9
The spiral continued. Gun control advocates continued lying that they were trying to reduce crime, when reputable academic research showed the opposite: the more guns that were owned and carried by law-abiding people, the more the deterrence effect and the lower the crime rate. Union leaders were oblivious, clueless, and stuck to the Democrats even though the Democrats were giving them the shaft. Too many officers and staff people in unions bought into that faulty liberal view, without doing any research and independent thinking on their own, and union leaders kept moving down the wrong path. They continued past policies of muffling any opposition from below; this served them very poorly.
Private, legal ownership of firearms increased by the tens of millions, with crime rates steadily falling, concisely disproving any silly notions that guns cause crime. (Now 80% of states have laws that allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed weapons, and have seen their crime rates drop faster than the states that didn’t pass such laws.) But the Democrats persisted, as did the leaders of labor, and the gulf between leader and member widened.
Opportunism Wins the Day
It’s only in the last few years that union leaders and Democrats have awakened to their problem. Unfortunately, neither group has tried to understand it. I mentioned above that I attended the PACE/USWA merger conventions. Senator Richard Gephardt was there, and he spoke to the delegates of the new union. He gave a rousing pro-union and pro-Democrat speech and mentioned that some union members had a different position on firearms from the Democrats. His suggestion was that other members should “talk to” the members with that different point of view, and urge them to vote for the Democrats.
Gephardt did not, however, give them anything useful to say. Should they say “Sure, the Democrats have been trying to take away one of your fundamental liberties for thirty years. We urge you to vote for them anyway.”? It was, in fact, the union leaders who ought to have been explaining their tacit support of such an awful position to their members. Instead, it was the leadership’s position, passed down through the international union representatives, that the gun issue was a “diversion” from what was really important and that the union’s economic view should be paramount. I doubt that many members were persuaded that anything else trumps the Bill of Rights.
Instead of correcting the faulty gun control policy, the Democrats hoped to avoid more damaging fallout from it by simply not mentioning it in the recent election. This is the kind of opportunism that union leaders have been supporting all these years. When Obama mentioned it at all, he tried to cover up his past gun control support by saying that he supported “common sense” laws on firearms. He didn’t say why his “common sense” would be more valuable than volumes of solid academic research that shows that his view is neither the common view, nor does it make any sense.
Democrats always make rousing, pro-union speeches before union audiences. The key question is, do they make the same speeches before all audiences? If they do not, then they are not really our friends. It doesn’t really matter whether that party betrays union members by refusing to fight for labor or by forcing Americans to choose between keeping their jobs and preserving fundamental liberties. Better that unions take a whipping from a Republican administration than to invite false friends and traitors into the house of labor.
Doing What is Necessary
Labor leaders have a lot of explaining to do if they ever hope to regain the trust of their members and potential members. Where I live in the Los Angeles area, I can see miles and miles of factories, in big corridors and regions of the metropolitan area. They stretch fifty miles inland, and are mostly non-union. There ought to be a union organizer on every corner working to change the situation. A decade ago there was a big, well thought out plan to organize many of the industrial workers here. However, unions wouldn’t work together and contribute to it, and they destroyed the effort10, just as they let the opportunity for a Labor Party slip away. Instead of organizing, unions spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting the Democrats.
Explaining those missed opportunities is just the beginning. The modern labor movement has a long history. I elaborated on the problems of the OCAW as an illustration of the failings of unions in general. However, to listen to past and current leaders of labor, such problems don’t exist. They choose never to address the wrongs their movement has perpetrated upon its members and upon American society in the past. I’m not talking what the press focuses on: mafia-style corruption and such. That is peanuts! Unions have never been more than a tiny bit as financially corrupt as business is, no matter what one reads in the papers. I’m talking about the real corruption in unions, the political corruption, the quashing of alternative views of what unions should be doing, and the lack of real democracy. But in the fantasy world of the leaders of unions, none of this ever happened. What else doesn’t exist?
And since such things in the past didn’t happen, then they are not a problem today and won’t be in the future, right? To say otherwise would necessarily indict the union leaders who taught the current leaders their trade, and so on into the past. Those leaders who feel that they themselves are “clean” and “progressive” because they haven’t been caught stealing anything are fooling only themselves. At the very best, they are guilty of having no good ideas for the future. At the worst, they are complicit in trying to cover up the past.
If today’s leaders wish to be seen as different from the union leaders of the bad old days of the past, they will have to make that separation themselves. They will have to go public about what they have and haven’t done and what their predecessors did and didn’t do. There is no other way! This is, indeed, a purgation to purify the souls of the organizations, but it’s not just that. It’s also a part of the education of the members. They need to know the past before they can successfully face the future. Moreover, it is also a test. Any plan to change the downward course of unions and the country in general will have to be bold and original. Union members deserve to know that the officers and leaders of their organizations have courage and won’t just run home and hide under the blankets when the going gets tough. Any leader who cannot face up to the past certainly can’t be depended upon to fight for the future.
When Hercules had the task of cleaning the Augean Stables, he had to divert two rivers two wash away the filth. Labor leaders are going to have to do the same in their own organizations if they ever hope to pass the test and be trusted. That is only the first step that they must take if they wish to create a future for unions in this country. They have shown that don’t yet have any ideas for the future that differ from the vacuousness of the past. The labor leaders, if they are to really lead, must seek out those in society that are creative enough to build a program of the future both for unions and for the country as a whole. Unions have the opportunity to lead the country out of its current mess, but only if they become independent of the political forces that got us into this situation.
None of this means that current union leaders should be sent to the guillotine! However, they are going to have to take the risk of trying to bring major change to their organizations. There is always the chance that the members will say “get out, you bum, you’ve hurt us enough already.” It’s more likely, however, that members will be glad to have someone whom they know has the intelligence and intestinal fortitude to explain and make the changes, and not want to substitute someone else whom they do not really know.
The time is short, the future is dim, and trust has worn very thin indeed. If the so-called leaders of labor don’t cast off the past, who will? We are at a critical time and if union members do not push union leaders to do this, we face a dark and probably fascistic future. It really is now or never.
January 20, 2009
Permalink: Labor Leaders and the Future of Unions
Last Updated — April 06, 2013