Thursday, October 14, 2004

Labor's newest savior

Andy Stern can’t complain about press coverage of his campaign to dump John Sweeney. The Wall Street Journal says he “is shaking up the labor movement.” The New York Times, in a widely reprinted story, reports that he “has called for overhauling the AFL-CIO.” Business Week, in a major front page feature story, as close to a puff piece as you can get, asks ---really suggests --- “Can This Man Save Labor?” Dennis Rivera was so impressed with the BW story that he rushed copies to all members of the executive council of Health and Human Services Local 1119.

Ten years ago, running against Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue, John Sweeney had issued the same kind of trumpet call. But there was one big difference. At that time, Sweeney’s campaign, and later victory, unleashed a gush of enthusiastic acclaim from the world of independent-minded intellectuals and liberal academics. Remember? The inspired declaration of 41 prominent writers calling for a new “alliance” of intellectuals with labor. Then the overflow crowds at “teach-ins” at all those universities. Then the formation of a new organization, SAWSJ, the Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice. (If, like me, you joined up, you may, like me, wonder: what ever became of it?)

Now Stern promises even more than Sweeney, yet there is no corresponding resounding echo from the wide world. Why? For one thing, they could be crying wolf. But there are more valid grounds for a healthy skepticism. Stern’s opening volley was sponsored by a group of five labor leaders, including himself, united in what they call the New Unity Partnership. One is Douglas McCarron, the Carpenters president, who has invented the very model of an ultra-authoritarian, centralized union which deprives members of their rights and turns power over to all-powerful district council heads whose authority derives from their unchecked right to hire and fire any paid staffer, local or district. The NUP would refashion the labor movement in McCarron’s spirit, which is why he is with the NUP even though he has left the AFL-CIO. Another NUP sponsor is Bruce Raynor, formerly president of the former UNITE. His union has disintegrated into the Hotel Union. Not a persuasive reference for someone who proposes to advise others on how to do it right.

The other two are John Wilhelm of the Hotel Union and Terrence O’Sullivan of the Laborers. Now both these unions were, for decades, on anybody’s top list of unions dominated by organized crime. That is not to say that O’Sullivan or Wilhelm are tainted. Not at all. They both are reputed to be decent fellows, able, and progressive. We will surely be cheered up in the future as their unions, under their firm direction, adopt the required inspiring resolutions on the proper subjects. However, neither led any revolt against their racket-infiltrated top officialdom. In fact they both were part of the dominant administration and emerged out of it into top leadership only under the protective arm of federal intervention. After Ed Hanley, Hotel president, was forced out of the union on corruption charges, he was allowed to retire with an annual pension of $350,000. In 1999, after Wilhelm took over, he named the union’s hall after Hanley. It would be imprudent to believe that these unions, apparently cleaned at the top, are refurbished below.

It is not a matter or moralizing over unpleasant facts. We all know the practical compromises and adjustments that life sometimes forces upon those in public life. You don’t have to be a saint to be a union leader; some say you can’t be.

If they really put their minds and their efforts and their money into it, the sponsors of the New Unity Partnership are bound to make some progress in organizing the unorganized in their selected fields. They can shake up the labor movement, which is all to the good. But can these leaders, in these unions, guided by their ideology of authoritarian control inspire a revitalization of the labor movement? Can they “save” the labor movement? Think again! We don’t need saints, but we do need union democrats.

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