Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The Blue Eagle: reviving an old legal weapon to open a new road for labor

The Blue Eagle at Work; democratic rights in the American work place, by Charles J. Morris. Cornell ILR Press. 310 pp. 2005.

Reviewed by Herman Benson

Law professor Clyde W. Summers inspired this book. Theodore J. St. Antoine, who writes the foreword, calls Summers “that imaginative legal thinker and doughty champion of workers’ rights.” In 1990, Summers wrote a short piece in the Chicago-Kent Law Review entitled, “Unions Without a Majority –a Black Hole.” His theme was taken up briefly and unobtrusively by a few legal scholars, notably Alan Hyde, apparently without making much of an impact at the time. But now, with this book-length treatment by law professor Charles Morris, Summers’s 15-year old law review piece commands attention.

Before writing this book, the author set out “to determine the accuracy of Professors Summers’s thesis.” After prodigious research, Morris was so convinced that he came up with a persuasive, closely reasoned work that is essentially a 230-page legal, moral, and practical brief in support of Summers, accompanied by 60 pages of bolstering citations and references in the form of notes.

The National Labor Relations Act, in section 9(a), provides that “representatives selected by a majority of employees in a bargaining unit shall be the exclusive representative for the purposes of collective bargaining of all employees in the bargaining unit.” But what about those situations where no majority union has been selected, or even where a majority of the employees have voted to reject any union representation? Where there is no majority representative, Summers insisted, the law clearly protects the right of unions which represent a minority to act on behalf of its own members, not to represent the majority but its own members. The “black hole,” he argued, was the failure of the labor movement to demand that right and to exercise it, and the failure of the National Labor Relations Board, in practice, to defend that right.

Summers wrote that in 1935 “Congress proclaimed basic rights of American workers in the sweeping words of section 7 of the Wagner Act” which reads:

“Employees shall have the right to self organization, to form join and assist labor organizations, to bargaining collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities, for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid and protection.”

This provision is reinforced by Section 8(1) which declares, “It shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer to interfere with or coerce employees in the exercise of their rights guaranteed by section 7.”

In the absence of a majority union with exclusive bargaining rights for all employees, Summers argued, the law gives a union representing a minority the right to act for its members and to seek bargaining rights to represent its members, not the majority but only its own members. And he listed a whole series of practical measures that such a minority union could legally undertake to enforce its rights, including a strike, so long as it seeks to represent only its own members, not the majority.

What are the obligations of the employer? Summers wrote, “We have probably proceeded too long on the questionable assumption that the employer has no affirmative duty to bargaining with a non-majority union to now recognize that duty short of a statutory amendment.”

In at least one respect, however, author Morris exudes a conviction, even an enthusiasm, that goes beyond Summers. Morris agrees that new remedial legislation to impose upon employers the obligation of bargaining with minority unions is not likely. But he is convinced that the law’s requirements are already textually so clear, and the arguments for them so persuasive, that new legislation is unnecessary. He concedes that it will not be easy to overcome employer hostility or to reverse the NLRB’s presumption against minority union bargaining. But what he presents is no mere intellectual exercise. In his own words he offers what “is in effect, a procedural manual on how workers and unions can more efficiently reach the goal….”

In the early confrontations between unions and employers, Morris notes, it was common practice for unions to represent only their own members, especially when employers, resisting the union shop, sought to limit union power. In the early days of the New Deal, before the adoption of the Wagner Act, minority union bargaining was an accepted fact. Even after the adoption of the Wagner Act, the first union agreements with U.S. Steel and General Motors recognized the Auto Workers and the Steel Workers as representatives only of their members and no others. It was only later that the unions won the exclusive right to represent all employees. Morris emphasizes that today, just as the in the thirties, wining the right to minority representation can be the first step toward wining the majority.

He piles up the evidence: from the plain text of the law, from the record of Congressional intent, from U.S. obligations under international law. And even from the constitutional right to assembly.

It has taken years of neglect, he argues, for the experiences of the past to be forgotten and for the assumption to prevail that only majority unions are entitled to collective bargaining rights, an assumption that is not backed, he says, by any case law. To reestablish minority rights he maps out a multi- pronged practical program of action:

He proposes that a union representing only a minority demand recognition by an employer as representative only for it own members. When the employer refuses, as is likely, the union files an unfair labor practice with the NLRB.

If the NLRB rejects the complaint, as is also likely, the union pickets the employer demanding recognition, always only for its own members. If the NLRB, at the behest of the employer, finds the union guilty of an unfair labor practice, the union can raise the issue in federal court by challenging the NLRB ruling.

To bring pressure on the NLRB and to help bring the whole issue to public attention, the labor movement, he suggests, can file a petition with the NLRB, backed by a public campaign, asking it to adopt a rule, substantially as follows:

Where employees in an appropriate bargaining unit are not currently represented by a certified or recognized section 9(a) exclusive/majority labor organization, the employer, upon request, has a duty to bargain with a minority labor organization on behalf of the employees who are its members, but not on behalf of any other employees.

This book can be heavy stuff for the general reader. Much of it seems designed to persuade union leaders, labor lawyers, judges, and NLRB personnel. But it is an important book; these days, it can be a very important book. The labor movement is looking for new ways, new weapons to organize the unorganized. The SEIU has formed a Wal-Mart Workers Association to bring workers together in a hostile anti-union environment. The Communications Workers of America has organized groups of workers in non-union GE shops. Author Morris shows one way to break through the anti-union wall. He seems so committed to the aim that he might even be available to help.

(The above is an advance copy of a review to be published in “Religious Socialism.” For a sample copy of the periodical, write to One Maolis Street, Nahant, MA .01908)

Saturday, October 22, 2005

A fine feud with no fighting!

Seven unions, united in the Change to Win coalition, have finally formed their new federation to rival the AFL-CIO. The Carpenters had left the AFL-CIO long before; it is now a model of bureaucratic, non-democratic centralism. The Teamsters, Laborers, Service Employees, UNITE/HERE, and the Food Workers have just seceded. The United Farm Workers remains affiliated to both rival federations. Even before any battle has been engaged, the two camps already seem to have arrived at an unspoken armistice. Many on both sides, forced by their international affiliations to become partisans, seem shaken and dismayed by the split. Their reaction suggests what is the probable reality: that the new federation is on a fast track to nowhere.

Bob Proto, president of UNITE Local 35 and head of the New Haven, CT. Central Labor Council, told the New Haven Register, "What does the AFL-CIO split mean for New Haven? It means that the Central Labor Council and the Connecticut State Federation of Labor will form the glue to keep everyone together. We cannot allow national divisions to infect our local and state federations."

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers remains loyal to the AFL-CIO. Frank Halloran, president of its Connecticut Local 90 told the Meriden Record Journal that the split would not lead to dissension in the state. "Collectively in Connecticut," he said, "all affiliated unions of the building trades will continue to work together."

AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) seems saddened but not angry at the split. Gerald McEntee, AFSCME national president: "We are sorry to see SEIU and the Teamsters leave." Lillian Roberts, head of AFSCME's District Council 37 in New York: "There is always the possibility that we will eventually get back together." True, of course, but not quite a stirring call to a defensive battle.

The New York Times reported on September 20 that Stern’s Service Employees and AFSCME (hot for the AFL-CIO) signed a two-year no-raiding pact and agreed to a joint campaign to organize 25,000 homecare workers in California.

Edgar Romney, who is executive vice president of UNITE (another hot anti-AFL-CIO union) and who is also on the board of the NYC and NYS AFL-CIO federations, told the Times, “We hope that we will continue to find ways to work together." Brian McLaughlin, president of the NYC Central Labor Council, said that he met with the Teamsters, SEIU, UNITE, and Food Workers to discuss continued cooperation. Mike Fishman, president of SEIU Local 32BJ, told the Times, “We want to continue our relationship with everyone who wants to cooperate with us."

Brian Sabourin, conflicted as a member of the SEIU and president of the AFL-CIO Central Labor Council in Worcester MA, told the Wall Street Journal, "I wish I didn't have to leave, because most of the work is done at the local level." Sal Rosselli, president of SEIU's United Healthcare Workers, which the Journal says represents 140,000 in California, said, "We fully intend to continue working together with unions both in and outside of the AFL-CIO."

John Sweeney, AFL-CIO president, the very man who Change to Win tried to drive from office, proposes to issue special "solidarity charters" to locals of the seceding unions to allow them to remain in AFL-CIO state and city federations. The move was promptly endorsed by Dennis Hughes, president of the NYS Federation of Labor, as a means of preserving a "united front" of labor.

Compared to the bitter battles between the AFL and the CIO in the raucous thirties, this is a fine feud with no fighting.

On organizing

Change to Win zealots argue that they had to leave the AFL-CIO to organize those masses of poor underpaid workers. But the American Federation of Teachers, still in the AFL-CIO, is deep into a campaign to organize 52,000 family providers in New York State. No need to secede or to dump Sweeney!

The SEIU, free of Sweeney, announces a "new" approach in organizing Wal-Mart workers. It has formed a Wal-Mart Workers Association to campaign for employee rights even before seeking collective bargaining status. As a method of battling against a resolutely anti-union employer, it is a great idea. But it is not new. The Communications Workers of America instituted precisely such a campaign many months ago in non-union shops. No need to secede or dump Sweeney. The CWA has been outspoken in its rejection of the Change to Win line.

(Both the Teachers union in its drive to organize family care workers and the SEIU in organizing Wal-Mart workers have joined with ACORN, the national community organizing group.)

On political action

The Change to Win people insist on a change in political action policy. They argue that the AFL-CIO policy of clinging to the Democratic Party has won nothing for labor, that the Democrats simply take labor for granted and give nothing in return. And they intend to change all that. It is a criticism that might make sense if the critics were threatening a genuinely new independent policy, like supporting the Working Families Party of New York, or a New Party nationally, or Naderite Greens, or a Labor Party, or even a massive shift to liberal pro-labor Republicans. But so far, nothing like that. Quite the opposite.

In 2004, Stern's SEIU donated $500,000 to the Republican Governor’s' Association, not a hotbed of pro-union sentiment. Three Republican governors, by executive decree, illegalized collective bargaining for public employees in their states: Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri. A fourth, in Maryland, voided a pay increase that the union had won under his predecessor. The donation obviously went to the Republican Party's right wing. If that $500,000 political investment is a harbinger of what is to come from the Change Coalition, it indicates that they may hope to make union organizing more palatable to the Republican right by buying it off with contributions. No question. That, at least, would be a change, but not necessarily a change to win.


It is hard to know where the new federation is going and why it had to split off from the AFL-CIO to get there.

However, the course of at least one of the participants, James Hoffa, makes sense. Hoffa was propelled into the presidency of the Teamsters union mainly by the support of those who had tolerated the heavy infiltration of the union by organized crime figures who would not rest until they got rid of the reformer, Ron Carey. In recent month's, Ed Stier, who had been retained by the union, presumably to help keep it clean, accused Hoffa of blocking efforts to get rid of racketeers where they may still be ensconced in the union. By coming forward as a man who calls for the reform of the labor movement, Hoffa may succeed in shucking off the image of a man who could not or would not reform his own union.

Friday, August 19, 2005

AFL-CIO split poses the question: Must labor bureaucratize to organize?

A discussion piece by Herman Benson from Union Democracy Review #157

Five unions may be on their way out of the AFL-CIO. Led by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees, they promise —-or threaten—- to form a new federation that will seek to reorganize the labor movement and revive its dwindling strength. At this writing, the SEIU and the Teamsters, after boycotting the July AFL-CIO convention, have already announced their departure.

When John Sweeney took over as AFL-CIO president in 1995, he proposed to arrest labor’s decline by a massive program to organize the unorganized. He failed. Now, ten years later, Stern promises to arrest labor’s decline by a massive program to organize the unorganized, but under the aegis of his new federation.

What has Stern got that Sweeney lacked?

Sweeney hoped to inspire the labor movement to come forward as a force for social justice in America. Stern, in a kind of corporate spirit of mergers and consolidation in quest of a labor “market density,” would abolish unions he feels are too small and force them all into a few big unions, each guaranteed against competition by being assigned a monopoly grant in its “core” industry. Other unions might have to give way; but Stern’s SEIU and those that now support him would, apparently, be among the exempt lucky few to survive the major surgery. These remaining Leviathans would confront the corporate enemy in a mighty campaign to rebuild the labor movement. Stern calls for the drastic reorganization of the whole labor movement because without it, he insists, the labor movement is doomed to oblivion.

On the face of it, something is wrong here. The acute symptom of labor’s ailment is that only 8% of workers in private industry are organized. How can the fate of that 92% without unions depend upon rearranging the tiny band of 8% with unions? Doesn’t ring true! Actually, the kind of reorganization that the Stern forces demand suffers from two fatal flaws: For one thing, it will never take place. For another, it is irrelevant to the main difficulties that face the labor movement, difficulties that will not respond to technical rearrangement.

The partners in Stern’s Change to Win coalition don’t take their own professed principle of “core” reorganization seriously. Take the Laborers Union [LIUNA],which enjoys the affiliation of 50,000 (non-core!) postal workers. Because these are federal employees, some kind of crazy arrangement allows LIUNA to enroll some 400,000 other federal employees as “associates” in a federal health insurance plan. The LIUNA postal affiliate gets fees of some $16,000,000 a year of which $3,000,000 goes to the international. No sign of reorganizing that $16,000,000 out of LIUNA.

IBT organizes everything

Take the biggest Stern partner, the Teamsters union [IBT]. (The very notion that its president, James Hoffa, will be leading the charge for a brave new world of labor is mind-boggling. While admonishing other unions to stay at their core, he has just absorbed two railroad unions into the IBT (rails compete with trucking!) He has just taken in the Graphic Communications International Union, a printing union. Meanwhile, he holds on to the 20,000-member Local 237, the union of NYC housing authority workers, lawyers, and other public employees and to assorted factory and miscellaneous workers. Hoffa makes no bones about it: the Teamsters union is already a general union of disparate sectors; and he has no intention of changing it. In an interview with the Nation he was asked, “You organize in every industry. Are you going to stop doing that?” No equivocation in his blunt reply: “Absolutely not. We would not give up members….We have from A to Z in our union, airline pilots to zookeepers….We will always be a general union, and we are not giving up our right.”

HERE/UNITE, an enthusiastic Stern ally, is an amalgam of hotel-restaurant workers with remnants of a clothing union. Its merger has nothing to do with core organizational values and market shares; it is a marriage of convenience between actual members and the ample treasury of a sick union.

And finally the SEIU, the banner bearer of the move to strip, consolidate, and eliminate others, is itself a minor miscellaneous federation of labor with a self-selected range of jurisdiction that stretches from anywhere to everywhere. A good part of its growth consists of absorbing workers already organized, like Hospital Local 1199.

Physician, heal thyself! The notion that this motley collection could ever convince other unions to do precisely what they themselves will not and cannot do is ludicrous. It will never happen.

But in any event, even hypothetically, the Stern scheme is mostly irrelevant to the big, sometimes intractable, problems facing unions in today’s climate. An important and growing sector of American unionism is among federal and local government employees. President Bush by a stroke of the presidential pen wipes out unionism for tens of thousands of Homeland Security workers. By executive order, the governors of Indiana, Kentucky, and Missouri eliminate collective bargaining for thousand of public employees. The NLRB destroys unions of graduate students. The labor movement can reorganize, organize, and reorganize again, dizzyingly enough to mollify even Stern, without noticeable dent on government unionism. Irrelevant! The issue here is obviously political.

Unionism is under intense pressure everywhere in mass manufacturing: auto, aircraft, steel, rubber, etc. weighed down by awesome international forces. Can anyone seriously suggest that their solution lies in internal union reorganization? For this sector of unionism the Stern camp is irrelevant.

Competing unions among the airlines? The Stern group seems to think they can remedy that divergence by fiat. It won’t work as long as workers still retain some freedom of choice. A more effective remedy might be to find out why workers are so dissatisfied with one union that they seek another. But in any event, that too is irrelevant to the issue at hand. Can anyone seriously contend that the solution to union problems in the airlines lies in re-organizational manipulation?

Stern and company keep hammering away at the need to organize that unorganized 92% outside union ranks; and in this, of course, they receive credit for focusing attention on what everyone knows. But how? All their talk about reorganizing is not simply irrelevant; it clouds over something at the heart of this one-sided discussion. (One-sided, because the Sweeney folks have had nothing consequential to say.) In the guise of a case for technical reorganization, the Stern forces are popularizing the concept of a super centralized, bureaucratized labor movement in which leaders at the top wield new authoritarian powers. They would bureaucratize to organize.

The reorganized carpenters union

The process is already completed and on full display in the Carpenters union which has already reorganized itself in the new spirit. The Carpenters union, which had left the AFL-CIO, is an important force in the new Stern coalition.

That vision of a highly centralized labor movement which restrains membership initiative in an authoritarian straightjacket is no mere bad dream, no reverse utopia. Carpenter locals have been reduced to impotent units. Merged into sprawling regional councils, locals are not permitted to pay any officers or staff members; their main source of income, the work tax, is taken over by the councils. Locals have lost all control over collective bargaining. Business agents are appointed from above. No member can hold any paid staff position in the council or any local without the permission of an all-powerful executive secretary treasurer. Local delegates, who elect the EST, cannot hold a paid union job without his or her endorsement. If that system were to be applied to public government no member of Congress or staff employee could be paid out of government funds, without permission of the President. It is reorganization carried out to the point of parody. The Stern camp validates that trend and encourages it. What the labor movement needs today is, not a further intensification of its bureaucratic tendencies, but democratization.

Any comparison, or identification, of the position of labor in 2005 with the state of the CIO in 1935 is completely off the mark. The CIO arose in a period of hope, of rising expectations, under the impulse of the New Deal coalition. Some workers flocked to the CIO in a spontaneous wave of strikes and sit-ins. Today in a defensive period of gloom and doom, the balance of political power in America is anti-union, blocking the way to a more just society.

With some 16,000,000 members, most in the AFL-CIO, who with their families make up perhaps 25% of America, the labor movement still constitutes a formidable social and political force capable of changing that balance of power. The trouble is that the AFL-CIO cannot convince almost half of its own membership, above all its white working class membership, to follow its political lead. They couldn’t get them to follow their lead in the 2004 Democratic primaries, or to defeat Schwarzenegger in California, or Bush in 2004. And it was not for lack of trying. The AFL-CIO campaign in the 2004 elections was one of the greatest outpourings of electoral activity ever, that’s the problem. How can you solve this problem by recruiting more members, when you can’t convince half of those you already have?

The stalemate in America

Despite the potential people power still at their disposal and despite the apparent attractiveness of their formal stance on issues, the leaders of our labor movement have not been able to break the stalemate in America. One reason, one very important reason, the decisive reason, is that they have been unable to bring to bear the power of that army of 16,000,000. They can activate their staff cadres; they can sometimes bring an impressive portion of their already-convinced membership to the polls. But they have been unable to inspire the overwhelming bulk of their membership and mobilize them as a force for social justice, because they have failed to imbue them with a deep conviction that this movement belongs to them.

Too many leaders on top run the works with contempt for the members below. As a citizen of the United States, you can freely, and without fear, criticize the president all you want. But in wide sections of the labor movement, especially in the building trades, if you criticize your business manager, your family suffers because you can’t work.

It is time to give union democracy a chance. Defend a member’s right to work in dignity and self-respect, not only at the job site, but in the union hall. Encourage them to run for office. The labor movement has no poll tax but it does impose niggling restrictions on the right to run. Let them know their legal rights. Guarantee fair elections, the right to elect stewards and vote on contracts in honest referendums. Democratize the labor movement and it can win the respect of its membership and the moral right to lead them in politics. As Walter Reuther put it: It is not enough to organize the unorganized; we must unionize the organized. Convince members of the justice of the cause, and they will convince the nation.

Despite their professions of good intentions, their apparent determination to devote time and money to organize the unorganized, the Stern followers, by bureaucratizing the labor movement, lead it precisely in the wrong directions and undercut their own efforts.

The unions in Stern’s Change to Win are an odd coupling. Of the four unions identified over the years as most heavily infiltrated by organized crime, three found their way into the new movement: Teamsters, Laborers, and Hotel. (The fourth, the International Longshoremen’s Association, not involved these events, faces a federal RICO suit.)

Total collapse of self-reform

The Teamsters union can report the total collapse of its touted self-reform program. Ed Stier, who IBT President Hoffa retained to devise an anti-corruption program, now charges that Hoffa is part of the problem, and that the union is unwilling or unable to investigate suspicions of organized crime infiltration in Chicago. The IBT, a museum of swollen multiple salaries, supported Stern’s demand that the AFL-CIO give massive per capita tax relief to its affiliates. Will the IBT use the windfall for organizing? To ask is to wonder.

Terrence O’Sullivan, who took over as Laborers president; and John Wilhelm who became Hotel union president, both have personal reputations as clean progressive union leaders. But their rise to power was not the outcome of any organized reform movement in their unions. They came out of the old union regimes; their accession to power was made possible only by the action of law enforcement authorities and by federal monitorship over their affairs. Cleansing at the top does not automatically bring change below. (The Laborers, although part of the Stern coalition, says it will not split off from the AFL-CIO. After years of government oversight, it still faces organized crime problems in New York-New Jersey.) Before its partners deserved credence as a “Change to Win” coalition, they would have to change themselves; some simply to reorganize; others would have to reorganize and reform.

One legitimate difference separates what the two camps say. (What they actually will do remains to be seen.) Stern says that labor must organize in order to strengthen its political power. Sweeney says that labor must strengthen its political power in order to organize. Which comes first the chicken or the egg? The answer can hardly justify splitting the federation.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Talk at AFSCME Local 1930

Herman Benson spoke at a book party hosted by AFSCME Local 1930. Ken Nash, of Building Bridges, the community-labor report on WBAI radio in NYC, recorded the talk and aired these excerpts. (

(The interview with Huck and Konopacki that follows is a welcome break from somber musings on the AFL-CIO split.)

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

A glimpse at labor’s projected future

(from the May June edition of Union Democracy Review)

Shall the Hotel union get a guaranteed monopoly over organizing workers at Indian tribe casinos in California? A dispute over that question is a recent spin-off from the Great Debate over labor’s future.

To lift that fog of enforced false unanimity that regularly settles over the labor movement like morning mist in the valley, almost any kind of a controversy over policy would be welcome. In 1995, John Sweeney initiated a debate by campaigning against Lane Kirkland and Tom Donahue; now, poetic justice, it’s Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, against Sweeney. He wants to rearrange the AFL-CIO into a few giant unions, each with a closely defined jurisdiction protected from competition from all others. Ironically, he is deploying all the tools of democracy to advance an authoritarian, super-centralized, conception of the labor movement. From the top, the AFL-CIO would issue patents to the big union monopolies, and members would be lined up wherever they were assigned. No room for small nations here; imperialist powers take over the world.

We are granted an advance glimpse into the Stern world of tomorrow by a seemingly minor jurisdictional dispute over who has the right to organize workers at Indian tribes’ gambling casinos in California. The UNITE-HERE Employees union, a close Stern ally, has gone to court to cut out the Communications Workers of America.

According to the New York Times, UNITE-HERE argues that it was granted exclusive jurisdiction by the AFL-CIO over the California casinos. It is willing to overlook the two casinos already organized by the CWA. It claims, however, that the CWA had agreed to respect the UNITE-HERE license to control all the others. When the CWA campaigned to organize a third casino, UNITE-HERE sued in court for breach of contract. The issues will be settled, most likely after tedious proceedings in court and at the AFL-CIO. What is most significant, however, is the Stern ally’s claim that their AFL-CIO certificate of exclusive jurisdiction gives them rights over workers whom they may not yet have even approached. No one has consulted casino workers on the subject.

The reliance on parceling out exclusive jurisdiction takes us back 70 years before the rise of the CIO. It was the CIO that made the principle obsolete when it successfully resisted the AFL-backed claims of the craft unions to ownership of all skilled workers. And once the CIO won its battle, the claim to sanctified jurisdiction collapsed. Under pressure from an expanding CIO, the AFL was transformed into an assemblage of industrial-type unions as they all fought to organize everyone. The great days of labor’s advance came when they all competed freely everywhere to win over the allegiance of dues-payers. The Stern family would reassert a principle that frustrates workers’ choice and turns them into a traded commodity. If labor leaders are compelled to compete for the hearts of workers, it makes unions more responsive to the membership and strengthens the labor movement.

(Here, we’re reminded of how zealous fans of jurisdictional property rights defend the AFL-CIO no-raiding pact. “Why should we compete for the same workers?” they ask, “When we take 50,000 from you, and then you take 50,000 from us, there is lots of trouble but a net gain of zero for the labor movement.” It is a perfect argument from the standpoint of officials who want a simpler life for themselves. But not from the standpoint of union members. When those 100,000 move from one union to another, they are liberated from a leadership they do not want and are free to seek another.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

How the Sweeney camp ignores its own first principle

“… one thing is clear: debate about the most optimal structure for the labor movement in the years ahead has already made the issue of union democracy central.” Joseph A. McCartin in Dissent, Winter 2005.

The Sweeney forces have ratcheted up the Great Debate on labor’s future with 28-pages of recommendations based upon a summary of what’s been done in the last 10 years. As a series of practical proposals it seems impressive: beefed up political action and organization, coordination and concentration of efforts among unions, voluntary mergers, shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone. And the ten-year record, reveals an intensification of effort, if not always of results.

In the last two presidential elections, labor turned out extraordinary active support on behalf of the losing Democratic candidates. The reality is summed up by a headline in the New York Teacher: “Unions defeated at their best in election.” You can’t do better than your best. It seems obvious that a renewing, refurbishing, and rearrangement of all that went before is unlikely to bring speedy results. Come Stern, come Sweeney, the prospect is for a long-term, slogging campaign.

Read Harold Meyerson and others in the recent issue of Dissent and Thomas Frank in “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” They argue persuasively what we should already know: the Democratic party is losing the white working class to the Republicans.

When we realize that the labor movement, despite its best efforts, has proven unable to deliver the white working class, it becomes clear that unions face a problem not only with government and management but with their own dues-payers. Before unions can win over the nation, they must first win over the overwhelming majority of their own membership.

This is one problem that cannot be solved by organizing the unorganized. How can you convince those already in unions to follow your political lead by taking in new members? Many of those who are preoccupied with organizing the unorganized seem to be convinced that a bigger labor movement will frighten its adversaries and/or its timid friends into falling in line. But even after organizing workers, you must still win them over politically. As Walter Reuther put it: It’s not enough to organize the unorganized; we must unionize the organized.

Here lies the importance of internal union democracy. Union democracy is the means of convincing organized workers that unions truly belong to them and not just to the officials, that unions will defend their right to justice and dignity at the workplace and in the union hall and that the labor movement, therefore, deserves respect when it proposes to lead them politically.

You will say: “There you go again, Playing that same old AUD one note” Not at all, I got it from the Sweeney team. In their latest declaration, the administration team informs us that “He [Sweeney] insisted that any and all ideas and proposals be guided by three basic principles.” And here is the first, the very first, principle: “Respect for the democratic rights of union members.” Here, at least, he veers sharply from Stern, who disparages those who talk about union democracy. What Sweeney omits, however, is any proposal, or even any hint of one, that would strengthen union democracy, not one. Here are some of the practices that must be corrected to make democracy a robust reality throughout the labor movement:

  • In every case that has come before the court involving internal union democracy, unions have been on the wrong side, defending restriction of workers rights in their unions.
  • They have defended blacklisting of critics in the construction trades. Where unscrupulous, highhanded union officials control job referrals, especially in construction, independent–minded workers are starved out and favoritism becomes a device for building an authoritarian political machine.
  • Extreme meeting attendance rules are used to disqualify 95% of members from running for office. Excessive continuous good standing requirements disqualify potential rivals; but these rules are waived to allow politically appointed trustees to become candidates.
  • Control over union trial and disciplinary machinery permit incumbents to fine, suspend, expel, and disqualify opponents. Control over election machinery permits them to manipulate the outcome of elections, dues referendums, and contract ratification
  • Contracts are imposed without membership ratification.
  • Some big international union exercise the right to bypass local trial procedure and discipline their critics at will.
  • Unions have unanimously resisted the provisions of federal law which require unions to inform members of the rights in their unions.
There are unions which do respect the democratic rights of their members. But these practices are widespread enough, even when they violate the law, to cry out for correction. Until the Sweeney folks address some of these problems, we can only shrug sadly at their professed concern for union democracy.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Rebels -- a review by Gene Carroll and an exchange with Paul Buhle, from New Politics

"WHILE THE LABOR MOVEMENT in the United States is a beacon for democracy, too often it fails as a beacon of democracy. Herman Benson makes this clear in his remarkable personal memoir, Rebels, Reformers and Racketeers: How Insurgents Transformed the Labor Movement.

"In this account of a lifetime of support for the advancement of democracy inside the house of labor, you'll find the better-known characters and their stories of labor misdeeds, such as United Mine Workers President Tony Boyle and the coal miner he had murdered for challenging him, Jock Yablonski. But the compelling stories of lesser knowns who took on crooked unions, like Dow Wilson and Lloyd Green of the San Francisco Brotherhood of Painters -- both of whom were murdered for their courageous efforts -- are a treasure trove of historical narrative about union politics, human frailties, and true grit that form the largely untold dark drama of U.S. labor history of the last half century."

-- From the review by Gene Carroll, director of the Union Leadership Program at Cornell University's New York State School of Industrial & Labor Relations in New York City

"ANYTHING HERMAN BENSON WRITES on the labor movement is provocative and useful for discussion -- even if on occasion, in my view, it also happens to be somewhat skewed. When organized labor faces the prospect of a turning point as potentially large and also as disappointing as that of ten years ago, the implications loom before all of us.

"Benson's "The New Unity Partnership: Sweeney Critics Would Bureaucratize to Organize" (NP 37) reflects on the scant progress made since the passing of the Meany/ Kirkland/Shanker era of failure and disgrace. He correctly observes that organized labor has fewer members and not more, contrary to oft-repeated hopes and would-be rallying slogans. In June, UNITE and HERE carried through the merger of what is now to be the most vigorous and most progressive corner of American labor with the non-acronymic name, UNITE HERE. By Benson's reading, shared with many long-running reformers, size counts, but bigger (bargaining units, that is) may not be better and may very well be worse."

--From Paul Buhle's response to Herman Benson's "The New Unity Partnership: Sweeney Critics would bureaucratize to organize"

"IT IS DIFFICULT TO KNOW just what Paul Buhle is driving at; it's even more difficult to figure out what relevance his remarks have to what I wrote in New Politics about the undemocratic leanings of the New Unity Partnership. As best as I can make out, what he intends to say is this: Because the advocates of the New Unity Partnership seem to be fine people, and because they are zealous about organizing the unorganized, and because they may harbor views on American foreign policy akin to his own, they should be immune from criticism even though they seem convinced that union democracy is an impediment to organizing and even though they think it necessary to reorganize the labor movement in an authoritarian straightjacket to achieve their worthy ends. In any event, if he feels that my comments that follow here are off base, it is simply that I have trouble reading him in any other way."

--From Benson's reply to Buhle

See the full articles at

(posted by Matt Noyes)

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

No more NUP

The NUP has voted to dissolve. Obviously the group abandoned all hope of winning a majority within the AFL-CIO and saw no future in splitting away from it. The NUP sponsors take credit for 1) having opened a discussion of labor’s future, and 2) apparently having won a consensus that internationals will receive a partial rebate of their per capita tax payments to the AFL-CIO.

It seems like a grand anticlimax. John Sweeney started the discussion nine years ago. The NUP’s big point was that discussion was not enough. They wanted action. Now they are happy to have had a discussion. The difference between their discussion and Sweeney’s is that his inspired enthusiasm and new public support. Theirs seems to have fallen flat. They began calling for a crusade to reorganize the world of labor. Now they take consolation in a tax cut.

Monday, January 24, 2005

Old article: The New Unity Partnership, Sweeney Critics would bureaucratize to organize.

The NUP is formally history, but its spirit goes marching on. See this longer version of a piece originally published in Union Democracy Review. See also the comment by Paul Buhle and Benson's response.

(posted by Matt Noyes)

Thursday, January 13, 2005

New article -- Focusing the debate in the AFL-CIO: bureaucracy vs democracy

From Herman Benson's latest article, available on the AUD website: focusing the debate.

What to do? The discussion escalates. Website and internet exchanges, joint declarations, public debates, long essays in periodicals, and personal manifestos bring a rich flurry of proposals and counter-proposals. Many are reasonably familiar; some contradict others: beef up political action, encourage the initiative of central labor councils, put them under international control, united union action around selected key organizing targets, more money and manpower to organize the unorganized, strike funds, global unionism, count on the power of big union leaders on top, encourage the locals and the rank and file down below, preserve the right of workers to unions of their choice, eliminate small unions and force workers into a few big unions.

The discussion becomes heated, edgy, bitter. There's even talk of a possible split in the AFL-CIO. The Carpenters, still in the NUP, actually secede from the AFL-CIO. What's going on here? The source of the mounting hostility is not in the question posed by the NUP but in the basic quality of its proposed answer, in the dominant bureaucratic strain that runs through its proposals.