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.


Frank A. Natalie said...


Again, I think you are on point.

It’s a simple matter, our present leaders are to busy protecting their power base to care about real reform in the labor movement. They need to stop harassing, mistreating, and blacklisting their members, the ones their suppose to be representing, in order to stay in power. Then, maybe the labor movement can move forward, then, maybe our members will feel like they belong. Our leaders are failures! God bless the labor mess!

Keep those blogs coming-love them!

Guillermo Perez said...

Herman, I just finished your book, "Rebels, Reformers, and Racketeers," and loved it. In it you make the same point regarding the role of union democracy in "unioniz[ing] the organized." Something that I agree must happen if we are to have a revived labor movement here in the U.S. Critics of union democracy often point to the autocrats of labor's past such as John L. Lewis and even Walter Reuther (the guy you quote for having come up with the call to "unionize the organized") as evidence that union democracy is not a necessary element to building the labor movement. Is it historically accurate to say that union democracy played no role in the 1930s and 40s when labor grew so dramatically? Do you know if union democracy is better established and practiced in other industrialized countries that enjoy much higher union density?