by Herman Benson
Are unionists’ grievances against their employers an obstacle to organizing? That odd question is brought to mind by Andy Stern, SEIU president, in an interview with Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal (subscription only).
In a friendly account, Maher writes, “Mr. Stern says he wants to remake the labor movement by shedding its old adversarial image and creating more labor-management partnerships.” We have to make some allowance for Stern’s apparent desire to do a soothing snow job on the WSJ’s entrepreneurial readers. Actually, under Stern’s stewardship, the SEIU is embarked on an aggressive ---and effective--- organizing campaign among low-paid service workers, complete with strikes, threats of strikes, and mass demonstrations. The union may be ready to make nice to cooperating employers, but it is obviously willing to be as “adversarial”as necessary to get workers into the union under a good contract. The union has succeeded in rallying community support, especially among religious leaders, for its Justice for Janitors campaign of strike and demonstrations in
But what happens after the SEIU brings those janitors into the labor movement? Stern’s talk with writer Maher helps us understand the philosophy that already shapes the evolving organizational structure of the SEIU and that underlies Stern’s image of the kind of labor movement that he hopes to create. In essence, it suggests that to succeed, the labor movement must bureaucratize. If the banner of union idealists was once: “An injury to one is an injury to all,” the new watchword could aptly be: “An injury to one? Not my problem!” Are the needs of the individual to be sacrificed in the interests of what the leaders decide are higher goals, like employer cooperation and industry management?
As he has said many times in many other places, Stern told the WSJ that he wants friendly relations with employers. This time, he added, “People don’t go to work to have a fight. They go to work to provide a service, to build a community to take care of their family. I don’t hear most people say I can’t wait to go to work to have a fight with that boss.”
Of course, all that is perfectly true. But it is not the only truth.
The union is doing a fine job of raising the wages ---and substantially--- of low-paid service workers it protects under contract, and so raises their standards and permits them to live in greater self-respect and dignity in their communities. But the union has another role, or should have. Workers are not looking for confrontation with the boss, but they do ---and justifiably--- look toward their union to defend their dignity, and self-respect, and security on the job, during those long hours, that big part of the day when they are at work. Those who have suffered abuse from overbearing supervisors, from discrimination, contempt, unfair treatment, harassment ---even high-paid workers with lofty salaries--- know how that kind of experience can knot you in the guts and make those long hours, that unending part of the day, intolerable. In the euphoria that arises out of original wage increases from, say, $7 to $15, that second role of unionism may be waived aside, but not indefinitely. All this is relevant because it connects with Stern’s de-emphasis of “individual grievances” --- he is preoccupied with bigger things --- and it affects any conception of internal union organization.
“We want to find a 21st century new model,” he told Maher, “… that is less focused on individual grievances, more focused on industry needs.” This is a conception that already has drastic effects on how the unions are organized, on union elections, on the relations between members below and leaders high above. Stewards are closest to working members. If stewards are elected directly by their constituents, they will necessarily be sensitive to their needs on the job. If they neglect their individual grievances, they risk defeat in elections ---honest elections, that is. Union leaders, way up there who are too busy to be annoyed by individual grievances prefer to appoint stewards and so insulate them from aggrieved members. The appointed job stewards, knowing that those above who appointed them are busy with higher things, learn not to distract their superiors with annoying grievances. Appointive stewards develop techniques for putting members off: evade questions, dissemble, get lost. They cease to represent the members in the union; they control the members for the union. They collect political action money; they urge members out to vote. They can neglect “individual grievances.”
Such is the fate of appointed stewards. But not even elected local officers are immune. Under federal law, local union officers and executive board members are elected directly by secret ballot vote of the membership. But does election by the membership mean control by the membership? Not necessarily. Not under the system that is developing under our emerging new labor movement. The answer depends on who controls their union salaries. Under the newly emerging system, union officers and board members are being reduced to the same dependent status of the appointive stewards.
In many unions today, elected union officers are entitled to salaries by virtue of their election, a sum often fixed in the union constitution. The security of that salary gives those local officers a certain independence. They are free to criticize the union’s top officers and still get paid, a freedom that enables them, on occasion, to express member dissatisfaction with the ruling administration. In our new times, all that is changing. Under the system that is developing and proliferating, no one, not even lower elected representatives, can hold a paid staff job without the approval of the top chief executive officer, usually the president, or secretary treasurer. When the entire professional personnel of the union, elective and appointive, are at the mercy of the CEO for their salaries, he or she is transformed into an uncontrollable autocrat. Imagine the state of democracy in the country if no one could hold a paid government job without permission of the President!
What are unionists to do while their leaders are preoccupied with remaking the world of industry and other massive projects? If their union neglects their individual grievances, will they need some kind of “union” within their union to force it to fulfill its responsibilities to its own members? In this structure of highly centralized bureaucracy, the need to defend union democracy is bound to be as urgent as ever.