Tuesday, August 04, 2009

How sensitive are those labor leaders?

By Herman Benson

An unwritten gentlemen's agreement seems to regulate relations among top labor leaders: "You can run your union as you see fit, even honestly, and I will never criticize you publicly. In return, you will never criticize me for running my union as I see fit." But that code of conduct seemed to be seriously breached when fourteen international union leaders and many local ones --- some AFL-CIO and some Stern's Change to Win --- publicly chastised Andy Stern for trespassing on the jurisdiction of UNITE/HERE.

In Labor Notes, Jane Slaughter takes a dim view of what motivated these top union leaders to blast Stern.

Stern has been accused by assorted critics of making sweetheart deals with some employers, of disrupting his own union and others by massive attacks on dissidents, of buttering up Chinese dictators, of standing together with an anti-union Wal-Mart, of suppressing exposes of nursing home abuse, of claiming a monopoly over healthcare organizing, of appointing armies of local officers, of demanding loyalty oaths, and who knows what other offenses, real or exaggerated.

But, Slaughter points out, it was not for such offenses against unionism and democracy that they berated Stern. “No,” she writes, “these union leaders’ outrage was prompted by Stern's flagrant violation of that hallowed labor principle: jurisdiction. Stern was not only attempting to take over hotel organizing drives begun by UNITE/HERE but also claiming the right to organize hotel workers in the future. That’s turf, and them’s fighting words.”

Of course, she does make a telling point. Top labor leaders, even those who trumpet calls for industrial democracy and justice in society, can never be counted on to battle for the democratic rights of members inside unions, their own or others. In every case where the union establishment has intervened in Federal courts cases involving the rights of members in their unions, it has invariably been on the wrong side, on the side of limitation and repression.

Still, I think that, in this case, Jane Slaughter has been a little too unsympathetic.

In is probably true that, from time to time, all of Stern’s top union critics have been guilty in at least part of that catalogue of derelictions listed against him. Yes, they do it, but unobtrusively, and they don't boast about it. What distinguishes Stern is his ability to slurp all this together and palm it off as a modern philosophy, as a program to save the workers of the world. And, in so doing, to induce the mainstream media to hail him as the great new hero-savior of the labor movement, trumping all the others. You can understand how it galls all the others. In part, they now seize upon his financing of an attack upon the jurisdiction of UNITE/HERE as a 'legal,' acceptable, conventional opportunity to vent a pent-up resentment, even fury. For some, I think (and hope), it could even serve as relief for a somewhat uneasy conscience. We can't demand that people always do the right thing for the right reasons in the right way at the right time. For that, you can wait forever.