Is labor in crisis or on the verge of renewal?
What’s wrong with organized labor? Has cronyism, corruption, and a lack of new ideas made unions ineffective at representing potential members? Why are most workers indifferent about organized labor? Has business succeeded in making workers believe that they don’t need unions? Are workers unable to understand the premise that strong democratically run unions may be an effectively way to deal with poor working conditions and exploitation by their employer? Have the corporations and Republicans won the public relations battle and created a perception in the mind of most workers of unions as corrupted and evil entities, who are nothing more than “dues collection agencies” funneling money to corrupt union leadership and politicians? Have Republican politicians finally succeeded in removing legal protections that make workers truly afraid of employer retaliation if they should try to join a union?
Unfortunately, the answer is YES to most of these questions! But they are questions that organized labor must have the courage to ask and answer openly if labor is to continue to be a viable player on behalf of American workers or alternatively become nothing more than a dusty entry in some future encyclopedia. Labor must beginning to return to its ideals and true values and be willing to complete a long overdue top to bottom overhaul. Unless it does it will soon become irrelevant to the real American work place or worker. This decline did not happen overnight and in my way of thinking its genesis can be found in a time just after the Second World War when unions were reaching their modern zenith of power. In a certain respect labor union success has turned union leaders into the vary thing they once opposed. Materialist more interested in their personal accumulation of power and wealth then leaders who paramount concerned should have been with the welfare of the downtrodden worker.
Today we continue to find labor union membership in America declining with about 13% of worker in this country belonging to a union. Membership has been steadily dropping since the late fifties when nearly 40% of the workforce belonged to a union. Recent news reports of the successful United Airlines move to discontinue the pension plan for it’s employees without much more then a whimper from any sector on the political landscape or Northwest Airlines moving to break it’s striking Machinist Union and actually seeing their strike as a opportunity for the company to be rid of the union once and for all. The United Auto Workers recently agreed to cut medical benefits for company retirees when faced with the GM's saging profits predictions.
Actions that would of created an outrage politically and publicly not that long ago. Most smart workers should be asking themselves if my pension plan is the next to go? But they aren’t. Sufficiently indoctrinated to feel their lucky just to have a job or insulated by a employer who keeps the union out by providing conditions that are just barely comparable to that of a unionized work place. Conditions that can be withdrawn or eliminated entirely at any time at the employers whim.
On the bigger scale the Republicans and business have attempting to privatize Social Security and weaken Medicare. Both organized labor prized plumbs . On all fronts the labor movement is under siege and unable to do much about it in the face of corporate and Republican political power in a full-scale onslaught to destroy them. The Republicans power since the Reagan administration and the Republican revolution of the early nineties have over time been extremely successful in dismantling or rendering toothless the labor laws that once protected workers or at least created a level playing field between them and business.
I was raised in an Irish Catholic oriented pro labor family. My father born in 1900 in Chicago was a labor official most of his adult life. My mother was a Eastern Washington farm girl whose mother and father worked most of their lives for the Northern Pacific railroad in and around Kittitas County Washington State. All these family members nurtured us at the dinner table on the tenets and history of the American labor movement as we grew up. My older sister, when still in grade school, had turned out a term paper covering “the benefits of the union shop” when other in her class were more likely to be writing about Roy Rogers horse Trigger.
This was the atmosphere of expectations in which we lived. Convinced of the strength that most workers had the protection they needed against the abuses of an employer framed in the institution of collective bargaining and unionism. Eventually my enthusiasm for the union and my father’s reputation in the Seattle labor movement lead to a position as an organizer with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 8 in 1970.
In my mid twenties I was brash longhaired and idealistic like so many of the sixties generation. I often inspired workers and offended employers with my hair, zeal and determination. But I also bothered union leaders who felt I was too outspoken, brash and willing to rock labor’s boat whenever I thought it appropriate. Sometimes I saw labor leadership as a bigger obstacle to progress then the employer. More interested in protecting their position, place and compensation packages then interested in really supporting the workers by demonstrating transparency, taking controversial positions, sacrificing themselves or demonstrating leadership. Many lacked integrity and were often susceptible to cronyism and petty corruption. Some had wandered far from the basic ideas of collective bargaining and were simply running dues collection agencies.
There were some exceptions to the rule. One such person was the Longshoremen leader Harry Bridges who was a grand example of a man who ran a clean and effective union. Today his leadership and ideals has kept the ILWU among one of strongest and most effective unions in the labor movement well known for its worker solidarity even today. Bridges was a socialist at heart and this rankled the feathers of many in mainstream labor. Given the Communist scare of the early 1950’s. Another leader who sticks out was the United Farm worker leader Cesar Chavez. Both these leaders demonstrated their willingness to perform personal sacrifices when fighting for workers or to win a strike.
The problem I believe was many mainstream labor leaders the likes of Dave Beck, the powerful president of the Teamster Union till he he had to step down due to corruption in 1958, believed that labor was the “flip side of the coin” to business. Not so much a political or social movement attempting to control the means of production vis-à-vis business but simply an agent for workers it signed up who paid dues to the local union for services rendered. Beck once bragged about not having every had to walk a picket line because of his adeptness with working with business. This dogma of being only an agent representing workers without ideology had begun to permeate much of organized labor by the mid fifties. Beck also practice a technique of “organizing the employers” rather then the workers often strong-arming employers to force them to have their employees join the union in exchange for free movement of their products to market, something the Teamsters Union had considerable control over.
In the early seventies I saw this “disconnect’ and talked incessantly to other labor officials about how labor must return to integrity and idealism of an earlier time. I was seen as a troublemaker for the most part. I surmised that labor leadership did not identify much with workers and the workers knew something didn’t add up. I also saw this disconnect again years later when I was elected a delegate to the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Convention in Las Vegas in 2001. Basically a teamster shop steward elected as a reform delegate from Local 763 in Seattle. Despite the enormous amount of rhetoric about being about improving the lives of workers voiced by Jimmy Hoffa Jr. and his cronies at the convention. The message I heard and saw there are that the Teamsters were a union mostly involved in maintaining the status quo, looking and sounding good, and protecting those in power while lining their pockets first and foremost with few exceptions.
The other main reason for labor’s decline is its inability to make workers understand that unions were basically democratic institutions run by the workers who elected their own leaders to negotiate better working conditions and protections. Because most workers could see they were not. Workers began to call a spade a spade with organizations run by corrupt old farts more interested in their personal agendas and unable to offer much in the way of any improvements in their working conditions even if they were given the chance. This disconnect was reinforced because unions, in spite of their rhetoric, where not democratic, open or transparent. Union bylaws are to this day often written to keep the old guard in power not to open up the process to progressive change. The first thing the employer points out to the employees whenever it is faced with an organization attempt by the union.
Most of labor is in denial about this even today. Unions seem often more adept at projecting favorable public relations images then the principles and integrity the union should stand for. Most of the stories you read about the downfall of labor blame it on the aggressive and sustained attack on labor starting with the Reagan administrations successful decertification and busting of the air traffic controllers union in the early eighties. This, it is argued, sent a message to the business community that union busting was back. It is true companies began to become more aggressive in their dealing with unions. But the union own incompetence, mismanagement and loss of integrity existed long before that Reagan became president. I think he recognized labors weakness and was only more then willing to exploit it. Labor began to crumble because it was in fact a straw horse that had lost its real idealism and moral authority long before.
In July 2005 nearly a third or 13 million members of American Federation of Labor broke away from that body. The breakaway unions including the Teamsters, Laborers, Service Employees, Food and Commercial Workers, Carpenters, and United Farm Workers who believed that the AFL was not doing enough to move the labor movement towards the renewal needed to produce newly organized members. They have formed a new federation of labor their calling “Change to Win”.
I would hope this is a move in the right direction. But I worry that it is more sizzle then steak once again. True progress cannot be made I believe till labor really is willing to clean house of corruption, get rid of the good old boys and the cronies and really get honest with the American worker. Leaders must be willing to return to the true ideals of the labor movement. Not just talk a good game. Union leadership must be willing to fight for workers through personal self sacrifice not just collecting dues and signing sweetheart deals with employers. Unions must be unorthodox and above all be honest and admit they have been the ones mainly responsible for the fix they find themselves in today. Organize labor must take a long look in the mirror if it hopes to become a force in he future.