Do Unions Sometimes Behave Like Cults?

by Paul Garver

On November 18 Steven Greenhouse published an article in the New York Times entitled “Some Organizers Protest Their Union’s Tactics.” In the article several former organizers for Unite Here, one now working for SEIU’s Workers United (WU/SEIU), alleged that Unite Here organizers had been subjected by the supervisors to a practice called “pink sheeting,” by which personal details of organizers’ lives were used as an improper method of control over the organizers. While citing Unite Here President John Wilhelm’s response that “pink sheeting” was an isolated and abhorrent practice that he had firmly forbidden. Greenhouse appeared to largely accept the claim that the practice was widespread and continuing.

The Union of Unite Here Staff (UUHS) has responded with an open letter, accusing Greenhouse of irresponsible reporting and lack of journalistic integrity. The union asserted that as current staff, they exercised their rights to think and critique in an organizing culture that provided space for them to challenge and discuss key decisions of the union. It accused the disgruntled former staffers of colluding with Workers United/SEIU and pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Unite Here staff had chosen the UUHS as their union and left the their former staff union FOUR, which now represented only the staff of the breakaway WU/SEIU.

FOUR had posted an Open Letter on Indybay citing Greenhouse’s article and calling for an end to pink sheeting. The ensuing comments were comprised of an angry exchange among members of the two staff unions. The 22 comments that have appeared on the NYT web-site to Greenhouse’s article are rather evenly divided among those calling the article false and misleading, those asserting that they were victims of “pink sheeting” while working for Unite Here, and others simply using the report to denounce all unionism.

I have no special insight into the truth or falsity of these allegations. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of either the disgruntled former staffers testifying to their negative experiences with pink sheeting, nor the positive experiences with the union’s organizing culture reported by the current HERE staff union. It is also obvious to me that this is in good part another salvo in the dismaying propaganda war, in which WU/SEIU has gained an advantage because Greenhouse’s article will be much more widely circulated and discussed than the response of the Unite Here staff union.

It does cause me to muse a bit about the internal culture of American unions, and whether there is enough respect in general for the personal lives of union staffers and organizers.  Greenhouse refers to the tragic period in the history of the United Farm Workers, when Synanon-like methods of humiliation and vituperation were used to control staffers and drive out those who did not conform to the narrow cult that developed around Cesar Chavez. (Michael Yates, who worked briefly as Research Director for the UFW in 1977 when these events were taking place, brilliantly recreates this atmosphere in his “creative non fiction” piece entitled “Cesar” in his unique collection In And Out of The Working Class (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009)).

I have little to add to the critique of SEIU’s recent repugnant misbehavior at the Los Angeles fundraising event for the NUHW. Read Randy Shaw’s article in this blog, and for an excellent first-person account read Paul Krehbiel’s blog entry for Labor Notes. Such counter-productive actions appear to be stemming from a self-deluding organizational culture that is beginning to act more like a national cult. I know that the vast majority of SEIU members and local unions continue their responsible representational and political activities, but do not such actions tarnish the organization as a whole?

But milder forms of cult-like practice often occur in organizations of all types, businesses and unions, religious and social movements. If your organization is committed to ambitious goals, and yet is dependent on securing the loyalty and mobilizing the energies of over-worked and often under-paid staff (a good description of most union, community, and political organizing projects!) that organization can develop an internal culture that is not conducive to balanced personal and family lives. Typical symptoms are feelings of isolation from the external world, overwork, too many inefficient working hours, uneasily compensated by a sense of mission and sometimes grandiose feelings of accomplishment.

Sometime in the mid 1980s when I was staff director for SEIU Local 585 in Pittsburgh I was invited to speak at an SEIU District 925 staff conference on a topic related to how to manage a long-term commitment to working for the union. I don’t recall if I had any particular wisdom to impart (though at the time I experienced some precarious balance in my personal and work life) but my leitmotif was the song by folksinger Charlie King: “Our life is more than our work. Our work is more than our jobs.” I am not sure how that was received by the union leadership (I was not invited to speak to another conference of this type), but I do remember what happened afterward. Four African-American women organizers from District 925 asked to speak with me privately. They told me how much they appreciated what I had said. They wanted to know if I could help them deal with their supervisor, a committed socialist-feminist whom I had known quite well from the New American Movement chapter in Pittsburgh. According to these women, who were single mothers, their supervisor (who had no children) had no understanding of how they had to balance their personal lives with their work. For instance, that the providers of their child care had to have adequate notice on changes of work schedule or that they could simply not work long into the night on a regular basis. I urged them to directly discuss their problems with their supervisor. What concerned me the most is that they did not feel free to raise these issues openly in the discussion that followed my talk.

Achieving some sort of personal and organizational integrity and balance under such pressures is difficult. For myself I’ve been working at that for over forty years since I became an “activist” and still often don’t get it right. But with all due understanding that our labor movement is bound to have warts, including personality cults, lack of honest open internal criticism, and other such defects, I have increasingly less tolerance for such all-too-human behavior. To the extent that some form of pink sheeting exists, it has to be rooted out. To the extent that thuggish behavior, character assassination, and unprincipled attacks are becoming standard weapons in inter-union disputes, we must not tolerate them. They repel and do not attract the people we want to organize. They are damaging the moral commitment and integrity that must be at the core of what must make our movement different from business as usual.

Those of us who work for labor unions do not have the option of checking our moral compasses at the door when we go to work. We have the obligation to challenge unacceptable organizational behavior, and if we cannot be heard in our own union, there may be other places to do good work. Our lives are more than our work, and our work is more than our jobs.

8 Responses

  1. Excellent essay, Paul. It deserves to be widely read.

  2. Well said, but…
    The argument of to what degree did the Chavez UFW become a cult is quite complex – and disputed. You cite the work of Micheal Yates who I respect. He was a Research Director in 1977. Well, I was active with the UFW from 1972- 1977. The arguments are not simple. One side is getting told. I find the Marshall Ganz argument reasonable. There are many people telling the story in another way. Allow me to illustrate some of the complexity.
    For as far as I know, the Game was real. Pawley in her book cites some folks who I know— who are still supporters of the UFW ! Isn’t that strange. Philip Vera Cruz ( a Filipino leader) tells the story in another way.
    Several of the people who later complained about the personalism, and the cult like behavior, apparently supported that same personalism and cult like behavior when they were on the winning side. They complained after it turned on them. Isn’t that strange.
    Readers can decide for themselves by looking at the vast documents compiled by Le Roy Chatfield ( UFW leader 1966- 1972) at the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project.
    The Cooper piece is a review of the Pawell book. Here is a commentary on this book by a well informed UFW insider.
    Leroy Chatfield. He is the host of the Farmworker Movement Documentation Center.

    Click to access The%20Union%20of%20Their%20Dreams.pdf

    There is more to say on this, however, some should not be posted and only reduces each of the participants to antagonists.
    We need to understand and avoid the behavior.
    For example, I have read most of these criticisms. They are an interesting debate. What they do not discuss is that some of this personalism
    was in my view a part of the debate internal to the union about Chicano/Mexicano self determination. It is portrayed as cult behavior, but think of the 1970’s. Think of the self determination struggles.
    Only one side is writing this history.
    Now, the role of the UFW, of Chavez, Huerta, Vera Cruz, Medina, and others in stimulating and creating a Latino led labor movement is under developed.
    The role of a small ultra left, narrow nationalism,( prominent in the 70’s) is under examined. As is the role of challenging an Anglo hegemony in labor and in the South West.
    Interestingly, in the recent criticisms, the decline of the UFW seldom examines the role of the new immigrants, hundreds of thousands of Mixtec, Zapotec, and other indigenous people from Mexico in the fields.
    These are complex issues and can not be understood in over simplifications.
    Over simplifications often are harmful.
    Again. inform yourself. Go to the Farmworker Movement Documentation Project and inform yourself. Prepare yourself for the coming conflicts.

  3. Paul,
    it is strange to me that you fully accept Randy Shaw’s reportage but question Greenhouse’s. I used to work for Unite Here but do not work for Workers United. I can tell you pink sheeting is a real problem with serious impacts on people’s lives. Much more so than throwing eggs. It’s odd to me that you condemn SEIU in this piece but do not condemn the practice of pink sheeting. It’s OK to say that a union you love is wrong.

  4. please note that FOUR also published an open letter:

    Dear Labor Staff Members and Activists:

    In today’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse exposes a deeply disturbing and, frankly, disgusting practice unique to Unite Here called “pink sheeting.” Pink sheeting is an invasive and inappropriate organizing technique in which staff and workers are pressured to reveal deeply personal, traumatic parts of their history. This practice is, according to former Unite Here staff, “designed to keep those involved in the union’s work from straying from the directives of the union leadership.”

    Greenhouse writes that more than a dozen organizers:

    “said in interviews that they had often been pressured to detail such personal anguish — sometimes under the threat of dismissal from their union positions — and that their supervisors later used the information to press them to comply with their orders.”

    The Federation of Union Representatives (FOUR), the union representing staff of Workers United and UNITE HERE, has long fought against the practice of pink sheeting. Unfortunately, Greenhouse’s article and a recent open letter by former Unite Here staff show that it continues.

    Although we are pleased the abuses suffered by our membership are finally getting the attention it deserves, we continue to lament the fact the abuses were suffered at all. FOUR feels strongly that, no worker or staff member should be required to divulge private personal information as a requirement for employment or as a part of an organizing drive. We have stood, and will continue to stand, against the abuses of power perpetrated on union staff and the members of the unions we work for.

    When others remained silent, FOUR stood up against this psychologically devastating practice not only because is a needless injury to those who endured it but because it is antithetical to the core values of our labor movement. We again call for pink sheeting to end.

    Brian Callaci, FOUR shop steward

    Nell Geiser, FOUR shop steward

    Matt Painter, FOUR shop steward

    Laura Moran, FOUR shop steward

    Garrett O’Connor, FOUR shop steward

  5. In response to the previous comments:

    I appreciate the comment that posted the open letter from FOUR, which I had not seen when I posted the original article. I will revise the article to place a link to it in the text proper.

    I did condemn pink-sheeting, which I consider as a symptom of cult-like behavior, and said that it should be rooted out. What is hard to tell from the outside is how extensively it was used and whether it still exists now in Unite Here. If I seemed to downplay the seriousness of the charges of pink-sheeting, it was unintentional. I welcome those who have suffered from pinksheeting first hand (“mex”?)to consider sending a report to Talking Union for possible publication.

    I respect Steven Greenhouse’s work (he is one of the few competent labor reporters writing for mainstream media) and think that his article opened a useful general discussion, even as it becomes used as a football in an internal labor war.

    Thanks to Duane for the extensive comment on UFW. I urge readers of TU to look at the many accounts of these tragic events that set back a very promising farmworkers movement. My point was not to blame any particular faction, but to note that under the difficult circumstances in which struggling union organizations exist cultish behavior is always a danger.

    Although Randy Shaw is a supporter of NUHW, he is writing about an event in LA that many persons directly witnessed. Throwing eggs and water bottles at fellow trade unionists and political allies may not be in itself unusually dangerous behavior, but it is evidently counter-productive to its own cause. I trust Paul Krehbiel’s account of the Los Angeles event because I was with him when SEIU carried out its equally deluded and counterproductive raid on the Labor Notes conference. Both of us had worked for SEIU locals for many years, had many positive experiences within SEIU, and neither of us harbors any personal animus against SEIU. I can only attribute SEIU persisting in such self-referential and arrogant conduct as a product of an organizational culture that is in danger of losing its anchor in reality. I don’t think SEIU can be described as a cult (it remains too rooted at many levels in good organizational and political work), but it badly needs to rethink its current direction.

  6. Brother Garver,

    It’s interesting, in an article on union cultism, you show evidence of drinking a healthy share of the Kool Aid yourself!

    Instead of recognizing that UNITE HERE used a form of cult mind control on it’s organizers – and recognizing that, although that fact was exposed by UNITE HERE’s enemies in the SEIU, that fact is still nonetheless valid, you launched into a lengthy defense of the toxic internal culture of America’s dying labor movement.

    Now, I know that the union machine pays your bills, and unions are known for their witchhunts against those who don’t toe the dominant political line, but come on brother!

    Why not just Tell The Truth?

  7. On Greenhouse: Kirk Adams, one of Andy Stern’s top lieutenants was Steve Greenhouse’s college roommate and the two remain very close. It is unethical for Greenhouse not to reveal this fact. His pro-SEIU bias is evident in every story he writes.

    • Stanley,,

      I don’t think that your ad hominem attack on Steven Greenhouse disposes of the useful content of his expose of pink sheeting. My former college roommate has written a book on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein –does that mean that I have to disclose that I may be soft on monsters? My impression is that Greenhouse made a serious effort to dig into and report on the issue, and I have received public and private responses that confirm that a version of pink sheeting in training organizers has existed in more than one union. Greenhouse has opted not to respond to those criticizing his alleged bias towards SEIU, and I agree. I continue to deplore the personal vilification that makes it very difficult to discuss sensitive issues in the labor movement in any depth.

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