Should Unions Abandon Exclusive Representation?

After Janus, Should Unions Abandon Exclusive Representation?

Three labor experts discuss how unions should move forward after the SCOTUS Janus decision.

BY KATE BRONFENBRENNER, CHRIS BROOKS, SHAUN RICHMAN

Purple Bullying: SEIU trustees trample membership rights

by Steve Early

In Chicago this coming weekend, 2,500 rank-and-file activists, from the U.S. and abroad, will be meeting under the banner of Labor Notes to celebrate the revival of union militancy, including recent strike victories like the West Virginia teachers’ walk-out.

This conference—nineteenth of its sort since 1981—will be the largest gathering ever hosted by the now Brooklyn-based labor education project. Labor Notes staff train shop stewards and local officers, promote cross-union networks, and publish books and newsletters about union democracy and reform.

As Labor Notes co-founder socialist Kim Moody explained to Jacobin readers two years ago, “the emphasis has always been on building power in the workplace” and “undermining the conservative consciousness produced by bureaucratic unionism” (“The Rank and File’s Paper of Record,” August 11, 2016).

One particular conference focus this year is how public employee unions can transform themselves to insure that the Supreme Court’s impending decision in the Janus case doesn’t lead to a worker exodus, once payment of union dues or agency fees becomes voluntary.

Among the many Chicago-area trade unionists planning to attend their first Labor Notes conference are members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, which represents 29,000 government employees in Illinois and Indiana. At a time when public sector labor organizations need to be on their best behavior—and increasingly responsive to the rank-and-file—Local 73 members have been experiencing “bureaucratic unionism” at its most frustrating and dysfunctional worst.

SEIU officials, from out of town, have run the local by fiat, since its elected officers were ousted in August, 2016 due to their “incessant infighting.” Under federal law, such headquarters-imposed trusteeships enjoy the presumption of legitimacy—regardless of their grounds—for a minimum of eighteen months. Time is up on that calendar in Local 73. So two thousand of its dues-payers have signed petitions demanding that their union be returned to membership control via democratic elections for seven officers and 100 executive board members.

Fired For Their Candidacy

To accelerate this process, a group of longtime Local 73 activists formed “Members Leading Members,” a reform caucus with its own slate of candidates. When their names were announced, ten contenders for office were summarily dismissed from their union staff jobs by appointees of SEIU president Mary Kay Henry. Their work is now being done by eight International union staffers, whose higher salaries will be absorbed by the local. Remzi Joas, a member of SEIU since 1986, former head of Local 73’s higher education division and now a candidate for local president, was among those fired. Local 73 members are pursuing a federal court challenge to the trusteeship and the related retaliatory firings.

When Henry recently made a worksite visit in Local 73, workers confronted her directly, presented their petitions calling for an election, and demanded to know when “self-governance” would be restored. Henry claimed that SEIU’s current focus on preparing for the fall-out of the Janus decision and electing a labor-friendly governor took precedence over local union voting in the meantime. But she did promise to refer the matter to her lawyers.

At a restive membership meeting in late February, Eliseo Medina, a Local 73 co-trustee, former SEIU Executive Board member, and long ago hero of United Farm Workers organizing, spent nearly three hours sparring with an equally unhappy crowd of 100. Those who turned up were angry about having no say about the day-to-day operations of their union, staff assignments or salaries, or the conduct of contract negotiations. To divert their attention, Medina showed a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. According to Jaos, “members were so disgusted with the trustees that they just finally left the union hall.”

A former SEIU-represented janitor and doorman in Chicago, Jaos worries that some workers in his current local will stop paying union dues or agency fees if the Supreme Court imposes open shop conditions on the public sector, and they still have no voice in union decision- making. If Local 73 is merged, by Washington, DC headquarters dictate, into a neighboring SEIU affiliate, the rank-and-file reaction could be similar (although some of its diverse bargaining units might prefer, after their recent mistreatment, to be part of SEIU’s mid-western Health Care Workers local instead, AFSCME’s Illinois District Council, or the Chicago Teachers Union).

Purple Déjà vu

SEIU does not approach this Chicago dispute with what lawyers call “clean hands.” Its past use of trusteeships, forced mergers, and top-down restructuring has been costly, counter-productive, and highly political—a way to reward friends of the leadership and punish internal critics. SEIU’s organizational culture of staff domination has led to repeated trampling of membership rights and, recently, embarrassing disclosures about sexual harassment of female members by male union officials in Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, and California.

In the run-up to SEIU’s largest and most disastrous local union take-over—involving United Healthcare Workers (UHW)—some of the first punches where thrown at a Labor Notes conference in Dearborn, Michigan ten years ago this month. Volunteer marshals at that gathering of 1,000 had to fend off several hundred gate-crashers wearing purple-colored T-shirts and bandanas to conceal their faces, who were bussed, in, from two mid-western SEIU affiliates.

Among those drawn into the fray were low-wage home care workers, told by their union, that the progressive labor conference in Dearborn was actually a conclave of “union-busters.” (An African-American SEIU member named David Smith collapsed and died of a heart attack before the heavily policed brawl was over; for a first person account of that senseless tragedy my article, “The Purple Punch-Out in Dearborn,” Counterpunch, April 15, 2008.)

In reality, SEIU’s target was Rose Ann DeMoro of the California Nurses Association, a prominent female union leader and then organizational rival of SEIU, who was scheduled to speak at Labor Notes’ 2008 fund-raising dinner. Protest organizers also hoped to intimidate fellow SEIU members from California who were attending the conference because they opposed the leadership of SEIU president Andy Stern and wanted to reform their national union.

Media coverage of the dust-up in Dearborn was so unfavorable that the AFL-CIO, then headed by former SEIU President John Sweeney, issued a statement declaring there was “no justification for the violent attack orchestrated by SEIU. Violence in attacking freedom of speech must be strongly condemned.”

Sweeney’s successor, Andy Stern, now SEIU President Emeritus, never apologized for or expressed any regrets over this PR debacle. Since leaving the union eight years ago, Stern has served as a corporate-funded Columbia Business School research fellow, drug company director, and paid consultant for gig economy firms like Airbnb and Handy, giving him even more to apologize for. (For all the sordid details, see: “Andy Stern’s Newest Gig: High-Paid Consultant for Billion-Dollar Tech Companies,” Stern Burger with Fries, January 12, 2017.)

A Toxic Culture

In early 2009, before he retired, Stern rewarded Dave Regan, the architect of SEIU’s 2008 Labor Notes protest with a plum assignment in California. Regan and fellow Stern appointee Eliseo Medina were sent to Oakland to seize control of UHW, a well-functioning and widely respected state-wide affiliate of SEIU, whose elected leaders had become critical of Stern’s approach to organizing and bargaining.

To impose that “mother of all trusteeships” on 150,000 workers, the Stern Administration spent tens of millions of dollars. It also dispatched an occupying army of union staffers to block ousted UHW officers, shop stewards, and rank-and-file members from forming a new union, after they were put under trusteeship. As I described in a 2011 book called The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket) the result was many months—and now years—of harassment, intimidation, and bullying of UHW dissenters, whether they are trying to leave SEIU, via decertification votes, or just get post-trusteeship UHW staff to represent them properly.

Regan turned his trusteeship duty into a sinecure, as UHW president, that now pays $250,000 a year, even though his local has one third fewer members than a decade ago. Other higher level Stern operatives involved in the dismantling of UHW include Mary Kay Henry herself, who once, famously called the Walnut Creek, CA. police to help bar Kaiser Permanente shop steward, Lover Joyce, from a post-trusteeship meeting in his own workplace.

After health care organizer Scott Courtney, a right hand man of Dave Regan, helped plan the assault on Labor Notes and, then, UHW members in California, Henry promoted his SEIU career. As president after Stern, she made Courtney Executive Vice President of SEIU and coordinator of its national “Fight for 15” campaign among fast food workers. Others of lesser stature on the SEIU national staff and from various locals also got their ticket punched—and their careers boosted—by running roughshod over UHW members at Kaiser and other California hospital chains, in 2009-11.

Where Are They Today?

The results were not pretty when some SEIU operatives took similar or worse liberties elsewhere, later on. Last October, Henry suspended Courtney from his $250,000 a year position because, as Bloomberg News reported, “people working for him had been rewarded or reassigned based on romantic relationships with him.” Courtney soon quit, before he could be fired, as demanded by the feminist advocacy group, UltraViolet, which deemed his conduct “wholly unacceptable.”

As BuzzFeed News then disclosed, two male SEIU staffers who reported to Courtney were fired or forced to resign in Chicago, based on allegations that he protected them, despite complaints from co-workers about their bullying behavior involving women. (Kendall Fells, “The Organizing Director Of The Fight For 15 Has Resigned Amid Harassment Investigation” Buzzfeed, November 2, 2017.)

A third offender, also fired for the same reason, had spent time in California during the UHW trusteeship. SEIU’s own version of the Harvey Weinstein scandal gathered further momentum, when media outlets, like the Boston Globe, chronicled examples of unwanted sexual advances by long protected officials like Massachusetts SEIU1199 leader Tyrek Lee, or staffers who moved from one SEIU local to another, despite allegations of misconduct trailing behind them. (Priyanka Dayal McCluskey, “Suspended head of health care workers union reportedly engaged in lewd behavior,” Boston Globe, February 14, 2018.)

To Sal Rosselli, the former UHW president and SEIU board member, who dared to criticize the direction of SEIU under Stern, this is clearly a case of chickens coming home to roost. “If you want to understand SEIU’s toxic macho culture, one of the worst expressions was the way its staff and leadership behaved before and during the UHW trusteeship,” he says. “In an environment where dissent must be crushed at all costs, leaders will be emboldened to prey on subordinates—and subordinates will feel intimidated about blowing the whistle.”

Now president of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), the more democratic, independent union created from the ashes of Stern’s scorched earth campaign a decade ago, Rosselli is also coming to Labor Notes in Chicago, with a rank-and-file delegation of fifteen. While UHW, under the installed leadership of Dave Regan, has steadily shrunk, 14,000-member NUHW is growing and thriving. Its members backed Bernie Sanders two years ago, while Henry pushed SEIU into the Clinton camp, despite Sanders’ far superior labor record.

The Kaiser Partnership Frays

NUHW members at Kaiser and other employers have waged creative contract campaigns and militant anti-concession strikes. Kaiser mental health clinicians and other healthcare professionals are preparing for bargaining that begins in July. Like the CNA, NUHW operates outside the SEIU-dominated Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU), because the coalition’s embrace of labor-management partnering can inhibit much-needed public advocacy of patient safety and quality care.

Meanwhile, UHW’s Kaiser Division is in disarray. That’s because Regan appointee Marcus Hatcher had to be fired for—guess what?—alleged sexual misconduct with three members of the union’s Executive Board! Regan’s own mounting leadership failures just triggered a more significant departure. Twenty-one unions representing 45,000 out of the 121,000 workers affected by CKPU’s joint bargaining have just quit the Coalition.

As Denise Duncan, leader of the AFSCME-affiliated United Nurses Associations of California explained: “we cannot be derailed by the leader of a single local,” referring to Regan. According to Duncan, at a pre-bargaining meeting in March, SEIU-UHW “once again engaged in disruptive tactics designed to assert [its] control over the coalition, making it clear to us that this behavior will never stop.” Under Regan, she charged, SEIU-UHW has “continually fractured our unity and our ability to focus on bargaining.”

Bullying, disruption, capitulation to management, and no accountability to members or union allies—that pretty much sums up the post-trusteeship MO of SEIU-UHW, thanks to Andy Stern and Mary Kay Henry. Is it any wonder that, halfway across the country from California, SEIU Local 73 members want to choose their own local leaders? The alternative is continued domination by a national union with a history of hiring people later in need of discipline because their personal behavior not only harmed SEIU members, but also damaged the reputation of all unions at a moment of great political peril.


Steve Early is former national staffer for the Communications Workers of America and a longtime supporter of Labor Notes and the National Union of Healthcare Workers. In two books for Monthly Review Press—Embedded with Organized Labor and Save Our UnionsEarly reported on SEIU-related conflicts that weakened and divided the progressive wing of labor. Early can be reached at Lsupport [at] aol.com

This article is reposted from MR Online with the permission of the author.

Is Traditional Union Organizing a Lost Cause?

The Most Successful Union Organizer in America Thinks Traditional Organizing Is a Lost Cause

On the latest episode of “The Bottom Line” podcast, David Rolf of the SEIU explains why worker advocates need to move to a different model.

https://capitalandmain.com/the-most-successful-union-organizer-in-america-thinks-traditional-organizing-is-a-lost-cause

Call For AFL-CIO to Open AIFLD Files

by Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

For those people, in particular trade union activists who are following developments in our movement, you should be aware of the resolution passed recently by the Duluth (Minn) Labor Body AFL-CIO. The resolution calls on the AFL-CIO leadership and President Richard Trumka to allow the University of Maryland to open the AFL-CIO’s AIFLD archives.  AIFLD was an AFL-CIO department that was set up in the 1960’s in order to combat and suppress any labor organizations throughout the third world that rejected the pro-business US model. It is well documented that AIFLD, funded heavily by the US government, was infiltrated by the CIA and supported the pro-capitalist US foreign policy.

The UAW’s Victor Reuther was an outspoken critic of this referring to the AFL’s “cloak and dagger” operations and the “indiscriminate whitewashing of the obvious shortcomings in US foreign policy.”*  The CIA through AIFLD and backed by the extreme anti-communism of the cold war and AFL-CIO leadership under George Meany and then Lane Kirkland, resorted to all sorts of coercion and violence to undermine radical and democratic unionism.

Rob McKenzie, a former UAW local president and Ford worker wrote the resolution which reads as follows:

Whereas, workers in Ford Motor’s Mexico City Assembly Plant were involved in a series of labor disputes in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s resisting efforts to bring their wages and benefits down to the level of the new plants on the U.S. border and demanding democratic elections in their union.  Many were kidnapped, beaten, shot and fired.  One died from wounds received in the plant.

Whereas, the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), a now defunct arm of the AFL-CIO was reputedly involved in these events and the AFL-CIO has sent the old records from this group to the University of Maryland, the official repository for AFL-CIO records.

Whereas, the University of Maryland has requested permission for a year to open new AIFLD records and archive them for researchers and has not received approval from the National AFL-CIO to do so.

Therefore, be it resolved, That the National AFL-CIO take the action necessary to allow archivists at the University of Maryland to open new American Institute for Free Labor Development records. Continue reading

What Does the Revival of Socialism Mean for the U.S. Labor Movement?

How the UAW Lost at Nissan

by Dianne Feeley

IN EARLY AUGUST the UAW’s union recognition campaign at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi ended in a disastrous 63% “no” vote — 10% greater than the loss at Volkswagen in Chattanooga, Tennessee three and a half years earlier.

From the beginning of the decade-long campaign at Nissan the UAW sought community support, stressing that “Workers’ Rights = Civil Rights.” This was a particularly effective strategy given that 80% of the workers are African American, and Canton is 80% Black. And given the 6,000-strong march held this spring in support of the unionization drive, it seemed like the UAW was headed for victory.

But that was outside the sprawling plant. Inside management took an aggressive anti-union stance, holding captive meetings, blaring anti-union videos in the break rooms, and in the days just before the vote holding mandatory large group meetings and even one-to-one sessions. They explained how the UAW would not represent the interests of employees and other “facts.”

In listening to the voices of the Nissan workers, health and safety was a major issue, as it is in most non-union workplaces. Several mentioned Derrick Whiting, 37, who collapsed and died on the plant floor in September 2015. He had gone to the plant’s medical facility complaining of chest pains and was sent back to the line.

Anna Wolfe reported in the Clarion Ledger, “Some employees claim Nissan did not respond quickly to the crisis and even kept nearby production lines moving. The company denies these allegations, maintaining that safety at its automotive plant is ‘significantly better than the national average.’” (http://www.clarionledger.com/story/news/politics/2017/08/01/inside-fight-over-unionizing-nissan/508465001/)

Others planning on voting for UAW representation spoke about the need for job security and pensions. A big contradiction in the election, however, was the division among African Americans. At Nissan, the top-tier workforce averages $26 per hour while second-tier workers make $18 — but both are much higher than Canton’s per capita annual household income of $15,000. Given these economic disparities the company was effective in discouraging eligible workers from “rocking the boat” and voting for an untested union.

African Americans in Mississippi have few opportunities for relatively higher paying blue-collar jobs. Faced with both an anti-labor government and Nissan, many Black workers feared losing a stable, well-paying job. Meanwhile there was debate in the plant around management’s favoritism of whites in promotions and opportunities. But neither the in-plant issues of economic inequality nor the particular history of racism in the region were well understood by the UAW leadership. Had there been a strong in-plant committee capable of taking initiative, these could have been addressed.

Organizing Problems

Of the 6400 workers at the plant, only 3500-3800 were eligible to vote. The rest were temporary workers. In fact 2500 are employed by Kelly Services, not Nissan.

At Nissan there are three separate tiers. There are “legacy” workers who were hired in when Nissan began. Second are “pathway” workers who started as temporaries and gained full-time employment — but whose benefits will never equal the highest tier. There are approximately 1500 of these second-tier workers. Third are the “temporary” workers employed by Kelly Services.

As a retired autoworker, I see two huge organizing issues: 1) the pro-union workers didn’t come together and begin to act like a union but merely talked about why there should be one. 2) The UAW didn’t reach out to the temporary workers and draw them into the campaign.

Most autoworkers see how temporary workers are superexploited. They work as hard, or harder, than “legacy” workers but are paid significantly less, with no job security and zero benefits.

In watching the organizing drive from a distance, I’ve wondered what could the UAW organizers do to build a militant union at a large Southern plant, given that many of the problems Nissan workers faced were similar to the ones we had in UAW-represented plants.

After all, UAW officials had preached concessions as a way to keep our jobs since the 1980s. They, along with the corporations, sold two-tier wages and benefits to autoworkers, intimidating and slandering those of us who argued against this strategy.

Once imposed, the two-tier structure was rationalized. Unable to organize the foreign-owned transplants who had located in the South in order to keep unions out, the UAW maintained that until the proportion of unionized autoworkers grew, UAW workers were stuck with concessionary bargaining.

That’s a circular argument. We lost our power because the proportion of unionized autoworkers declined with the opening of the nonunionized transplants. Therefore, we were told, UAW workers must survive by taking concessions, waiting for a better day, when we can grow again and regain what we have lost. But through taking concessions, we undercut the reasons why unorganized autoworkers would want to join!

In the last round of Big Three negotiations, UAW President Dennis Williams chose to negotiate with Chrysler first. Many wondered about his choosing the smallest and weakest corporation for negotiation because it would set the pattern for the other two.

When the negotiated contract was announced, it retained the two-tier system and limited the percentage of workers who could climb up the ladder. To the surprise of Solidarity House (the UAW headquarters), Chrysler workers overwhelmingly rejected it. A second and slightly improved contract was approved — but today there are more job and pay categories than ever before.

The current contract expands the use of temporary workers. Yet the industrial union model is built on the concept that whatever one’s job, there is relatively little difference in pay, benefits and working conditions. Yes, skilled workers make more money, but with the same benefits. Permanent differentials erode collectivity on the shop floor, and allow management to promote a culture where workers see themselves as individuals competing against other workers.

A Different Strategy?

What could the UAW have fought for at Nissan to benefit the 2,500 Nissan temporaries? A core of UAW supporters, coming from all three tiers, could have begun to function as a union on the shop floor. They could have raised demands around health and safety issues. They could have contested discrimination that occurs when supervisors favor white workers and when one part of the workforce lacks security.

This would have changed the dynamic about what the union is and deepened the understanding and commitment to economic equality on the job. The union is not a foreign body injected into the Nissan plant, it’s the workers who have come together collectively to voice their demands and seek their implementation.

Under this model, building the union is the goal. Maybe the shop committee would be so strong it could challenge the racist system of promotion, maybe even force the company to get rid of Kelly Services and start hiring. But whether or not it could accomplish its goals, the union would function as an institution to carry out campaigns that its members decided upon.

It might even turn the tables on management, tracking Nissan’s suppliers and helping those workers to organize as a way of increasing the union’s power over the company’s just-in-time production.

Holding a recognition election would be a secondary goal. Whenever it happened the temporaries, whatever their formal status, should have the right to vote. Two potential contract demands might then be that temporaries become permanent employees and the wall between tiers be dissolved. That would be a union worth fighting for.

I believe an organizing campaign that united the workers around their needs could have won at Nissan — despite the words of the Republican governor who opposed the union, despite all the Nissan ads on local TV and all the intimidating tactics used on the job.

Such a campaign would transform the union, which today is a shell of what the UAW was. Once it did take on management through a variety of actions including delegations during break time, work-to-rule actions and quickie strikes — a strategy, by the way, that’s also needed in the already organized UAW plants.

reposted from Against the Current (https://www.solidarity-us.org/node/5082)

Trump, Right-Wing Populism, And the Future of Labor

Bill Fletcher jr.

White House Talks to Some Unions

From Politico’s Morning Report:

TRUMP’S DOOR ALWAYS OPEN, BUT ONLY FOR CERTAIN UNIONS: At the North America’s Building Trades Unions Conference in April, President Donald Trump told attendees that “America’s labor leaders will always find an open door with Donald Trump.” But that’s not quite right, the Associated Press reports. Trump has welcomed to the White House union representatives for the construction trades as well as workers in the auto, steel and coal mining industries who supported him during the election. But “there’s been no White House invitation for other unions representing the sprawling but shrinking pool of 14.6 million workers who collectively bargain with employers in the labor movement.” For example, the administration did not invite the two largest teacher unions- the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers- to White House sessions with teachers and other educators, hosted by Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.”

“Much like President Ronald Reagan did, Trump is not so much pursuing a labor agenda but one that appeals to those who share his ‘Buy American, Hire American’ priorities and happen to be union members.” More here. Continue reading

We Need a Rank-and-File Labor Insurgency from Below

by Dan La Botz

fist

In the DSA’s “Talking Union” Carl Goldman and Kurt Stand argue against the National Political Committee (NPC) statement that calls for “the absolute necessity of a bottom-up left insurgency within the house of labor.” They argue that “Socialists must try to work with all levels of the union movement.” And they insist that the DSA statement “ignores… and disparages the work of unionists at every level of the labor movement who have been keeping the union movement alive.”

I argue here that their position would lead DSA union members and the organization as a whole to simply follow the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party down a road leading to the virtual disappearance of unions in America.

The fundamental weakness of the Goldman-Stand perspective is that it lacks an analysis of the nature of the American labor unions and of the labor bureaucracy. The top union leadership constitutes a caste within the labor unions. Many of its top leaders make salaries reaching well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Take Gerald McEntee, recent past president of the American Federation of State Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), for example. By the time of his retirement, he was making over one million dollars per year, a staggering amount that put him among the highest paid officials in the labor movement. In the Teamsters union one official makes over $400,000 per year; half a dozen make over $300,000; and 35 officials make over $200,000 per year. Compare this to the average Teamster wage of $48,000 per year.

In many cases, the top union officials are the 1% of the labor movement. (We’re not talking here, of course, about the officers of a small local unions or elected union stewards, but about the big shots in the unions.)

High-level union officials and workers also have very different work and social lives. Workers go to work doing manual or mental labor under the eye of the boss, often under pressure to work harder and faster, sometimes in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, often harassed, and subject to discipline and firing. Union officials, on the other hand, often become bosses themselves overseeing both union employees and the workers they are supposed to represent. Officials have expense accounts, automobiles, often enjoy their own health and pension plans with golden parachutes and other perks. These officials consequently do not have the same interests as the workers. This bureaucratic caste of union officials at the highest levels tends to seek stability in its relationships with corporations and government in order to protect its own position. The union officialdom, by and large, has not, as Goldman and Stand suggest, “kept the movement alive” over the last 40 years. Deeply conflict averse, it has presided over labor’s decline and if not challenged will see to its demise.

In our capitalist system, labor unions have the potential to work for employers to contain and control workers, but they also have the potential to mobilize workers and lead them in a struggle against the bosses. With ties to both the bosses and the workers, union officials generally vacillate between the two and act in the workers’ best interest when there is a powerful grassroots movement from below pushing them to do so. In the absence of meaningful pressure from below, union officials have largely failed to mobilize workers and have instead collaborated with employers in the closing of manufacturing plants in the United States. Union leaders have also accepted the introduction of automation, the creation of new forms of work organization that disempower workers, and the shifting of health care costs onto the workers’ shoulders.

Under the current union leadership as a whole we have had the lowest level of class struggle in America since the 1920s, with very few large or lengthy strikes. Why? Because for decades, when workers began to organize on the shop floor and threaten economic action, most union officials could be counted on to join with employers in invoking collective bargaining language that forbids strikes during the life of the contract.

Union officials of all stripes—conservative, liberal, or progressive—often come to the conclusion that because of their privileged position, with ties to both the bosses and the workers, as well as to the Democratic Party (sometimes the Republican Party) and to government agencies, that they know what’s best for working people. Compromise often seems the best course of action to them, because they have little faith in workers’ ability to fight the employer and fear a defeat. And they know that an actual mobilization of workers could lead to class struggle, which in turn could lead to the development of new leaders with new ideas who might aspire to their positions. Since they fear worker mobilization, the labor officialdom tends to look to the Democratic Party to solve their problems for them.

Don’t some unions take progressive positions on diversity issues? Yes. Most unions now recognize the need for allies among Blacks, Latinos, immigrants, women, and LGBTQ people — largely as a result of the changing demographics of the working class, but also because of the unions’ weakness. But union leaders most often want to use those alliances as political leverage in the Democratic Party in order to pass legislation so they can avoid direct conflicts with employers over wages, benefits, working conditions. Whether top union leaders liked Trump, Clinton, or Sanders, it was often for the same motive: they want someone else to get the unions out of this mess.

The real divide in the labor movement then is not between conservative, liberals, and progressives, but fundamentally between the bureaucracy and the rank-and-file. What this means is that rank-and-file workers must frequently fight their own union officials in order to take on the boss. That’s why we need rank-and-file movements, movements that often begin as a militant minority among workers in a particular workplace, union or industry.

But the rank-and file movement also needs a political vision, a notion of an alternative to the system we face today. This may not be an explicitly socialist vision, but we need to project a vision for a union, a workplace, and society where workers can exercise power and democratically set the agenda for the future.

Do we have an example? The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) shows us one model. A few years ago, a small group of rank-and-file teachers began to organize a caucus –the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) to take over a floundering union and give it a new direction. They organized a rank-and-file insurgency. They proposed to ally with grassroots groups in the community and to lead the union in struggle, in strikes against the employer.

This union could not and did not put an alliance with the Democratic Party at the center of its strategy. How could it? After all, who was the employer? It was Barack Obama’s former chief-of-Staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (“Mayor 1%”) who was carrying out the policies of Obama’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. These policies attack public education, teachers, and their unions, as well as parents and children. The union never attacked Obama, but it fought against Rahm and resisted Duncan’s policies in defense of teachers, students, and communities in a largely Black city. The struggle for students, teachers and public education culminated in the CTU strike of 2012, the first important victory (however modest and incomplete) for the American working class in decades.

The lesson? We need a grassroots labor insurgency.

Rank-and-file movements, when they win power or gain significant influence, often prove more successful in winning immediate reforms than old guard bureaucrats. Take the example of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), which in the 1990s supported reformer Ron Carey for the Teamster presidency. When Carey won the presidency and some TDU activists became national union leaders, the union leadership and the rank and file cooperated to mobilize the members for a national strike against UPS in 1997. The strike was a model of rank-and-file leadership and activism—and it was a success.

Do we only support insurgents? No. We support unions when they are on strike. When it comes to improving workers’ lives we will engage in solidarity with union officials and workers whether they backed Trump, Hillary, or Bernie (or nobody at all). Though we recognize that union officials will often seek labor peace over working class struggle, we can join with union officials of all stripes and with rank-and-file workers in the fight for economic improvements and political reforms, but we must be constantly on guard against union leaderships that will want to channel labor and all social movements into the Democratic Party, a party of the banks and corporations that will never be our party.

We thus constantly face (and too often evade) the difficult question of how, while building rank-and-file movements, we can also build an independent political force representing working people, which must be the subject of another essay. What we should not do, however, is to naively believe that the labor union leadership — whether it was pro-Bernie, pro-Hillary, or pro-Trump — necessarily represents a progressive force. A few unions, like the CTU, have worked to combine a rank-and-file perspective with a progressive agenda, but most others do not. Our job as socialists is to organize and support militant minorities and rank-and-file movements in the unions, to bring to them our socialist analysis and to work with them to develop strategies for fighting their employers and capitalism as a whole.

Rank-and-file insurgencies represent the revitalization of the labor unions and a potential source of independent political power, but the logic of labor unionism makes it difficult for them to survive and prosper for very long. Employers put tremendous pressure on union reformers with the goal of discrediting them in the eyes of their members. They work to corrupt reformers with labor peace pay-offs. Or they try to crush them. The bosses will throw everything they have against a militant leader and against activist workers — denying them contract victories, refusing to let them win grievances, and, of course, firing and blacklisting them.

Then bosses may also turn to violence, as they have in the past when worker militants were sometimes beaten or killed. They will bring in the government in one form or another –- anti-strike laws, mediators and arbitration, political persecution, etc. – to break rank-and-file movements and restore business as usual.

Still, rank-and-file movements can win and hold power for a time, and they can make gains. But as we have learned since the 1980s, employers will try to take away whatever gains we make. Nothing about the union or the contract is permanent. But the struggle for union democracy, for a better life on the job, and for a higher standard of living trains generations of worker leaders and activists to keep the movement alive. We need to build such radical movements, even if they are only militant minorities, because they are the heart of the labor movement and the left and their experiences and commitment are the basis for a struggle for socialism.

Dan La Botz is the author of the first edition of The Troublemaker’s Handbook (Labor Notes), of Rank-and-File Rebellion: Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and César Chávez and La Causa, as well as several books on Mexico’s labor movement. He was a founding member of Teamsters for a Democratic Union. He teaches in the Labor Studies Program of the Murphy Institute (CUNY). He is a DSA member in Brooklyn.

The editors of Talking Union encourage comments on and responses to this important debate on the role of socialists in the labor movement.

Why Did Trump Win? And What is Next for Labor?

Why Did Trump Win? And What’s Next for Labor in the US?http://stansburyforum.com/why-did-trump-win-and-whats-next-for-labor-in-the-us/
Peter Olney and Rand Wilson
The Stansbury Forum

 

European elites were shocked at the surprising victory of “Brexit” last June. American elites — and especially the pollsters and major media outlets — were similarly shocked by the results of the U.S. elections on November 8.(1)

While Brexit was a straight up “Yes” or “No” vote, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost because of the Electoral College [1] system of electing our national presidents. The Electoral College is an arcane constitutional provision intended to protect smaller states from the population power of larger states and the rule of the “mob” over the perceived wisdom of elite electors.

This is the fifth time in U.S. history that a presidential candidate has won the popular vote, but lost the election because of the anti-democratic Electoral College. The last time was in 2000 when George W. Bush became President after a Supreme Court ruled that he had won the vote in the state of Florida. That state’s electoral college vote gave Bush the election, even though a plurality of the American people voted for the Democratic nominee, Al Gore.

Trump heralded his election as “Brexit on steroids” and appeared at a rally in Mississippi with Nigel Frage from the British Independence Party. Both Brexit and Trump’s triumph tapped into a distraught white working class buffeted by globalization and new demographic realities. In many cases Trump’s appeal was pure and simple racism, attracting alt-right and overt racist elements. Yet while all racists, misogynists and xenophobes most likely voted for Trump, not all of his 60 million votes were racists, misogynists and xenophobes.

The Electoral College system made winning the states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin key to either candidate winning the White House. Why did Secretary Clinton lose in these three states that her predecessor Barrack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012? Workers in all three states have suffered huge job losses in basic industry and in the case of Pennsylvania, the closure of coalmines. The sons and daughters of “New Deal” Democrats many of whom supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 were looking to make a statement against the ruling elites and voted for change. Continue reading