The Common Good
September-October 1998

From the Bottom Up

by Jane Slaughter | September-October 1998

Only the rank and file can bring real and lasting change.

Many Americans' hopes for social justice were lifted in October 1995 when new leaders took the helm of the AFL-CIO, promising great things for working families. The "New Voice" team led by John Sweeney, Rich Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson called for "a new progressive voice in American life...changing the direction of American politics....a vibrant social movement." Perhaps now, many hoped, the overly bureaucratic organization could again take its place alongside other progressive movements.

For many, prospects for a more inspiring union movement were dashed two years later when a government monitor uncovered corruption in the Teamsters, the union that had most symbolized the changes in organized labor. President Ron Carey, who had swept mobsters out of the union and led UPS workers to a stunning strike victory, was accused of diverting union funds to his re-election campaign. Was Carey's downfall a sign that the labor movement was incapable of reforming itself? Were "labor bosses" destined to remain just that and no more? Was this 16 million-member force doomed to be its own worst enemy, incapable of rousing itself to fight alongside other movements for social justice?

The answers to these questions are not simple, and give reason for both optimism and doubt. Mostly, the state of reform in the labor movement reminds us what we knew all along: Real and lasting change must come from below, from the rank and file. Despite necessary changes occurring at the top of the AFL-CIO, the labor movement is still a long way from living up to its potential, in part because it has not unleashed the power within.

In the forthcoming The Transformation of U.S. Unionism (Lynne Rienner Publishers), Herman Benson, longtime head of the Association for Union Democracy, argues that the AFL-CIO's new commitment to "organize the unorganized" is not likely to catch fire as long as unions remain in their current bureaucratic state. He writes:

A thousand organizers can perhaps win a few thousand new recruits to unions. But millions of union members, if imbued with pride in their unions, if convinced that this movement is truly theirs...can become the social force that...creates a new mood in America. The key to releasing that power is to rekindle the spirit of union democracy. Before the labor movement can effectively spread the message of freedom and social justice to the nation, it must renew that same spirit within its own ranks and convince its own members that this great movement belongs to them and not to its officials.

In other words, a rank-and-filer is not likely to devote her weekends to knocking on doors of potential recruits unless she knows she has a say in her own union.

ALTHOUGH THEY USE procedures considered democratic, such as elections, most unions today are not democratic in the sense of being controlled by the ordinary members. Real hope for the future of labor is found in the brave movements in many unions for rank-and-file control, more than in the new faces in top jobs at AFL-CIO headquarters. These movements—made up of truck drivers, postal workers, grocery clerks, cannery workers, janitors, public employees, aircraft workers, subway drivers, and others—fight entrenched bureaucracies determined to hold onto their power even as that power dwindles in the face of corporate assault.

These crusades for democracy are not concerned with democracy simply for its own sake. In every case, they seek rank-and-file power—the right to vote for national officers, for example—because they believe that on-the-ground workers will make better decisions about dealing with employers than those made by union officers far removed from daily life on the job.

The New Voice victory at the AFL-CIO is definitely positive, making the labor movement visible again, and bringing a new spirit of openness to the Federation. Sweeney and his leadership team have given legitimacy to the idea that the labor movement should change, to the importance of organizing, and even, to a small degree, to the idea that dissent is possible. They've lit fires under the long-complacent affiliate unions to get out and recruit; they've interested thousands of young people and academics in joining a movement long scorned on campuses. To some degree, they've targeted women and people of color in their organizing; they've even reached out to gay and lesbian union members.

Yet the AFL-CIO's new leaders are silent on the subject of union democracy, largely because of their view of the proper relationship between worker and employer. Simply put, the AFL-CIO's new leaders are willing to wage a fight against an employer to win recognition and a contract—to get new members onto the rolls. But once the union is established, the sought-after relationship becomes labor-management "partnership."

The fatal flaw in the "partnership" approach is that employers in the last 20 years have become aggressively anti-union in their organized workplaces—not just against organizing drives. That approach assumes that employers can be convinced to yield to worker demands without a struggle. Sweeney told the 1997 AFL-CIO convention, "One of our paramount goals is to help the companies we work for succeed, to work with our employers to creatively increase productivity and quality and to help American companies compete effectively in the new world economy and create new jobs and new wealth for our families and our communities to share." In other words, he seemed to be saying, if we cooperate to create more profits, the companies will share those profits with us.

But the evidence doesn't support this approach. In the 1980s and 1990s, labor-management cooperation programs—with names like "employee involvement" and "team concept"—became dogma for both parties. Yet workers' wages are now a smaller proportion of the national income—and profits are a higher percentage—than before unions officially adopted cooperation. Employers retain not only the profits they make from downsizing, contracting out, and busting unions, but also gains from union efforts to speed up work on the shop floor.

How is the "partnership" approach related to fear of union democracy? The union-side initiators of partnership have almost always been high-level leaders. Officials believe that, given the chance, most union members would end partnership programs, and they're probably right. Worse, from the officials' point of view, if members had control they might make "irresponsible" decisions: to go on strike, to commit civil disobedience—actions that could deplete the union's treasury. The ranks are not trusted by those who want to be corporations' partners.

Another reason for opposition to the democratization of organized labor, some would say, is the high salaries and other perks that come with national union office. Very few union presidents make less than $100,000 a year. With such high stakes, it's no wonder that some union officials resort to high-handed tactics to subvert democracy and keep themselves in control.

FORTUNATELY, SOME MOVEMENTS on the ground show what can be done when rank-and-filers organize themselves. With their commitment to solidarity, democracy, and confronting the boss, these movements demonstrate in embryo what a revitalized labor movement could look like.

n The oldest and most successful is Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), founded in 1976. By fighting both for democratic changes—the right to elect stewards, for example, or to reject contracts by majority vote—and directly for better contracts and working conditions, TDU has managed to make big changes in that union. It has kept its bearings despite the government's removal of Ron Carey, the union president TDU helped elect.

  • Letter Carriers for a Democratic Union took its call for a Members' Bill of Rights into 250 locals of the National Association of Letter Carriers this year. This constitutional amendment would ensure rank and filers' right to criticize leaders and organize opposition. The movement wants "a more participatory democracy and political rights for the membership," says local president Ray Tillman of Boulder, Colorado, as well as accountability for national leaders.
  • In the United Auto Workers, a group called New Directions formed to fight concessions and union-management collaboration in the 1980s. For a time, New Directions reached a big constituency, winning some election victories. Today, however, much of the auto workforce is nearing retirement, and members are concerned mostly with hanging on till they can get out of the industry.
  • In some unions, the democratic agitation is on the local level. In the Machinists, an insurgency in the huge locals at the Boeing Co. in Seattle and Wichita forced officials to let members review a tentative contract before voting on it. After members read the provisions, they voted no overwhelmingly and went on strike, eventually winning their demands against subcontracting and insurance cuts.
  • In New York City this spring, a caucus called New Directions came close to winning control of a 33,000-member subway and bus workers local. New Directions had campaigned for such basic reforms as electing union representatives, but also on more political questions. The group had opposed turning union jobs over to workfare recipients, and had warned of the need to prepare for the possibility of a strike against downsizing (it is illegal for these public employees to strike).
  • In the Service Employees International (SEIU), some elected negotiators in a 42,000-member unit of California state employees were dissatisfied with a 1992 contract deal. They campaigned for a no vote—and were suspended from membership by the state union president. Undaunted, they launched a newsletter to push for democratic reforms and formed the Caucus for a Democratic Union. In 1996 they were elected to head the division.
  • Another SEIU local in New York City boasts as its president the nation's highest-paid union official, Gus Bevona, at $494,000 a year. The local's members are janitors and doormen, many of them immigrants. This year a group called Members for a Better Union pushed for a membership vote on bylaws changes such as member ratification of contracts, a salary cap for officials, and election of reps, but Bevona's entrenched machine defeated the proposals by more than 2-to-1.

What's noteworthy about these caucuses and movements is that they invariably connect the issues of democratic reforms inside the union to that union's ability to confront employers. The best illustration of how the two go together is the 1997 UPS strike for full-time jobs, widely viewed as labor's biggest victory of the decade. Simply put, if TDU had not organized for years for members' right to vote for their top officers, the Teamsters would still be under the control of the mobbed-up "Old Guard." Those complacent officers willingly handed over concessions on part-time work to UPS; they certainly would never have called a strike against such a formidable foe.

The election of a reform administration allowed TDU to put forward the idea of a member-involving, seven-month contract campaign against the company, which culminated in the victory that gave the whole labor movement a badly needed shot in the arm. Yet TDU and the other reform movements are still shunned by almost all union officials, for whom opposing an incumbent is the worst sin.

But can genuine reform ever come from above? As Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle write in a handbook forthcoming from Labor Notes, "Democracy, like physical fitness, can't be handed to us. The ranks have to grunt and sweat and organize our own ænew voices.'" The fact that workers are doing this grunt work, in the face of antagonism from both their bosses and their union leaders, should excite our admiration and give us hope that there's life in labor yet.

JANE SLAUGHTER is a Detroit-based labor writer.

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