Saving Labor From Itself

For union officials, too often “saving the union” means maintaining union dues from a workforce suffering under bad contracts.

Don Grinde / Labor Notes

Don Grinde / Labor Notes

It has been Steve Early’s fate to chronicle in excruciating detail the decline of the labor empires that grew up in the flush years that followed the World War II — a task he takes up in his new book Save Our Unions: Dispatches From a Movement in Distress.

With the US triumphant on the world stage and industrial rivals defeated in the wake of the war’s destruction, US labor took the CIO-generated industrial union wave to a high point of 35 percent of the workforce with union representation. While the radical edge of the 1930s labor insurgency was driven out during the McCarthy period, the ranks of union officials grew and prospered; corporations, flush with cash, bided their time, while union bureaucracies grew ever-larger.

As Mike Davis points out in Prisoners of the American Dream, labor’s legal gains during the Depression fostered “a much expanded role of union staff experts, personnel managers, and outside arbiters.” In the early 1960s, near the height of the postwar boom, the numbers of union staffers mushroomed: “To operate this system and to maintain a far more decentralized galaxy of contracts . . . has entailed the growth of union officialdom larger than any other capitalist society . . . (one [union official] for every 300 workers) as contrasted . . . to Britain (one for 2,000) or in Sweden . . . (one for every 1,700).”

As a longtime union staffer himself, Early had an insider’s view of the workings of this apparatus and the results of its operation as the world capitalist economy recovered from the war. The book begins with accounts of those who organized against the receding tide of unionization that began in the 1970s and continues today, with only a little over 10 percent of the American workforce represented by unions. Idealistic radicals born in the civil rights and anti-war movement like me went into unions, either as staff or on the shop floor, with the idea that a revival similar to the CIO-led organizing boom that began in the 1930s was just around the corner.

Little did we know that we would soon be carrying out desperate attempts on the shop floor simply to hold on to historic gains, as typified in the Austin, Minn., UFCW Local P-9 meatpackers strike or the Staley, Ill., lockout. But at the top of the labor movement, the urgency focused on maintaining the flow of dues, on which all the jobs of labor officials depended.

With the goals of the ranks and the leaders often in conflict, something had to give — and the ranks have been doing most of the giving.

Early chronicles the noble effort of Miners for Democracy, a reform movement within the United Mine Workers of America, to revive that union, an empire built by John L. Lewis with a combination of outward militancy and dictatorial internal rule. But MFD foundered on its leaders’ weaknesses and the vast changes in the coal industry as underground mines gave way to open pit and mountaintop removal.

Early notes that

labor insiders, including those at AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, viewed UMW turmoil as proof that “inexperienced” people should never be allowed to run a major union. On the labor left, the shortcomings of the Miller administration have always been attributed to its unwillingness to empower fully the rank and file. If only “the MFD hadn’t been disbanded” and top officials had been willing to embrace the right to strike over grievances and employed the militancy of the UMW’s wildcat strike culture, rather than clashing with it, the outcome would have been different.

In the case of the reform movement within the Teamsters, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), things were different, at least for a time. The successful UPS strike in 1997 led by Ron Carey, who was propelled into the Teamsters presidency by TDU’s activism, gave us a glimpse of what a rank-and-file insurgency, given a chance by a bold leader capable of resisting all the pressures coming down on a national strike leader backed up by an activated and militant rank and file, could do. But Carey soon fell from power, thanks to the manipulations of well-meaning supporters in the officialdom of labor, who engaged in illegal financing of the campaign unbeknownst to Carey, and the ancien régime, headed by James Hoffa, Jr., won back the leadership of the Teamsters in what Early characterizes as a “counter-revolution.”

Early goes on to chronicle stories of union activists at Raytheon and Boeing who have valiantly fought labor’s decline. And he looks at Sandy Pope’s campaign for president of the Teamsters which, while not successful in winning office, showed that the member-led insurgency that put Ron Carey into power has not been completely extinguished in that union. Given that many self-proclaimed union supporters know almost nothing about Pope, Early’s account of her struggle and others like it will be invaluable for future generations of activists.

Due to the growth of the union apparatus traced by Davis, the idea of “saving unions” means different things to union officials and the rank and file. For officials, too often saving the union means maintaining union dues from a workforce increasingly suffering under bad contracts that establish wage tiers that discriminate against young workers and eliminate pensions for them. The machinists at Boeing, mentioned in the book in an earlier struggle, recently voted down a concessionary contract promoted by the leadership, then passed it narrowly under suspicious circumstances.

Early backgrounds this latest leadership maneuver, describing how the IAM reconfigured the organization of District 751, which represents Boeing workers, into “smaller atomized lodges” while expelling militants suspected of membership in the Communist Party. In addition, the IAM set up a structure in which stewards were appointed, not elected, helping to  seal control over the union representative closest to the rank and file.

As he did in his previous book, Early writes about the ongoing battle of the National Union of Health Care Workers (NUHW) with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He notes,

Few modern unions have done more outside hiring than the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), America’s second-largest labor organization. Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing unabated today, SEIU and its local affiliates have employed thousands of non-members as organizers, servicing reps, researchers, education specialists, PR people, and staffers of other kinds. Though most unions hire and promote largely from within the ranks of their working members, SEIU has always cast its net wider.

Given the fruits of SEIU’s labors in California, where its top-down leadership mandates have fostered the revolt that created NUHW, we can hardly say that SEIU’s “purple army” of non-member officials has served that union any better than more traditional unions.

Early looks at various alternative strategies, suggesting, for example, that a series of selective actions might have served the Communications Workers of America members at Verizon better in their recent strike. He considers “minority unions,” where a group of workers who don’t have a legal contract in a workplace but are an organized faction can pressure management. He examines the Vermont Workers Center, which campaigned for a single payer health care system in the state with some success as well as a city-wide union for low-wage retail workers. Vermont also has a fairly successful third party, the Progressive Party, which has elected city council and legislative candidates and pushed the mainstream Democrats to the left — most notably Vermont’s Gov. Peter Shumlin, who now styles himself as a single-payer supporter.

Early casts a skeptical eye at SEIU’s sudden interest in the Vermont healthcare struggle, wondering if the union’s support was simply a ploy to get Shumlin’s backing for a union contract and dues from low wage home healthcare aides. Early points out that

like many national unions, SEIU has always passed well-worded resolutions favoring “a single-payer system on both the national and state levels, modeled on an expanded and improved ‘Medicare for All’ system.” .&nbsp. . But, even more than other unions, and with far greater impact, SEIU’s health care reform practice is quite different than its official rhetoric..&nbsp. . [SEIU] has too often settled short, pursued its own narrow political agenda, and left single payer further away as a goal, not closer.

So given the “narrow political agenda” of union bureaucracy, what kind of leadership do workers need to get us out of the trap we are in as a movement? Early looks back at William Winpisinger, the burly, tough-talking “socialist” leader of the machinists’ union in the latter part of the twentieth century. There is much to like in the Winpisinger record: opposition to runaway military spending in a union dependent on military contracts, willingness to confront incumbent Democrats if they didn’t back labor, and a critical view of the AFL-CIO’s Cold War years.

But when it came to the pivotal moment of the PATCO air traffic controller’s strike, Early points out that Winpisinger said, “I expect our people to act like trade unionists [and] not cross a picket line if they confront one.” Yet there was little serious effort to organize a collective stand by “the 40,000 ramp workers, mechanics, and maintenance people” without whom “there would be no airline flights.” The IAM joined the pilots and flight attendants on the sidelines, shifting the blame for the impending defeat onto PATCO members who failed to build support either from the public or fellow unionists for their strike.

Winpisinger feared to risk the unknown consequences of supporting the PATCO strikers. How many dues-paying members might be lost if the effort failed? Ironically enough, this approach has led to the feared loss of members anyway, as lost strikes have mounted higher and higher, inevitably resulting in union contracts that are hardly better than non-union conditions. And with the material gains from unionization becoming increasingly trivial, why would workers want to risk their jobs to organize?

Now the machinists union stands at another crossroads, this time under the leadership of R. Thomas Buffenbarger. The hugely profitable Boeing corporation, the largest employer of IAM members, demanded huge mid-contract concessions from its Seattle area workforce in exchange for promises to build the new 777X passenger plane in the area. The international union recommended accepting the concessions, which included eliminating pensions for new hires and freezing current employees; Washington politicians  chimed in as well, passing tax breaks for Boeing and also urging a yes vote. But the machinists of District 751 rebelled and voted the concessions down two to one.

After some cosmetic changes, the International recommended a new vote for January 3, 2014 — a time when many members were on vacation and out of town. It barely passed, with 51 percent approving it. The loss of pension coverage at Boeing could be a death knell for company-provided retirement security nationwide.

Even as this drama at Boeing unfolds, the 2013 election for IAM international officers must be rerun, due to numerous violations cited by the Department of Labor. Union officials’ relentless efforts to preserve their own positions has meant setting union democracy aside at the IAM. An opposition slate is being formed to run against the old guard in the new election in early 2014.

All the crises of labor Steve Early covers in Saving Our Unions crystalize in this IAM imbroglio,which takes place at the very heart of what is left of the US industrial economy, aerospace manufacturing. Can the members of the IAM overcome the obstacle of a union officialdom which has ossified over time into little more than a dues collection machine? Can an alternative leadership based on class struggle tactics of member mobilization be built in time to save the IAM? If a union can’t be saved at Boeing, a highly profitable corporation, is any union safe?

Union activists concerned with these questions should read Early’s book for essential background on this ongoing crisis of the US labor movement.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.