by Glenn Reed
(Swans - July 16, 2012) Recently I received an e-mail from a former co-worker at a non-profit agency out in California. This organization serves people with disabilities. There is also a public sector group of workers in the Golden State that serves this same population and these workers are unionized.
This former co-worker was venting regarding a conflict between a statewide organization of people in her profession and that specific union. Major disagreements on a couple of issues have created some bad blood.
As a former, very-active union member, this type of situation is very upsetting in many ways. It brings to the forefront a lot of issues that include the diminished power of unions in the United States over the last decades, negative attitudes towards unions and the perception that they are corrupt, the difficulty of progressive-type groups to collaborate, and how such problems negatively affect the rest of us. Or rather, about 98% of us.
American union membership has been steadily decreasing since 1983, with just a slight moderation in that decline in the last few years (1) (2). It is currently under 12% of the workforce -- down from highs of over 30% in 1947 and 1960 (3).
Since the 2010 elections, the American far-right has organized the biggest assault on public-sector unions ever. Americans are generally ill-informed and heavily biased to the right on their knowledge of and attitudes towards unions, and progressive forces seem to be (too often the case) their own greatest enemies in their inability to accept some disagreements and understand that we will never all agree on every issue but must work together for the big picture that will benefit us all.
Who is to blame for this decline in union power? It's tempting to point to the unlimited dollars now being poured by corporate interests and billionaires into the effort to destroy unions. It's easy to say this has been a well-thought-out plan that has its roots right back in the New Deal times. It's true that the far right has driven other assaults on democratic values, the election process, worker and environmental rights, and blind faith in the market forces of unregulated capitalism, as well as a compliant mainstream media, into a tsunami assault on unions.
However, at the risk of echoing those on the far right, maybe it's time for unions and those that support them, or who oppose them for all the wrong reasons, to take much of the responsibility for the dire, current situation.
A typical criticism of unions is that they are "corrupt" and unresponsive to their members. While there is plenty of evidence that this is often the case (4) (5), does this mean that the answer is to eliminate unions? Of course not!
There's a clear double-standard here. Unions are no more or no less subject to scandal than any other organized entities in this respect, including government, corporations, non-profits, churches, etc. There are unscrupulous, unethical types in power everywhere. How many people are calling for the elimination of any of these other organizations (okay...some would like little or no government)? Instead, they try to root out the corruption and fix things. Yes, with unions that can prove to be difficult today, but the answer certainly isn't to throw out the baby (whole family?) with the bath water.
During my eight years in a human service field, I was a very active member of my union local. I strongly believe in unions as a collective voice for regular working people and as one more check and balance against the concentration of power and greed that often occurs in the private and public sectors. No one can deny that before unions there was shameless exploitation of labor that was to blame for endless suffering and that did not promote upward mobility for the vast majority, or a vibrant middle class. Before unions were created and gained strength, the realities for working people included hundreds of women dying in a textile mill fire due to inadequate safety precautions, thousands of miners dying every year due to unsafe conditions, and child labor encouraged in factories that resulted in death, maimed children, and no future for those children because of lack of access to education.
During my years as a union activist I volunteered for most anything that was asked of me, served on two contract negotiation teams, was elected to represent my co-workers with the union board, organized and participated in a labor-management committee, contributed to the newsletter, and was involved in many grievance procedures. I knocked on doors and held signs for union-supported candidates, marched with my union sisters and brothers from other organizations, and stood on picket lines with other unions that were striking or protesting an injustice.
During my early years of activism I distinctly remember a co-worker, who had been very involved in the union years ago, offering some sage advice and criticism of the union. He noted that he once tried to raise some legitimate criticism at a major union gathering and was shouted out. And then, essentially, labeled as a troublemaker. I argued numerous times with this co-worker and wondered why he remained less involved and cynical.
Years later, I clearly understood his attitude. For one thing, after eight years of being in a "democratic" union local with regular elections, I noted that the same top officers were still in power. In fact, they ran unopposed during each and every election.
I'd also found, after serving a year on the union board, that monthly meetings were completely scripted to the point where dissent was snuffed out simply by overwhelming peer pressure. When asked to present on progress being made on my agency's contract negotiations, for example, I was carefully coached on exactly what to say and given about one minute to say it. When offering my own opinion, I received admonishing frowns. Votes on policy positions were reduced to rubber-stamping what the leadership said. Efforts to take initiative in the face of union micromanagement were squashed, even when it resulting in not serving my co-workers effectively, getting them more involved with the union, and communicating basics.
However, what I found most upsetting was how my union local treated its own organizers. In one period of four years, I worked with five different organizers and I found each and every one of them to be among the most caring, motivated, hard-working and principled people I've ever known. They toiled for 70 or 80 hours a week, were constantly on-call, and were always scolded by those above them to do more. As painful for me was the lack of empathy or appreciation often displayed by my co-workers for these organizers. Too often I'd hear, "why hasn't he/she called me back right away?", "why isn't he at this meeting?", and "what are my union dues paying them for?". There was little sense of it being "our" union or of my co-workers taking actual responsibility.
I found it ironic that our union organizers were fighting like hell to improve our pay, working conditions, and benefits while they were being held to more "corporate" standards and treated like commodities. This inevitably resulted in rapid, and understandable, burn-out and in organizers leaving their jobs. It distinctly reminded me of John Steinbeck's novel, In Dubious Battle.
I saw the clear parallels with my field of work where lack of respect from upper management led to the same results. This translated into inconsistent and inadequate care for the people for whom we were providing services, as they'd regularly have to get used to new staff, build new relationships, and wait out the learning curves.
The lack of consistency and regular staff turnover among union organizers damaged our ability to work towards our goals as union members and to build a constructive, positive relationship between members and the union. Additionally, it reinforced the pervasive attitude among union members that all they had to do was "pay my dues" and that union staff were expected to do all of the work. The sense of it being "our union" was completely undermined.
Thus, I thought it was time to bring these issues to the attention of the union leadership with the hope of trying to improve "our" union.
What a lesson for me.
I started by developing a petition that outlined all of these issues and why they needed to be addressed. I then contacted key leaders at other agencies who were members of this local. Verbally, they all agreed to sign, to obtain signatures from other site leaders, and to bring up the issues at the next monthly union leadership meeting.
Somewhere along the way a copy of my petition found its way to the union leadership. Within a week, those other agency leaders stopped returning my phone calls. By coincidence I was in the midst of my own grievance for clear retaliation from my agency. It was what should have been a slam-dunk case, where they had not allowed a lateral job move (no pay increase) and where the other applicant, hired by the agency, had one year of experience to my eight.
The union went to step three in my grievance process, but would go no further.
This is not a vindictive attack on this local or unions, which is why I'm not specifying names. It's simply meant as an example of how unions behave in ways that may reinforce attacks on them, which weaken members' faith while discouraging involvement in their locals, and which hurt the rights of working people and the progressive agenda in general at a critical time in American history.
Despite the negative experiences with my union local (NOT meaning with our fabulous organizers), my belief in the absolute necessity of unions remains unshaken. When I hear people say that unions have outlived their usefulness I want to scream: why is it that you think organizations created to protect your rights as a worker can go away now, but corporations, which only have allegiance to the bottom line, should continue? Why are THEY not outdated, when they frequently cause so much damage to people and the environment? Who will fight for the rights of working people if they have no organizational representation to balance the overwhelming power in the corporate world? Just what do you think will happen to the minimum wage, sick and vacation time, work-day breaks, safety requirements, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, laws against child labor, etc. if unions are destroyed?
Look at history. Look at RECENT history. If checks and balances in a system are eliminated, what happens? At what point in history have all of those in power operated for the good of all? How responsive have corporations been to prioritize or even consider worker rights when there are no checks on their power? How many times have corners been cut for that profit motive by sacrificing worker safety and cutting pay and benefits?
What about the sacrifices in blood that have been made in the past by union members and those fighting for the right to organize and be in a union? Millions suffered and even died so that we can take a 30-minute lunch break, go to the bathroom, get paid for overtime, work in an environment that isn't a fire trap, take a vacation at least once a year. How better to disrespect their memory than to destroy unions?
Most Americans just take all of this stuff for granted now. They don't bother to get involved in their unions if they're members, and readily attack unions for their deficiencies as if expecting that by just paying their dues everything will be set right. Meanwhile, non-members pay no attention to how unions benefit all workers, including those that are non-union, by setting a higher standard for all. For example, statistics show that in areas with greater union membership, wages are higher for non-union workers as well. (6)
Sadly, this reflects a pervasive apathy throughout the population of the United States, where most think all they have to do to maintain our democracy is vote once in a while, and huge numbers won't even do that much.
This is exactly what many in power desire. They don't want you to get involved. Let organizations like unions die and give the so-called 1% free reign to rake in maximum profits. It'll be just like the good old days in the 19th century or in 18th century England. Think of company towns where you can only shop at the company store. Think of miners dying by the thousands, factory assembly-lines workers forced to work at inhuman speeds that result in regular maimings or deaths. Think of being gravely injured and having no health care, unemployment benefits, or workers' comp as a safety net. Think of children from poor families forced to work dawn to dusk. "Please, sir, can I have a potty break?"
Vacation time was the last thing on these workers' minds.
Today in the United States we have dozens of state legislatures and governors scapegoating and targeting unions -- including teachers, firefighters, police, social workers and others -- for all of our economic woes, while offering more tax breaks to billionaires and deregulating the corporations that ship jobs overseas and caused this current depression. We have the $50-billion-rich Koch Brothers bankrolling elections to save the Wisconsin governor Scott Walker types and try to "elect" (buy) more anti-worker pols. We have many Republicans advocating child labor (7) (8) or eliminating basics such as the minimum wage (9) and even lunch breaks (10).
And we have millions nodding their heads and assuming such individuals or corporations have all our best interests in mind! We have union members that still say they have no time to get involved or who even vote for anti-union candidates. We have union leaders who will not evolve and truly think of the good of their members, working people, the very survival of all we deem important in terms of social justice.
There have been countless articles written on how unions should respond to the decades-long assault on their existence in the United States, on ways they can constructively change, on ways to think outside the box. I certainly don't have all of the answers, but what it seems most to boil down to is that American unions need to regain the general public's trust, decentralize and better empower local membership, and effectively educate both non-members and their own membership. They need to focus on their original intent: to better the working conditions and benefits for their membership. They need to re-engage that membership and become more democratic while being willing to cede power and responsibility to members. They need to look at less traditional ways to do outreach and options for engaging non-members such as developing kinds of associate memberships. They need to better value their own dedicated, front-line staff that are in the trenches. And they need to build more effective collaborations with other groups, recognizing that we will not all agree on every issue, while putting aside petty squabbles for the greater good.
The consequences of not responding to these challenges are just too dire, because if unions are effectively destroyed in this country, we will all lose.
Sources for this article (accessed on June 30, 2012):
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. He currently resides in Fair Haven, Vermont. (back)