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Is the Fight for Union Democracy Corrupt? A Review of Robert Fitch’s Solidarity for Sale

Robert Fitch.  Solidarity for Sale.  PublicAffairs, 2006.

In Solidarity for Sale, Bob Fitch argues that the defining weakness of U.S. unionism bubbles up from a single poisoned well: corruption.  Much of his book is a well-written account of the rise of business unionism in this country — and business unionism’s ability to hold onto power for as long as it has.

He describes a history of U.S unions acting as private patronage systems for leaders, which he calls “the fiefdom syndrome.”  Fitch defines the syndrome as “a kind of protection system based on exclusive jurisdictions, exclusive bargaining, and job control. . . . It’s an ethic of dependence rather than solidarity, one that promotes the most wide-ranging corruption.  Corruption in turn produces atomization, weakness, demoralization, and apathy. . . .”

Fitch links labor’s woes (declining memberships, failed organizing, historic lows in strikes, lack of member control/participation, dependence on the Democrats, etc.) to this history.  Many union members would undoubtedly bob their heads in agreement — until reading the conclusions Fitch draws.

Fitch broadens the definition of corruption put forward in what he calls the “populist left.”  For him, corruption is not something limited to leaders but extends to the members themselves.  Fitch writes of the AFL-CIO split: “Ultimately, the source of the Federation’s crisis lay in its deepest foundations — the corrupt relations between members and the leaders.”

According to Fitch, neither individual leaders nor members truly run unions.  Instead, a long-standing historical culture of corruption does.  He writes: “The fundamental actors in American labor are institutions — the unions themselves.  It’s the union institutions that act and have identity, that manage or succumb to trends, and that shape the character of their leaders.”

Importantly for the author, this corruption also infects union reformers who stay “inside the box.”

Reformer as Enemy

By Part IV (titled the “The Failure of Reform”), Solidarity for Sale takes a 180-degree turn from accounts of fiefdom unionism to an attack on union reform efforts.

He writes about “reformers,” “union democracy,” and the “AFL-CIO left,” who he says work with a “boring from within” strategy.  According to Fitch, “For too long ‘union democracy’ has served as a kind of political Hamburger Helper in AFL-CIO reform circles: it pads out a program that’s too thin to truly revive the labor movement but provides the appearance of an agenda and an excuse for action.”

In another section titled “Goodfellas and Redfellas,” he claims that reformers have fallen into the “Roach Motel” syndrome.  “Leftists go in but they don’t come out,” writes Fitch.  Cynically, he states that they only “build a base or move up in the hierarchy” if they adjust “to demands of a corrupt patron-client system.”

His characterizations lump broad, diverse opposition movements into one vague category — and create a convenient strawman to knock down.

The reality is that labor “reform” (called by some “transformation”) comes in all stripes.  It encompasses a wide range of people, organizations, experiences, and viewpoints.  It also attracts a range of people to its ranks: rank and filers, local officers, community supporters, activists — and opportunists who may dance to the business union beat once in office.

In some places, reform is focused tightly on a particular local or national union, such as Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Pipe Trades for a Democratic Union, the Longshore Workers Coalition, Carpenters for a Democratic Union, Grocery Workers United for a Democratic Union, etc.  In others, reform groups like Airline Workers United or Rail Operating Crafts United work industrially across union and work group boundaries.  Some are mostly focused on creating a fight-back campaign at a particular company, like Soldiers of Solidarity at Delphi.

Reform even includes allies working outside traditional unions: workers centers, non-majority unions, labor-community alliances, and independent unions.  (In follow-up interviews, Fitch only tips his hat to workers centers, stewards’ councils, or a vague “alternative unionism” as an uncorrupted way out of the box.)

Fitch’s take on this movement is astonishingly simplistic, painting the thousands of workers who’ve struggled — and continue to struggle — for power in their unions with a single, selective brush.  Solidarity for Sale focuses exclusively on the negative aspects of union reform, conveniently omitting obvious examples that don’t suit Fitch’s arguments and in some instances relying on outdated, discredited sources.

Framing

Perhaps the most egregious sins of omission arise in Fitch’s handling of the Teamsters.  Despite the current Teamster leadership’s well-publicized troubles with the continued presence of organized crime in their union, the Hoffa, Jr. administration musters less than a page of material.  Yet an entire chapter of the book is devoted to reviving charges around former Teamsters President Ron Carey, while another chapter purports to be an expose of the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Debunking the chapters on Teamster reform could keep a writer busy over several articles and has been the focus of other reviewers.  Interested readers should direct their attention to a heated, online exchange between Joe Allen, a Chicago UPS worker, and Fitch on the CounterPunch website: Joe Allen, “Bob Fitch’s Hatchet Job: Smearing Ron Carey and the TDU” (11-12 March 2006); Robert Fitch, “Inside the Roach Motel” (23 March 2006); and Joe Allen, “Response to Robert Fitch” (23 March 2006).

In all, the failings of union reformers are dedicated an entire quarter of the book.  The failings of reformers in New York’s AFSCME District Council 37 receive their own chapter, and yet another chapter is spent attacking SEIU president Andy Stern.

The Big Program

Finally, Fitch ends the book with a series of proposals to get “outside the box.”  If he was driving close to the cliff before, this is where he heads into the canyon.

To be fair, Fitch’s five starting point principles of “consent, solidarity, accountability, participation, and autonomy” seem reasonable enough.  But from these initial principles, Fitch heads in an alarming direction.

Fitch argues that decades of union corruption and entrenched bureaucracies are in large part due to a “forced unionism” that traps people in a “dead organization.”  This system must be blasted away by what he calls “revolutionary proposals.”

Since unions are bounded by turf, writes Fitch, they have become “weak, corrupt mini-states.”  Instead of merely reorganizing them, he believes that exclusive union jurisdictions must be eliminated — all the way down to the local level.  “Let the locals take care of workers’ shopfloor grievances, while ceding bargaining, organizing, and public policy to higher-level organizations,” he writes.

And what would those “higher-level organizations” be like under this scheme?  Would they just become a pack of general, national unions organized willy-nilly around balkanized local workplace unit ceding activities?  How and why would these competitors act cooperatively in a strategy inside of a particular industry (already a key weakness in the sectional-minded unions of today)?

Similar nagging questions come to mind around Fitch’s call to end automatic dues deductions from union members’ paychecks and union hiring halls.

Fitch’s preoccupation with eliminating union “exclusivity” and “coercion” shares uncomfortable political ground with the right-wing “right-to-work” lobby.

It’s not surprising then that National Right-to-Work Committee newsletter praised Fitch’s book as “an important new step in the critique of compulsory unionism from inside Organized Labor.”  According to that review, Solidarity for Sale “shows the power of the Right to Work principle to unite people who otherwise hold disparate political and social views.”

Fitch has rejected charges of right-to-work fellow traveling, noting that he believes his other proposals — such as easier union recognition — distance him enough from anti-union forces.  One is left, however, with the impression that in the real world — where employers violate labor laws to attack workers and their unions daily, and where political and legal structures are deeply anti-union — that the impact of Fitch’s proposals would look a great deal like the Right-to-Work Committee’s dream.

Where Are the Workers?

Perhaps more importantly, though, Fitch’s program disregards the agency of the very workers he seeks to liberate.

For the author, change seems to be possible only when the whole rotten edifice of American unionism is razed.  Once free of “forced unionism,” working people will regain their critical faculties and fighting spirit.

The bulk of Fitch’s reforms hinge on changes to labor and employment law at the federal level.  By implying that fighting with the current reform movement offers no real avenue for change at the workplace or union level, Solidarity for Sale leaves workers few ways to fight — the ballot box or local organizing around a “solidarity evangelism.”

Fitch’s program reads as much like “reform from above” as that of any of the labor leaders whose reforms he derides.

It’s not enough to say that everything is rotten and to advocate for a vague alternative unionism without a base.  Labor’s crisis is deep and the stakes too high for workers to wait around for the right leader to get elected and finally upright the business-union apple cart.  The seeds of an alternative must be planted in an “actually existing” alternative unionism that reformers continue to struggle for, day in and day out, when they demand power and democracy in their unions — so they more effectively fight the boss.

Warts and all, it is this struggle for democratic control that must be supported and strengthened if U.S. unions are to become weapons in the struggle for worker justice.


Chris Kutalik is co-editor of Labor Notes magazine (www.labornotes.org) in Detroit.  He can be reached at: chris@labornotes.org.


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