Why You Should Read Solidarity for Sale If You Care about Unions in the United States

I loved Bob Fitch’s new book, Solidarity for Sale.  For someone like myself, who has been battered around a bit by a few union leaders, it was like a drink of cool water at the end of a long, hot run.

I’m troubled by the tone of some critical reviews of Solidarity for Sale I’ve read — troubled enough to throw my hat in the ring.  The following is a response to Chris Kutalik (“Is the Fight for Union Democracy Corrupt? A Review of Robert Fitch’s Solidarity for Sale,” 23 June 2006) and Greg Butler (in the comment section, 23 June 2006) in MRZine and Joe Allen in CounterPunch (“Bob Fitch’s Hatchet Job: Smearing Ron Carey and the TDU,” 23 March 2006).

Fitch develops a strong case about the obvious, mob-style, money-centered corruption in America’s unions.  The historical stuff in Solidarity for Sale alone is more than worth the price of the book.  Fitch’s points about fiefdoms, job trusts (especially in the construction industry), and mob involvement were a revelation for me.  I was vaguely aware of those things, but, my goodness, I had no idea of the extent!

The three reviewers seem to be pretty comfortable with Fitch’s indictment of corruption and mob rule.  Disagreement arises when considering current efforts to reform unions.  Kutalik and Allen think Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) is a well-organized and -led organization that deserves support from socialists, without much in the way of criticism.  Kutalik and Allen both defend Ron Carey’s brief presidency of the Teamsters Union, again, pretty much uncritically.

Butler takes a different tack.  He agrees with Fitch on most of his criticism of current union leadership and then asks: what can we expect, under capitalism?  For Butler, the workers have to abandon capitalism and make a revolution before much can be accomplished.

Butler raises an important point about racism and its effects on American unions.  I agree with Butler that Fitch places too much emphasis on the role of local fiefdoms, to the neglect of racism, as the root cause of corruption in US unions.  I might add that I am drawn to Paul Buhle’s points on this subject, also.

While reading Buhle’s Taking Care of Business, I learned two other important roots of union corruption.  One is the strong conservatizing influence on US workers that comes from being citizens of the triumphant, number one, imperialist power in the world.  The other is related to the first, the poison of anti-communism and its negative effects on union leaders.

I really like Fitch’s criticism of current union reform efforts under groups like TDU.  His “Roach Hotel” Metaphor is apt and funny.  The leftists really do check in and fail to check out, and quite a few examples of this are offered in the chapter on TDU.

I disagree a little with Fitch about the reason for the “Roach Motel.”  Fitch thinks it is not possible to reform American unions while they are split up into thousands of fiefdoms.  I think the fiefdoms are a problem, but much worse is the way union reformers concentrate on getting their guy elected so they can sweep out the bad guys and then hire the left activists onto the union payroll.

No wonder so many rank and filers think left union leaders are no better than the old-guard Hoffa types.  It looks like all we’re after is nice, union jobs for our friends.  It would be so much better to go on a crash program of rank and file involvement, right after the election victory!  Elsewhere on MRZine, I have suggested an idea for stewards’ councils that I believe could get the ball rolling.  The next step could be to use the money saved by having rank and filers take over staff responsibilities to drop the dues rate.  Now, that would generate some support for the new leadership, you think?

The question of Ron Carey’s tenure is an important one that should not be glossed over, as I believe Kutalik and Allen both do.  In his 23 March 2006 CounterPunch piece, Fitch gives us a concise list of problems associated with Carey’s tenure that are pretty hard to get around.  Allen seems to think that being declared innocent at trial makes you qualified to run a huge union like the Teamsters.  Baloney: Innocence means you don’t go to jail.  Qualification for the presidency of the Teamsters is something else entirely!

Kutalik tries to paint Fitch as a naïve supporter of right-to-work efforts in the US.  This is a critical question, and I think it stems from Fitch’s idea about making payment of dues voluntary, which I support.  One can, like Kutalik, say that losing mandatory dues collection by employers (dues check-off) would weaken unions.

But, I say that it is dues check-off, more than anything, that weakens unions in the US.  Check-off sets the stage for unions to become the staff-driven organizations they are today.  Just think: without check-off, a person who didn’t pay dues would quickly get a visit from her/his steward.  A discussion would follow, maybe a problem would be solved.  Often, the non-paying member would draw closer to the union as a result.

With check-off, unions have become little more than job-insurance agencies.  No need to bother with cranky rank and filers — they gotta pay no matter what.  I love the example in Fitch’s book of the union leader in France, who has to go around and collect voluntary dues.  “We’re poor, but we’re mititant!” the French union leader declares.

Butler scoffs at the accomplishments of Western European unions, like universal health care, job protection laws, and public protection of pensions.  He seems to say that all of Western European Social Democracy is solely a result of the guns of the October Revolution.

Don’t get me wrong, the Soviet Revolution had an enormously positive effect on France, Germany, England, and Scandanavia.  Those ruling classes were scared and thus inclined to concessions like universal health care, to stave off the threat of revolution in their countries.  But, it’s been 15 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Can the Western European unions hold out?  If France is our answer, you gotta admit they’re going to give it a hell of a go!

Kutalik puts the “fight for union democracy” in the title of his review, and asks if that fight is corrupt.  I think the fight for union reform should be about democracy and rank and file involvement, as equal partners.  Calls for democracy alone can be demogogic, like in my old union local.

After one election, my local’s president proudly announced the re-election of the officers and the entire e-board by acclamation!  Was that democratic?  Sure.  We got to vote, didn’t we?  He didn’t mention the vote totals, but I bet they came close to the number of staffers who worked for him.

Solidarity for Sale should be read and studied by anybody in the US who cares about unions.

Brian King is a longtime friend of Monthly Review.  Read, also, the other essays by King in MRZine: “Union Organizing in the Trenches” (16 November 2005); “Seattle Votes for a Right to Health Care” (22 December 2005); and “Union Stewards’ Councils” (26 March 2006).