Rebuilding Labor’s Power: There Are No Shortcuts

See, also, Stephanie Luce, “The Future of the Labor Movement?
Reflections on the Labor Notes Conference,”
MRZine, 22 April 2008; and Dave Regan, “Why We Demonstrated in Dearborn,” MRZine, 2 May 2008.

I am not surprised Dave Regan doesn’t remember our argument.  I am sure he hears my concerns all the time, but the conversation stuck with me because I was not used to hearing those kinds of arguments from people in the social justice movements I’d been working in.

But I am surprised that he feels entitled to say who is and who isn’t welcomed at meetings of trade unionists.  Many of his union brothers and sisters might have said the same of Regan and his local, 1199, after they engineered a dirty campaign in Cleveland in 2003.  Cuyahoga County human services agencies had refused to give 1199 a neutrality agreement.  In retaliation, the union campaigned hard against a levy designed to raise money for services such as foster care and meals for senior citizens.  As I learned while doing research for the AFL-CIO, the issue was highly divisive in the local labor movement.  If the levy hadn’t passed, public sector workers — including union members — would have lost their jobs.  Some might argue that what 1199 did in Cleveland was a serious attack on workers — would they then be justified in using physical force to keep Dave Regan from speaking at any labor event in the future?

I am also surprised that Regan believes that because Labor Notes was going to have Rose Ann DeMoro speak at their conference, it was ok for fired-up protesters to try to force their way into an extremely crowded room where the vast majority of people had nothing to do with the CNA-SEIU.  But when SEIU president Andy Stern shared a stage with Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott in 2007, I don’t recall any unions looking to crash that event, despite the fact that many union members, including some SEIU members and staff, were appalled at Stern’s action.  Stern was on the stage with Wal-Mart because he decided that SEIU was going to partner with the notorious union buster on healthcare, a position he announced at the last minute to his colleagues in Change To Win.  One of those unions, UFCW, had been campaigning against Wal-Mart for years.

Is DeMoro a greater threat to the labor movement than Lee Scott?  The contrast between the two is even more stark when you realize that DeMoro was invited to speak at Labor Notes last November, not for what happened in Ohio, but for the work her union has done to promote single-payer health care in California and to defeat the horrendously anti-union ballot initiatives Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to pass in 2005.

Other unions may give SEIU and Stern a pass on these kinds of cozy arrangements with corporate executives — partly because of their organizing record and partly because of the tradition of not criticizing other unions publicly.  I believe, along with Dave Regan, that it’s a good thing to publicly disagree about strategies and tactics that we think will harm workers.  We just disagree about the methods.

I watched Susan Horne speak, and heard others from Ohio speak as well.  I know they are angry.  I know SEIU staff are angry too.  But the labor movement has a long tradition of protest, and I believe there were many other options for expressing that anger other than shouting people down and using physical force to get into a banquet hall.  SEIU could have called the conference organizers and ask them to cancel DeMoro’s invitation.  They could have called for a debate between Regan and DeMoro about what happened in Ohio.  They could have tried to educate the 1,000 union members and unorganized workers in attendance, most of whom had no idea of the issues at hand.  They could have maintained a lively picket line in front of the conference, or leafleted those coming in the hotel.  Some SEIU members chose to protest by not attending the banquet.  All of these seem appropriate avenues for expressing outrage.  SEIU staff bullying conference attendees does not.

Dave Regan’s comments seem to suggest that the Labor Notes workshop was for academics to debate “their issues.”  Clearly he’s never been to Labor Notes, or he would know what the conference is, and who it’s for.  This is not an academic conference, but an activist one.  Rank and file workers from just about every union in the US — as well as union activists from 20 other countries — come together to learn skills and debate strategies.  Although some labor allies, such as labor educators, attend, the vast majority of participants are union or workers center members or staffers, most of whom come on their own dime.  Labor Notes is a rare space in our movement where workers can talk to people in other industries and occupations, learn from one another’s struggles, and celebrate a few of our victories.

It is a scary world when we choose to reduce the idea of democracy to an “issue,” as if it is something we need therapy to deal with.  I’ve heard the argument more than once that democracy is a luxury we don’t have time for, but I don’t buy it.  This argument assumes that unions actually function better without democracy, when all decisions are made by “smart” people at the top.  The last 50 years have shown countless instances where unaccountable leaders — who treat members as an afterthought — made bad decisions.  These decisions — and the undemocratic ways they were made — helped us get us into labor’s current woeful state.

Democracy broadly defined is not about every worker going to endless meetings, or voting on every decision the union makes.  It’s a deeper concept that gets to the heart of what is wrong with our current economy: ordinary people have little say over their work and their lives.  Having a union is an important step towards gaining some control, but only when the union is in the members’ hands — when it is really their organization.

Democracy is also the mechanism by which workers can debate out their different priorities and interests — so that everything from their contracts to their union’s political activities reflect those priorities.  Those that don’t have strong preferences don’t have to participate, but those who do care should be able to do so.  I am a union member, teach labor studies and train students who work for unions.  I’m fully committed to the need for workers to have a union.  But it matters what kind.  I’m not interested in substituting one set of undemocratic practices (from our bosses) for another (from labor’s self-appointed leaders).

But this argument is not about Dave Regan, and it is not about me.  As Dave put it in his post, its about which side are you on?  Today the distribution of wealth is more unequal than its been any time since the Great Depression.  Every day, employers are changing the rules of the game in their favor.  But there are cracks in the corporate order.  Hundreds of thousands of workers are marching in Mexico City against oil privatization; millions have engaged in workplace actions in China against factory owners producing for multinational corporations.  We can’t let ourselves get distracted and forget who the real enemy is.  This is the time to remember that the employer is the target and not our ally.

I don’t pretend that the democracy is easy, or that we even know what it looks like.  We have lots to learn from people in places like Brazil, India, and Argentina, who are experimenting with new forms of organization that give working people more voice in their workplace and their community.  They are working from the ground up, building it the hard way but in a way that is more likely to lead to enduring, real change.  They are not taking shortcuts — why should we?

I didn’t write what I wrote to choose sides between the CNA and SEIU.  I believe the fight going on between the unions is destructive to all of us who fight for worker’s rights.  But disagreements and debates will always be there, even if every worker in the country is in a union.  We need to be able to disagree with one another in a respectful and productive way that doesn’t tear each other apart, or rely on bullying or brute force to settle things.  Once we lose the ability to do that, we’ve lost the fight.

Stephanie Luce teaches at the Labor Center of the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage (Cornell University Press, 2004).

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