Rank-and-File Activism: A Viable Alternative


“Man’s greatness consists in his ability to do and the proper application of his powers to things needed to be done.” — Frederick Douglas

Over time, fads come and go, yet for organized labor certain basic principles hold true.  In the “big picture” search for answers to the problems faced by labor today, outspoken contemporary labor leaders and well-meaning academics either inadvertently overlook, or chose to dismiss, the obvious reality: namely, there is likely to be no meaningful revival of the labor movement until rank-and-file members have a fundamental role in running their unions.  Those who ignore — or choose to ignore — this truth, instead promoting union mergers, creating gigantic mega-locals, forging “partnership” agreements with employers, or continuing to pursue failed political strategies — will not find the path to revival.  They are looking in the wrong direction.

The ongoing destruction of good-paying unionized jobs and the current anti-worker political climate have set back a generation of working people and their unions, sentencing the next generation to a poorer and more difficult life.  This crisis begs for a map to guide us forward, yet we find little comfort in the direction prescribed by the self-proclaimed masterminds endeavoring to define labor’s agenda today.  The absence of any appreciable membership input into the highly-charged “debate” about the future of our movement over the past several years leads us to conclude that we are not alone in our skepticism.

We suggest that an alternative approach exists to build strong unions.  We call it “rank-and-file” unionism, but there are other names for the same thing.  This form of unionism has always existed, and was often the dominant form during the times when unions grew and developed most rapidly.  Rank-and-file unionism — as opposed to “business unionism,” where the conduct of union affairs is patterned on a corporate model — constantly pushes member involvement and fosters a higher understanding of the political and economic context in which we live.  Given proper leadership, it also provides a better organizing vehicle through which members, and “not yet” members, can force changes in their workplace and society.  Belonging to a union should offer a member more than just a better material life earned under more dignified conditions; it should promote an understanding of our economic and political systems, and help reveal to workers the “Them and Us” nature of our society.

Our objective is to offer constructive alternatives to those being put forward by others; proposals that our years of experience in the movement lead us to conclude are a better way forward.  Our path to a stronger labor movement is based on two crucial ingredients we find absent from those proposed by others, namely enhanced union democracy and a deeper involvement of the rank and file in the affairs of their union.  We propose strengthening, rather than diminishing, internal union democracy and activism.  We suggest expanded education and training to develop rank-and-file leadership as the way to build real union power.  While the words expressed here are ours, the basic beliefs are policies inherent to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) as handed down by past UE leaders directly involved in the founding of both the UE and the CIO.

The Failure of Business Unionism

In recent decades any number of labor’s leaders have perfected the art of applying failed solutions to the wrong problems.  Their response to the crisis in organizing is a prime example.  The inability, failure, or outright refusal of union leadership to devote time and money to organizing has led to the pooling of resources through the merging of often time incompatible organizations.  More often than not, these union mergers lack legitimate purpose, serving merely as salary and pension protection for top officers and staff.  They are justified by “bigger is better” sloganeering, regardless of the reality.  While this trend toward administrative centralization has yielded a number of mergers and combinations, the ability of the movement to organize on the vast scale required still does not exist.  In fact, with some small exceptions, union membership continues to decline as employers skillfully destroy existing unions faster than new members can be organized by whatever means, traditional or avant-garde.

An equally disturbing phenomenon is the combining of already large local unions into mammoth statewide or multi-state units.  While such combinations may afford some administrative efficiencies, those efficiencies have come at significant cost.  Workers rarely organize and form unions with the primary objective of creating cost-efficient organizations bereft of democracy or on-the-job representation.  “Local” unions made up of tens or even hundreds of thousands of members stretching over vast geography makes it all but impossible for members to participate in any practical way in the functioning of their union.  And in our experience, we have never met unorganized workers who have voiced a desire to join a union which really only exists far from their workplace, for the cherished privilege of being able to pay ever escalating union dues with no say in the matter.

Most destructive of all, however, is that rather than being viewed as a strength, democracy is today seen by many business unionists as an inefficient hindrance to both setting internal union policy and building new union organization.  One national union leader recently proclaimed, “What good is democracy if union density is only 12 percent?”  The curtailment of democracy and member involvement has become a calculated objective in the much publicized “new direction” for labor.  Unfortunately, what a number of the new breed of union leaders are asking workers to accept is little more than a rehash of the centralized, top down, and stagnant structures that existed in many AFL craft unions prior to the inception of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO).

Labor history is rife with examples of union “leaders” who were little more than dictators, while advertising themselves as “labor statesmen.”   They presided — as some do today — over union structures essentially devoid of democracy, member activism, and effectiveness when measured by their ability to extract meaningful concessions from employers.  However, as recent instances show, these unions are particularly skilled at extracting ever-higher dues from their members.  The bloated salaries and “perks” afforded to many in the union movement today are a direct result of the push toward centralization and outright dictatorship.  This often results not only in squandering gigantic sums of union resources, but leads to an increasing number of scandals, even by the traditionally low standards of ethics and integrity too often seen in labor.  “Strongman leadership” is also self-deluded, with vast numbers of members unaware of even the name of their union, let alone the union president’s name, or anything else about her or him.  Members don’t know because they’ve never attended a union meeting or been provided the opportunity to be involved in even the most basic union activity.

Concentrated unchecked power inevitably leads to situations where the members’ voices are silenced by the use of autocratic constitutional provisions and the strict application of parliamentary procedure.  The union’s power is diminished and it is reduced at this point to an organization cleansed of member activity, run by-and-for the officers and their anointed staff.

It’s no easy task to mobilize rank-and-file members to take part in contract actions, organizing, or political activities when the extent of their involvement in the union is limited to paying the bills via dues check-off.  This failure is magnified when the members receive little support, few resources, and are offered no leadership to resist the bosses’ attacks in the workplace.

The Rank-and-File Alternative

Finding solutions to the multiple crises facing the labor movement today is not easy.  Finding a way forward begins by recognizing that leadership does have a critical place in the functioning of any union, but there is also no substitute for active, informed members.  In particular, those seasoned rank-and-file activists who understand the value of unified action to engage both the employer in the workplace and political opponents in the community and the political arena.  Building a strong organization requires much more than selecting a high-profile contract negotiation or political issue to generate short-lived press coverage through an expensive staff- or consultant-generated media campaign.

Elected rank-and-file leadership is key, including shop stewards.  Building an effective organization requires people who encourage and empower members to grow and develop by providing educational opportunities, support, and the inspiration for members to step out of their comfort zone and advance to a new and higher level of responsibility.  Leadership means fostering an environment that encourages the rank and file to tackle increasingly more difficult and challenging aspects of our work.  Yet today, across the labor movement, even the most minimal opportunities for members to participate in their union are being reduced or eliminated.  The throttling of members’ voices seems fundamental to the ideology advocated by the more “progressive” new breed of highly educated union officials, many of whom appear to lack any significant employment experience prior to joining the staffs of their respective unions.  The current emerging layer of union leadership frequently seems more interested in earning the praise and recognition of the employers and the media than in making real improvements for their members.  And even if real improvements are won, how well does the leadership work to hold the employer to the terms of the contract between negotiations?

Real union strength and unity must be built on a foundation of rank-and-file principles and practices.  Activist-driven unionism poses the following basic questions as a means of assessing the health and effectiveness of one’s union.

Are union meetings held on a regular basis at a convenient time and location, so as many members as possible can attend?  Are meetings held at all?  Do opportunities exist for members to become active and to develop their skills as workplace union leaders?

Is there a workable mechanism to hold the elected officers accountable to the members?  Do union leaders earn salaries and benefits in the realm of those earned by the membership, and are these levels set by the membership?

Are important decisions, such as increasing union dues or going on strike, made by a majority vote of the members who have to live with those decisions?  Do members have access to union financial records and meeting minutes?

Do the members have access to their elected officers?  Do the leaders provide them with support and the means to fight back, or does the union leadership see its role as being one of intermediary between the employer and the members?

Are elections for local officers and stewards held on a regular basis?  Are elections held at all?  Are the qualifications and constitutional requirements for running for and holding union office fair and reasonable?

Does the union provide access to information and publications that encourage member involvement and self reliance?

Does the union constitution contain provisions assuring that the union’s principles and policies will continue when there’s a change in leadership?  Or do union policies change with each new personality elected?  Are there provisions that allow for amendments to be put forward to improve how the union functions?

Does the union constitution provide for a higher body of the union’s leadership to impose a trustee mechanism designed to squelch local leadership or member dissent?  What practical recourse do members have if such a mandate is imposed?

Does the union contract include an effective grievance procedure?  Are there an ample number of trained stewards close at hand?  How long does it take to process and resolve a grievance?

Is the local union capable of militant or direct action to resolve grievances?  Does the leadership support direct action, or work to deflect or condemn it even as grievance logjams mount?

Do members have a voice in drafting contract proposals and a have vote on the company’s final contract offer?

Are the union’s political action priorities, policies, and candidate endorsements  debated and ratified by the membership?

The Road Ahead

In summary, the problems facing working people, and by extension the labor movement, are many.  We are increasingly under attack from employers and government agencies alike, while in apparent possession of a diminished desire and ability to resist.  Member involvement and mobilization is therefore indispensable to tackling and resolving the vast majority of these problems.  We see internal union democracy and education as critical to encouraging this process.  Member activism enhances the probability of successful collective bargaining and new organizing, which in turn increases the much needed political effectiveness of our movement.

For too many years individual union leaders have viewed union democracy and member involvement as a threat and liability, rather than an asset.  Open, frank discussion is stifled and constructive criticism is often equated with disloyalty.  And despite recent rhetoric about the need for “change,” unfortunately it’s been mostly just talk.  Until the labor movement critically reassesses its operations from within, little progress will be made.  Organized labor will attain greater strength when its leaders get back to their roots as the elected representatives of the working class.  Economic and political gains for members and nonmembers alike will be won when the labor movement commits itself to a more involved, more active membership.

The split within the AFL-CIO and the founding of the Change to Win Coalition in 2005 has shown few signs of fulfilling organized labor’s commitment “to lead workers to new heights,” as promised by AFL and CIO leaders when the two organizations merged in 1955.  While it’s true that there have been times of progress, that progress has never lived up to the hype generated at the time.  Loudly advertised as offering a better way to build union power, the Change to Win unions have, to this point, achieved little more than forming a secondary organization.  The absence of membership voice or involvement in the decision-making process leading to their exit from the AFL-CIO perhaps helps to explain this outcome.  Having personally observed the founding CtW Convention, and closely studied the results of the second, it’s clear CtW leaders are determined to craft policy and pass constitutional amendments to distance themselves even further from their members.  Even the very limited democratic procedures and member involvement present in the September 2005 convention has been dramatically curtailed by amendments passed in 2007.  Such concentration of power is neither “progressive” or “innovative,” despite claims to the contrary by some CtW leaders.

Ignoring Labor History

There is a clear and present danger in ignoring our history.  The search for a substitute for rank-and-file involvement, or completely ignoring it as an option, is on its face a denial of labor’s rich history.  Answers will not be found in the rehash of “old hat” failed policies, or in new-age technical shortcuts, such as video conference membership meetings or call centers to report grievances.  Our solution calls for a return to our roots and the basic ideals and policies that built labor into a force to be reckoned with during the 1930s and 40s.  The CIO was born of struggle in the factories, in the neighborhoods, and on the picket lines, not in meetings in the corporate boardroom consummating a “partnership” with the employer.  Gaining “market share” in our respective sectors was not the driving force.  On the contrary, every successful social movement in this country in the last 100 years was built in essentially the same manner as the CIO.  The struggles to win women’s suffrage, civil rights, voting rights, and to end the Vietnam War were not victories won by leaders negotiating in isolation.

The aversion to militant struggle among many in labor is obvious, and costly.  Recently the president of a large public employee local stated that unions have become ineffective because they are considered “troublemakers” and “creators of problems.”  His recommendation that even greater cooperation with the boss was the “solution” is nothing more than a suggestion that workers surrender and hope for favorable treatment at the hands of their employer.  He went on to say that when it comes to strikes, “nobody has really won.”  We would not be so quick to dismiss the victories of those tens of thousands of autoworkers who sat down and struck General Motors factories from Georgia to Flint, Michigan during the incipient CIO period.  It would be just as wrong to write off the more than one million workers in the auto, steel, and electrical industries who took to the picket lines in 1946 to recoup wages lost during wartime wage controls.  Labor victories by the United Mineworkers against the Pittston Coal Company and by the Teamsters at UPS were not won by labor leaders seeking “cooperation” with belligerent employers.  These and other battles were won by working people who were mobilized in organizational structures led by leaders who understood the value and necessity of activism.  Those workers deserve our praise, not a rewriting of union history to conclude their sacrifices were made in vain.  Turning one’s back on our history does not open the door to the future.

Strikes are not the only weapon.  When conditions have precluded the use of a strike, other forms of direct, militant actions by workers have won more battles and settled better contracts than “cooperation” and “partnership” has, or ever will.  To believe otherwise is to fail to understand our movement.  Employers settle with unions on terms favorable to the membership because they fear imminent or widespread disruption to their day-to-day operations.  Period.  Offering to surrender on whatever terms tendered has never scared a boss into submission.

We believe that to grow and become strong, labor must reestablish itself from the bottom up.  The movement must be led by leaders committed to establishing effective steward systems that include adequate training and a sufficient distribution of stewards to represent members and resolve workplace issues.  Additionally, members will become involved when union meetings are held at a location where every dues-paying member has the opportunity to attend and to have their opinion heard.  Likewise, regional and national meetings must be conducted frequently enough for members to hold elected leaders accountable for carrying out their duties.  What we prescribe is the reverse of top-down, authoritarian unionism, not simply a better style of “business” unionism.  When the members recognize that the union belongs to them and that elected officers’ interests and theirs are the same, they will actively work to build a stronger organization.

As a longtime UE leader once said when referring to the role of rank-and-file union leadership, “Our job is to get something for the members, not to get something from the members.”

John Hovis has been president of UE since 1987 and a union member since 1966.  Chris Townsend has been UE Political Action Director since 1993, having joined UE in 1988, and the labor movement in 1979.

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