Unions are not unions
I have at times been a labor activist, but I am not a professional and I generally don’t offer commentary on the strategies and policies adopted by unions. However, the significance of the defeat in Wisconsin impelled me to try to understand what happened there, and what that calls for going forward. The following are my reflections.
I start with what I read. Economics Professor Emeritus Richard Wolff’s short article in Truthout titled Lost Elections’ Strategic Lessons acknowledges that one of the principle reasons for the failure of the Wisconsin recall was that working people are not particularly sympathetic to unions. His point caught my attention because it referred to something that all my working life — and I am 73 — I felt was missing from the American Labor movement: in my terms, a sense of community. The historic workers’ word for community is union. To put it tersely, I believe the reason why working people do not perceive the benefits of labor unions, is that they are not unions … and they have not been for 75 years.
The sense of community
Dr Wolff claims that in the ‘30’s, the socialist and communist parties, wedded to the CIO-type industrial unions, provided the sense of community that the unions did not:
Unions are less vulnerable to criticism as narrowly caring only for their own members when they are continuously and clearly allied with organizations struggling for a better society for everyone. Socialists and communists built the community contacts and consciousness that undermined and defeated pro-business arguments against the CIO union drives and against the programs Roosevelt developed.
He seems to feel that the “Occupy” movement could offer the same service today. History, he says, teaches us that success for workers …
… requires building a robust alliance between labor unions and movements or political parties (or both) seriously committed to an anti-capitalist agenda for social change. The historic significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement lies in its taking a big first step toward rebuilding such an alliance.
Without disputing his historical claims, his analysis raises two questions, which are really the same question: exactly why were the unions not capable of providing a sense of community on their own in the “30’s? … and, what prevents them from providing it now? What is it about unions that explains why they can’t seem to do this?
I believe Wolff’s theory and solution needs further elaboration. But at least he has identified the area where the problem lies: the absence of the sense of community, “labor unions narrowly care for their own members.” That in itself, in my opinion, would be enough to explain the debacle in Wisconsin. People in general, the majority of whom are people with jobs — working people — are not sympathetic to unions. They don’t see them as on their side.
Other observers concur. In a June 15th discussion sponsored by the Nation magazine evaluating the Wisconsin recall failure, a number of the participants voiced similar feelings. Here’s Doug Henwood:
… unions aren’t all that popular with the broad public. In my original piece [6/6] I cited a number of Gallup polls showing that people thought that unions had too much power, were too interested in themselves and not the broader public and ranked toward the bottom of the list (rivaling banks and HMOs) in Gallup’s annual survey on confidence in major institutions.
But the astonishing thing is that the Wisconsin vote showed that the unpopularity extended even to union members. 25% of union members and a whopping 38% of union households supported Scott Walker. What explains that? I am convinced the “narrowness” identified by Dr. Wolff runs deeper than he seems to discern. I think that labor unions have not only failed to connect with the broad public, they have failed their own people because they are not unions at all, they are law firms. They are corporate entities that represent workers; they are not themselves a “brotherhood,” an organization of working people, even when the organizers and union reps they hire used to be working people. Even unions’ “narrow interest in their own members” somehow misses the very thing that their people are are most in need of … the thing that will guarantee everyone’s security and well-being: people power — real human community — true union.
The american dream
Let’s look at this phenomenon in perspective. Take a few steps back. Politicians loudly proclaim that the American people are enamored of something called “The American Dream.” The “dream” is that in America, not just some, but every hard working individual can achieve “happiness” in the form of a secure and adequate living. “Dream,” in my opinion, is the proper word for it; for I believe it is an individualist fairy tale. Individuals can do nothing. Human survival and well-being is a community achievement. If the “dream” seems convincing it’s only because people have let themselves be convinced by those invested in keeping the individualist myth afloat.
The American Dream originated with European immigrants fleeing traditional ethnic and national tyrannies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today it is propagated by a commercial over-class that lives on the exploitation of individual consumerism. When America was an 85% rural nation, freedom and independence meant “owning your own land” or small business. When capitalist industrialization made America 85% urban, it came to be applied to whoever holds down a “job” and thus can “buy” the items of happiness provided by the ruling corporations. “Freedom” evolved to mean the power of the individual to earn … and buy.
American Labor Unions bought into that individualist fantasy and used it to promote their project. They decided the road to success for the “union” was to “go with the flow.” The standing contradiction to the very meaning of “union” didn’t occur to them or was ignored. So instead of providing the only alternative to a dysfunctional economic system built on the fantasy that financial independence was available to the isolated jobholder, they claimed to be the one secure route to the “American Dream.” They called it “sticking to the bread and butter issues.” It meant “forget uniting with others to change the system, and take care of the dues-paying members in a contract-protected shop.” They re-defined “union” and in so doing re-inforced the individualism, the isolation and the powerlessness of wage-earning workers. People found that when they did join a labor Union (or were forced to by contract) they didn’t get a “union,” a brotherhood, a mutual assistance community, but rather a firm of well-paid para-legal semi-professionals who would defend the individual jobholder’s rights to the full extent that an anemic law and a dilute contract would allow, so long as the jobholder worked under that contract.
So? Unions are being realistic. What’s wrong with that?
Besides the impotence of the law and the deficiency of the contract, it’s not communirty, it’s not UNION. The power of a community to identify and defend itself, and from there to provide the social supports that went beyond the narrow confines of legal protection for the isolated individual became a supererogatory activity that the Union was unlikely to engage in. I’m talking about things like help for the unemployed with job training and employment search … help with housing, … avoiding foreclosures, … securing day-care, medical, food, clothing and education needs … helping to organize the unorganized … taking on issues in the community where the union was located. As Fletcher and MacAlevey say in the same Nation discussion:
There are plenty of important structural issues that the rank and file could be engaging, including the on-going housing, credit, climate, public transportation, and child care crises. And there’s the matter of bringing the worker’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from unwinnable wars of aggression.
The Union was not grounded in people, but in the contract. There was no “membership” for those who did not hold a job under contract. And most certainly there was no concern for those people and those “industries” that were unorganized. Shops, workplaces, industries were strategically targeted for organizing drives because of the benefits that would accrue in dues and clout to the union corporation. People are not blind. They saw what was happening. Unions had turned themselves into a “service-for-sale” industry and reduced the services they sold to the bare minimum necessary. People’s apathy and antipathy grew in proportion.
A fourth of July picnic doth not a union make. Many people are disappointed with the “narrowness” of the Unions, but many others go even further and see them as just another “business” dedicated to its own success and profits, leaving working people defenseless as always, isolated and powerless in an inhuman system. After the Union enters the picture, there is no more human community — no more collective muscle and no more brotherhood — than before.
The labor corporation
The big labor corporation selling the “American Dream” is fully integrated into the American Capitalist system. It exploits the “individual-happiness-through-consumption” mentality so necessary for the current economic machinery to work. They call it “bread and butter.” Any suggestion that “happiness” can only be found in true human community — that the superfluous consumption urged by corporate advertizing is a scam and a rip-off — has the door slammed in its face as new age woo-woo. The ability of the individual to earn and consume has been identified as “the American Dream.” “Independence” has been redefined by the corporations.
Besides, the big Union is itself a corporate enterprise with a service to sell and thus part of the commercial ruling elite. Workers “shop” among labor Unions the way any individual client shops for a lawyer or an insurance company, and for the same reasons. The big Union may actually do its job quite well, but there is no community … there is no human union, no power for people. There is a corporate commercial enterprise with a product to sell, and there are individual consumers who are forced by law to do their shopping with others from the same workplace. But there is no necessary connection among them. “Union certification” is no different from any other commercial transaction except for the fact that the individual consumers must do their buying together. But they buy as individuals, for their individual benefit, and only for the duration of this individual “job,” with this individual company, under this particular contract. Should they get laid off, or change employment even in the same field, their connection to the “union” dissolves, because the basis of the connection was the individual workplace contract, not the community of the workers. The “labor corporation” does not exist to increase human social depth and empowerment. It exists to provide its individual dues payers with the minimum services necessary to maintain worker willingness to not “de-certify” … i.e., to keep on paying dues.
It’s a question of who you think you are, i.e., how you define yourself. Once you identify yourself as a commercial enterprise, all kinds of things tend to occur. Consider … the greatest obstacle to the Union’s comfortable uninterrupted dues collection (usually witheld by the Company on payday) would be a hostile uncooperative attitude on the part of management. The Union does not want that. But neither does the Company. It’s to the advantage of management to maintain good relations with the Union; it means they can shunt shop-floor grievances to the friendly Union rep and leave wage questions until contract time. The arrangement has all the potential of a “sweetheart deal” between the Union and the Company. And that is exactly what has happened in many cases. As long as the union does not make life uncomfortable for management, management cooperates with the Union as much as it can. And as long as the workers are quiet, the Union has no reason to demand higher wages, more benefits or greater job security and safety. Given the nature of the relationships involved it is not in the interest of the Union to press for improvements, despite the widespread belief that it does. It’s a myth. Think about it. The reality is that under the current self-definition of Union as provider of professional services, the Union tends to move only when the workers push it. Worker-management cooperation was the explicit intention of American Labor law, set in stone by the big Unions’ acquiescence in the 1940’s, and we should not be surprised that that’s what we got.
Here’s a concrete example that I am familiar with. A recent high profile drive for certification at a Southern pork plant was embarrassed by the glaring presence of a nearby chicken processing facility — represented by the very same Union — where wages were barely above the legal minimum. “Why should we want the union,” asked the pork plant workers, “what did it get those people”? Workers soon learn: if they want their “Union” to work for them, they have to make noise … the kind of adversarial noise we all used to think was reserved for management alone. That doesn’t sound like union to me. After the victory at the pork plant, wages remained what they were. What the workers got was job security, including protection against arbitrary firing and harassment by line supervisors, a grievance procedure and better reponse to injury claims … not unimportant achievements to be sure, but there was no “up to 30% increase” in wages as touted during the organizing campaign. I am not saying the Union negotiators who agreed to that contract should have or even could have done better under the circumstances; I am just pointing out the way things are. The pork plant workers have a union, but they are still extremely poor disconnected people.
Moreover, the fact that in this particular case the “victory” was achieved primarily through a “corporate campaign” and not through sustained shop-floor agitation, meant that the workers didn’t “bring in” the union, the boss did. The Big Union’s corporate campaign had persuaded management that it was better to have a contract than suffer the kind of damage at the corporate level that another big corporation can inflict. The boss permitted elections to proceed unimpeded. Earlier attempts during the previous 15 years based on employee organizing alone had failed under the intimidating tactics of a management known to resort to violence in its interests. There was no “true union” among the 5,000 workers of this immense plant (and the surrounding community) strong enough to withstand the company’s onslaught and override the negative impact of a toothless labor law. The cohesion needed for a shop-floor victory had not been achieved. The “corporate campaign” resulted in an agreement between big corporations ratified by an election, but it did not result in a human union — a community that had tasted and appropriated its own power.
As this is being written, ongoing organizing and worker education by a committed local plant union committee may succeed in creating a “true union” that did not exist at the time of certification. Will the Big Union help them do it? Or will it advise them to “stick to the bread and butter issues,” cooperate with management, and reject any thought of expanding the reach of the union beyond the the plant and contract to empower the lives of the workers and the community in which they live? It remains to be seen.
This essay was an attempt to understand what happened in Wisconsin on the 5th of June, but it was done in the interest of a much wider analysis. Unions are perceived as selfish and spoiled. If I point this out and try to fathom why, am I anti-union? Not on your life! What I am against is that unions, like so many of us, have bought into this economic system built on the corporate exploitation of the isolated individual both for labor and superfluous consumption. The American individualist Dream is a con-game. It’s purpose is to rip us off. The obesity epidemic is symbolic. The commercial propaganda that has us eating things we don’t need comes from the same sources that convince us that the key to the American Dream is to keep working as isolated pawns of the corporations. It’s a Kafka-esque formula for suicide that the big Unions’ “bread and butter” goals do not challenge. When was the last time you heard a Union thundering against superfluous consumption and its advertizing?
It’s one thing to be forced to function within a retrograde system, it’s another thing to join it, run with it and seek to succeed in it on its own terms. What I am against is the distortion of unionism that bought into the culture of individualism and individual consumption — the so-called American Dream — that is now suffocating us. It encourages union members to think narrowly about themselves and not about their brother and sister workers who share their destiny nor about the community where they live. There is only one antidote to that toxic combination, and that is TRUE UNIONS. We need unions that stand proudly for what they are and what they have to offer: the power of human community — a power that can change the world.
Union is not just a tool or a tactic, it is the answer to life. Human community is the real American Dream.