Reflections on the Wisconsin recall

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[1] 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][2] 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”[3] 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.

Tony Equale

2 comments on “Reflections on the Wisconsin recall

  1. rjjwillis says:

    Tony, I have a lifelong friend, Tom, who left the Jesuits in the early 1970’s. Since then he has been a dedicated member of the Revolutionary Communist Party of America, American Maoists who strive actively for the overthrow of the American political and economic system. In the course of the years he has tried consistently, but without success, to get me to join him as we both are firmly against the social injustices that are part and parcel of our social system. I have firmly resisted; I tell him that 1) I am not into violence, no matter who is perpetrating it, and 2) I have no desire to help him or anyone else give us a new set of tyrants who will be no better, if no worse, than the ones we have. Still Tom soldiers on. How and why?–because he has found in his co-believers human community. Even though he and his ilk have been singularly unsuccessful in realizing their goals (think of Maoist China going capitalist; recall the extermination of the Shining Path guerrilla movement, look at the takeover of our society by Wall Street and its types), he has, I would say, a happy and fulfilling life. It does not depend on achieving his goals; it depends rather on having goals that he shares with others. He has found community and he lives in and with and by it.

    This is, by your analysis, and one with which I agree, what has been lost in the labor movement. It seems to think that achieving its goals through negotiations and legal manuevers is what the union movement is all about. It has lost the core truth that being together in the pursuit of a just and humane life is their reason for existing.

    I would add that this is also what has happened to the Catholic Church. It has substituted power, position, wealth, numbers, and control for a community of believers who is trying to live as Christ lived.

    How has this occurred? As a psychologist, I would lay the blame at the feet of individualism. Much of our modern world subscribes to the notion that life is all about becoming one’s own person, one who can stand alone and take care of himself. This almost defines our current economic and political systems. What is not taken into account is that the individual is an abstraction, an intellectual artifact that we can define and talk about but which does not exist in reality. The human being is not an individual; to be human is to be in relationship; we cannot even grow into being human except in and through human community. The ego/individual is an artifact that strives continually and mightily to be someone but it can never make it because it isn’t someone. It is an imposter trying to convince all that it is someone and that life is all about the control of the ego. What is the given for us humans is the self; that is, being in relationship. The self has only one goal: unite.

    My best regards, Bob

  2. Tony Equale says:


    I agree with your asssessment of the church as betraying true community. For me the only true community … what defines us … is the family of man. Its reality and justice requirements pre-exist and take precedence over every other institution — union, church, nation, race, even biological kinship. No human agency of any kind created it; it comes with our bodies. The church has an ancillary, subordinate role in proclaiming the family of man by displaying its characteristics in microcosm. It betrays us and fatally corrupts itself when it tries to take the place of the family of man or accepts the individualist definitions that characterize the capitalist economic system. Living as family –- our tue definition — would make this world a paradise.


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