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Looking Forward for Labor


Despite the many defeats, false starts, shattered hopes, bitter disappointments, etc., that have dogged organized labor throughout 2010, there are only two New Year’s resolutions that need to be made for 2011.  If both are realized, the labor movement will be considerably stronger as a result.  One is for the membership, one is for the leadership.

Let’s start with the membership.

In a nutshell, you need to become better union members.  There are two steps in that process.  The first is to start attending regular membership meetings.  While attendance varies from union to union, the average national attendance is estimated at 5-percent.  If you belong to a local with 500 members, that means you’ll average 25 members a month.  Which tells me that the 5-percent estimate (pitiful as it is) is too high.

When I was president of a 700-member local, 5-percent would’ve been 35 people; and I can tell you that we never, ever averaged 35 people, not in any year I was president.  We were closer to 15 or 20 people.  The only time we had any more than that was around contract bargaining time (when we had full houses) or when rumors were flying about lay-offs or some other catastrophe.

And from what I gathered, most other unions had similar turnouts.  Indeed, a consistent five-percent would’ve been welcomed.  Years ago, one of our AWPPW locals amended its by-laws to require members to attend a minimum of one-third of all monthly meetings in any given year in order to be eligible to run for union office.  Alas, the local had to remove the amendment when they couldn’t field enough candidates.

The second step is to stop second-guessing every decision that comes down the pike.  Stop whining, stop griping, stop nitpicking, stop giving speeches in the breakroom, stop pretending you know more than you know.  The only place where you should challenge a union decision is at the membership meeting; otherwise keep your mouth shut.  Believe me, management fears union solidarity, and rejoices in union dissension.

Now for the leadership.

In a nutshell, many of you are overpaid.  On a national level, you must resolve to make no more in annual salary than the highest paid worker in the bargaining unit; and at the local level, you need to cut back on those sweet little perks and extra cash that come your way.  You know what they are.  Resolve to avoid them.  You’re in a public service job, people.  Behave like it.

One of the great things about Harry Bridges, the legendary past president of the Longshoreman’s union, was that he refused to take any more in compensation than what the highest paid dock worker made.  It was one reason he was so beloved by the rank-and-file.

If I hear one more International officer try to justify his six-figure salary by comparing it to the private sector, I’m going to scream (then I’m going to strangle him).  Some years ago, the president of an International told me that, given his job title and the number of people he was responsible for, if he were in the private sector he’d be “making twice as much money.”

While I didn’t want to offend him (because, deep-down, he was a solid union man and an effective officer), I also didn’t want him to take me for a chump.  So I offended him.

I reminded him that (1) given his qualifications, it’s unlikely the private sector would hire him at all, much less pay him double, (2) compared to what the membership does day-in and day-out, the cushy office job he has doesn’t even qualify as “work, and (3) the satisfaction of representing working people should be its own reward; a six-figure salary is not only unnecessary, it’s an insult to the people he represents.

Happy New Year, everyone!

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at


David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at

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