Debating the New Unity Partnership

It’s great to see that efforts to rebuild workers’ strength in America that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other unions are engaged in are provoking a much needed debate, including the recent article in CounterPunch by Joann Wypijewski, “The New Unity Partnership: A Manifest Destiny for Labor.”

We hope others will join in, and invite anyone who wants to hear SEIU’s views and concerns in detail to email to ask for a copy of the SEIU discussion paper, “United We Win: A Discussion of the Crisis Facing Workers and the Labor Movement.”

As for Wypijewski’s article itself, some of the legitimate questions she raises are a little hard to find in the barrage of personal invective (and even ethnic slurs like the epithet “oily” directed toward a Greek-American activist) she directs at a long list of people she doesn’t like. It is bizarre, for example, to see SEIU criticized as a union with an “all-consuming dedication” that “has signed up half a million new members in the past few years and that is not content simply to weigh union revenues against expenses and leave it at that. SEIU seems to be on a mission from God, and that is part of the problem.”

For years, unions have been criticized as narrow institutions lacking a sense of mission and vision about social change. Now, SEIU and a growing number of others in the labor movement are taking action based on a belief that working people in America cannot regain the strength we need without making dramatic changes in strategy and structure. If that constitutes what Wypijewski calls the sin of “passionate impatience,” so be it.

Wypijewski brushes aside the cold facts about the status quo, so let’s begin there:

Fewer than 1 in 10 private sector workers in America has union protection — down from what was once nearly 4 in 10.

Twenty-two particularly nonunion states have “right-to-work” (for less) laws that make it illegal to negotiate union contracts requiring every worker to contribute to union representation, even though all workers in the unit reap the benefits. Those states are in nearly all cases the same ones that deny 7 million public employees the right to a union at all. And — progressives take note — those are essentially the same southern and Rocky Mountain states that provide a reliable base for anti-worker candidates in every national election.

About 85% of the approximately 16 million manufacturing jobs still in the U.S. are nonunion.

What union membership remains is mainly in industries that are losing employment. In some high growth service sectors (retail trade, business and personnel services, finance and insurance), the percentage of union membership is 5 percent or less.

Polls show that between 45 and 50 percent of U.S. workers say they would choose a union where they work if they could, yet an average of only 84,000 private sector workers per year make it through the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) process to win a union representation election, and only about a quarter of those have a contract in place five years later.

Left critics have long argued the importance of worker involvement and democracy, coalition building with other social movements, outreach to immigrants, and more militant grassroots action. These are all key ingredients for reviving labor — but they won’t happen on a large, meaningful enough scale without two other central ingredients:

1. Industry and market focus. Before workers go into battle in today’s economy, they need the strategy, resources, and strength to take on a whole industry, market, or company.

2. Unity based on industry strength strategies. Unions must act like one movement, not 65 overlapping and competing organizations that happen to be part of a common trade association called the AFL-CIO. To build workers’ strength and unity in each major sector requires that unions help and be accountable to each other by

* Pooling financial, political, bargaining, capital, and community resources.

* Coordinating in dealing with employers and making elected officials give the highest priority to reducing employer interference with workers’ freedom to form a union.

* Creating structures or partnerships that unite — instead of dividing — the strength of workers in the same industries, markets, or companies.

Wypijewski laments that if unions reorganize themselves to focus on building workers’ strength in particular industries, some workers may lose their traditional union “names and colors and identifying insignia.”

It is strange to see a progressive so concerned about preserving a status quo that too often consists of heroic but losing battles and declining strength. What workers today want more than a particular union brand name is the strength to win for working families — and that is hard to build without a change in labor’s structure and culture.

The AFL-CIO has already become a federation primarily made up of a few big unions. The 6 largest affiliates represent almost half the members; the remaining 59 affiliates represent the other half. The 15 largest affiliates represent 10 of the 13 million members — more than 3/4 of the labor movement.

But these unions often organize in a way that divides workers instead of uniting their strength. From 1998 through 2001, at least 16 national unions each conducted organizing elections for workers in 5 or more different sectors. Multiple unions organized auto parts workers, truck drivers, school employees, miners, and many other workers who are not their union’s primary focus. Twelve held NLRB elections for hotel workers, and 30 different unions mounted organizing elections for health care workers.

Most importantly, lack of unity behind an industry-focused strategy leaves the labor movement unable to deal with the enormous challenges Wypijewski cites: the destruction of union manufacturing jobs, the growth of the nonunion contingent workforce, the rise of massive service companies like Wal-Mart that are setting labor market standards today the way the auto companies did during labor’s heyday. It’s true, as she says, that no one has easy answers to those challenges. But it’s also true that we won’t develop them or carry them out as long as we are neither structured nor united to do so.

Recognizing that these challenges will not be met as long as each union goes its own way, a number of national unions have been exploring a new partnership based on a commitment both to build worker strength in particular industries and markets and to share resources to do so.

In attacking these unions’ emphasis on whole industry and market strategies, Wypijewski cites two SEIU campaigns — Justice for Janitors, and recent organizing by hospital workers employed by Tenet. In reality, those two campaigns provide good illustrations of the value of new unity to build industry and market strength.

In the 1980s, SEIU had as many as four locals in the same city with contracts with the same building service employers. Most janitors were in amalgamated locals that also represented public employees and health care workers and didn’t have an industry focus for janitors. While locals bargained separately and didn’t coordinate, workers’ standards were devastated. Twenty-three of 25 master contracts took backward steps, health coverage was eliminated, a shift to part-time work increased, and wages dropped. Nearly a third of the membership lost their union entirely.

In 2003, 100,000 building service workers have bargained contracts at the same time. They have won health care improvements and raises, reduced part-time work, and won immigration protections and organizing rights. How can it be that at a time when unions are weaker than 20 years ago, the economy is in recession, and we have an anti-union president and Congress, janitors who were losing back then are winning now?

1. Reorganizing locals for strength: Most SEIU building service workers are now united in powerful, industry-focused locals for their metropolitan area.

2. Uniting behind industry strategies: These local unions now operate as one, united national union to take on real estate owners and cleaning contractors who are often the same from city to city.

Inspired by new unity and new strategies, janitors — many of them immigrants — are involved in their union like never before. By uniting to use civil disobedience, coalition building, capital stewardship to harness our pension power, organizing of non-union workers to strike (instead of relying on NLRB elections), and the fight for immigrant rights, SEIU janitors have built a broad-based movement that has grown from 150,000 to 200,000 workers in a short time. Workers’ lives are dramatically better because the union confronted and changed an internal structure that may have worked for leaders of weak, multi-jurisdiction locals but didn’t work for workers.

Meanwhile, workers at Tenet, one of the nation’s largest hospital chains, had little success over the years trying to organize or win good contracts using the old one-hospital-at-a-time approach. Then, SEIU’s 750,000 health care members united behind a strategy that focused on the largest chains in the industry and on the whole California market where Tenet has 40 hospitals.

First, SEIU worked with other unions to jointly bargain with Kaiser Permanente to set high contract standards — including nurse-to-patient ratios that are stronger than state requirements — for 60,000 workers, most of them in California.

Then, it mounted a four-year campaign on many fronts to convince the entire Catholic Healthcare West chain to allow employees to freely choose a union and to negotiate contracts that give workers a real voice in decisions that affect the quality of care, including staffing committees with arbitration so management does not have the final say.

That set the stage for a similar nationwide campaign that took Tenet workers’ concerns to legislators, regulators, health plan administrators, shareholders, community groups, and the news media. They drew attention to the dangers of inadequate staffing, joined communities in opposing hospital closings, and raised issues where Tenet was seeking to acquire hospitals in five states.

These campaigns were possible because SEIU has an industry and market strategy for health care and the focus, resources, current membership strength, and relationships with community allies and elected officials to implement that strategy — just as other unions have those potential strengths in their core industries.

The result at Tenet was an agreement that this huge, anti-union private sector employer would respect workers’ freedom to choose a union, accept quick elections (instead of multi-year legal delays under the NLRB), and guarantee that once workers voted for the union they would have a contract in place instead of facing more years of employer opposition. The raises of up to 29% are the highest ever negotiated by any group of Tenet workers, and the new Tenet agreement bans mandatory overtime.

This series of health care worker victories will increase union strength among private-sector hospital workers in Southern California from 8% in 1996 to at least 50%. It is a good example of how a labor movement with industry and market strategy, focus, and resources can win against large private-sector employers.

Despite helping more than 600,000 workers join the union since 1996 (in addition to those who joined through union mergers), SEIU clearly needs to help workers organize on a far greater scale. No one has all the answers for how to do that. But it is obvious that working with other unions in a new way and focusing more clearly on particular industries and markets is one place to start.

Progressives like Wypijewski used to condemn past leaders of labor because they were not trying to make bold change. It is strange to now see some of the left turn its fire instead on the very leaders who are trying to reverse labor’s decline. We have offered a specific analysis of why workers are losing strength and are taking a series of first steps to start trying to reverse the decline. The major changes within our union have been debated in every local union and voted on by the elected delegates to our national convention, and our United We Win paper exploring the need for new strategies and structures for labor is both the product of and a tool for discussion in locals throughout the country. The challenge for critics is this: if you don’t agree with the importance of new unity and industry strategies to rebuild workers’ strength, what do you propose?

( TOM WOODRUFF is executive vice president of SEIU.)

Wypijewski Replies

I am happy to have a hand in the debate, but I do think it is one that would most profitably be had within organized labor, and still think it curious that it didn’t occur before five union presidents freelanced their New Unity Partnership, without any discussion among everyone in labor, as a plan for everyone in labor. Now the boys are ruffled. So ruffled that TOM WOODRUFF mostly ignores the NUP, the subject of my piece, and Gabe Kramer, in a posting on the portside list where Woodruff’s also appeared, takes a with-us-or-against-us posture, equating suspicions about the NUP with a To the barricades! defense of the status quo. Is this what we’ve come to–the range of imagination enclosed within the fenceposts of two bureaucratic options?

Kramer distorts most of what I wrote, so I’ll address his points here and there but mostly refer readers to my original article. Woodruff is a serious guy who says he wants a serious debate, so let’s first clarify a few things. I did not characterize the passionate impatience of at least some of the five behind the NUP as a “sin” but rather as the most charitable explanation for what some in organized labor see as a plain-old power play. I did not criticize SEIU for its dedication (that was a compliment) but for, as I said, its mission-from-God attitude, the certainty that its way is the way (“Leading the way”, as the union’s slogan has it). SEIU’s “United We Win” discussion paper has indeed been floating around and been published in various forms since last year. It is not the document to which I was referring, which had a secret life until recently and which is available to general readers courtesy of Carpenters for a Democratic Union. While the latter document was heavily influenced by the former, it also includes some important new features, such as the drafters’ agenda for a remade AFL-CIO, eliminating, among other things, elected leadership and independent initiative at the state and local levels. That feature is undoubtedly less discomfiting to the most backward AFL affiliate leaders than are the NUP fantasies that would erase their identities and their jobs by collapsing the federation’s 65 unions into 12 or 15, but it is perhaps the most telling. It indicates the trade-off the reformers are prepared to make, sacrificing democratic processes and structures capable of autonomous grass-roots action on the altar of centralized control.

I can hear the creak of knees jerking already. Mention democracy, and people like Kramer will hasten to say that it isn’t everything, that it’s no guarantee of worker power, that structure alone doesn’t determine member dynamism. Challenge the agenda of those eager to blow up the AFL-CIO, and others will helpfully point out that the federation is hardly a bastion of dynamism and democracy, that many of its state feds and central labor councils are moribund or worse. Let’s stipulate those reflexive responses as true. The questions remain: Why, in imagining a supposedly new and improved structure for “building workers’ strength” is the matter of workers’ power over the direction of their own organizations given short shrift or actually disdained? What does it suggest when pages are devoted to sectoral rationalization and density but barely a word to membership participation, leadership accountability and class-conscious politics?

These are not romantic questions, and don’t assume that rank-and-file workers exist in some state of pre-revolutionary readiness, held back only by their leaders or their structures–the other reflexive charge leveled at those who raise the democracy question. I can’t help thinking back to 1995, when John Sweeney took over the AFL-CIO waving the flag of Organizing as vigorously as the gang of five behind the NUP now wave the flag of Sectoralism and Density. Maybe those heady days have been forgotten, those days when one of Sweeney’s most brilliant convention managers, Andy Stern, now president of SEIU, declared of Sweeney’s victory, “This is the revenge of the organizers.” Back then some of us, concerned about the apparent single-minded focus on numbers, said, OK, but organize for what? into what kind of organizations? with what definition of power and what role, beyond dues’ payers, for the members? I remember being told by a Sweeney loyalist, “Those are movement questions, not institutional questions.” The issue was whether the institution could change enough, open up enough, to give such movement matters even a fighting chance within unions. I think the most sour labor observer would have to admit that things have changed, have opened up–from the space for antiwar organizing within unions to the about-face on immigration to the participation of labor in the global justice movement. The numbers, on the other hand, have not shot up. Nor has union democracy flowered. And nor has the condition of the working class in general improved. If any of us had the answer to all of those problems it would be akin to solving the mystery of the Trinity, because they are intertwined. What is puzzling is that the NUPsters, having declared Sweeney a failure, are betting all on a new version of the numbers piece of his program while warming to Republicans, largely ignoring social action, advocating a regression on democracy and touting it as this era’s CIO-style revolution. (Kramer says SEIU’s leadership is dedicated to eliminating Bush–whom I never said the NUP was backing–but ignores the union’s financial contributions to and efforts on behalf of his war-mongering, social-rollbacking, antiunion agenda-carrier Dennis Hastert.)

Now, it’s hard to imagine how the NUPsters might effect their institutional transformation, particularly how they might convince most of the rest of organized labor to give up their unions or transfer some of their members to the appropriate sectoral union. Again, what is important here is less the odds on their victory than their premises, and what gets defined as cutting-edge, forward-thinking “best practices”. Woodruff sees my reference to union traditions, colors, etc. as a lament to preserve the status quo; actually, it was simply a recognition that there are union cultures, that unsavory as some of those may be, workers are attached to them. There is a reason craft unionism has survived, after all. Can be good, can be bad, the point is these cultures exist, and changing them, where they ought to change, simply won’t come about as an act of will on the part of a few smart guys fiddling with structure. When the Sweeney team came in, all the talk was of creating a “culture of organizing”. Back then it was hoped that this would come about through exhortation and vast expenditures on field staff, national campaigns, pr. That worked only so well, or it worked in the sense that unions organized randomly, without any sectoral rationale, so now the NUP says this is a mess and a different culture of organizing needs to be implanted, by force of structure.

The assumption is that SEIU, HERE, UNITE, the Carpenters and Laborers–the NUP five–have some superior culture. Come on, guys; you all have your skeletons, some more than others. If the Teamsters and UFCW succumb to the NUP’s courting (a dimmer prospect now that SEIU has snubbed their guy and Hoffa’s law school pal Gephardt), would that vault those two into the ranks of bold, progressive unions? Humility isn’t held to be much of a virtue in organized labor; neither is honesty. It’s good that SEIU particularly has been direct in pointing out labor’s losses (something that until recently no one was ever supposed to admit publicly). But it’s a mistake to pretend it has hit on the one solution, because it hasn’t and it never will–not because its guys aren’t smart enough or sensitive enough but because there is no one solution, no single “organizer’s toolkit” to class struggle. And, no, that doesn’t mean everyone ought to sit around, spectators to decline, waiting, as Kramer snidely suggests, for worker self-organization to raise the dawn. Though let’s not disparage self-organization simply because it doesn’t operate by the rules of market density.

Woodruff argues that “market focus” and restructuring for “unity based on industry strength” must take precedence among union priorities. So let’s think about those. On paper, sectoral unionism makes a lot of sense: arrange the unions by economic division, assign workers accordingly, build density in those sectors, and density will translate into power. Kramer says I pooh-pooh density. On the contrary, I said it’s not the only thing that matters. For one, how you get there matters. Moreover, there are different kinds of density. There is density by locale: numerous unions, of whatever size and structure, that are able to act collectively to improve the atmosphere for organizing, defend the working class (union and nonunion) and fight politically for the people’s interests. This is what the state feds and central labor councils are supposed to do and sometimes do do. At their best they lessen divisions among all workers by taking on issues or pursuing political strategies that reach beyond a narrow union agenda. The degree of density makes a difference, but, again, commitment to work together and to agree on a common, class-based agenda are more important than density. Just look at New York City, with the highest union density, little militant action relative to the numbers and incredibly toxic politics, union and otherwise. The NUP would simply change the structure of state and local bodies, but I’m not sure structure is so much the problem as leadership. How do you develop and support leaders capable of inspiring their members, getting disparate people to cooperate consistently, working in coalition with communities and exercising sharp political judgement? The NUP’s answer is, You appoint them. Others in a far better position to know than I say it has to be an organic process. That is never satisfying to those looking for quick solutions, because it involves time and attention and the members; and the members might make mistakes or things might get messy. And there’s got to be collective accountability and ongoing education and a feeling for culture, because one of the huge things often bypassed in organizing discussions is the alienation of workers already organized. That is not the result of low density or sectoral confusion. Certainly it is arguable that the less alienated, more engaged the already-organized are, the more they are attuned to and informed about the issues that unite workers, the more likely they are to participate in community politics and, dare I say, class politics, including organizing.

Then there is density by corporation. Consider, for example, a giant multinational like General Electric. Just theoretically, would its workers have more power if they were all joined in one amalgamated union with international alliances, or if those who make jet engines and appliances were all mustered in a manufacturing union, and those at NBC in a media union, and those in financial services in a service-sector union and all of these different unions had alliances with similarly sectorally based unions in other countries where GE operates? An argument can be made either way, and NUP sympathizers can say, Ha, ha! But you’re still talking about jurisdictional rationality. Woodruff does mention unity by company. And yet, except for size, the one big theoretical GE union differs totally from the theoretical NUP scheme in that there is no sectoral purity, so maybe there could be exceptions. But who decides those exceptions? And what would be the basis for decision? And where would the workers’ will fit into the picture?

I’m afraid none of this is as neat as the NUPsters and their advocates would like. In either theoretical GE example, for instance, who would have the right to tell GE workers represented by the tiny, independent UE that the union they or their relatives fought to keep alive in the period of the CIO’s anticommunist purges is really too small and old-fashioned to deserve to survive? The NUPsters are right that unions, thus workers, are in competition, undercutting a classic role of unions, which is to take workers out of competition. (Leave to one side the fact that historically unions have often divided workers, not least of all on race, sex and ideology.) They are right that there needs to be more cooperation, that better centralized research, say, could save unions resources and duplication, that regional and national coordination could be improved, that raids and inter-union wars are counterproductive (though here the NUP unions don’t always practice what they preach). But sectoral rationality is no guarantee against competition, as rivalry among UAW auto plants has shown again and again. More than that, it’s important that we not consider the current jurisdictional patchwork simply from the perspective of top leadership. Why do workers seek to affiliate with unions that are sectorally inapposite? Why did booksellers at Powell’s on the West Coast go to the longshore union? or corner-store grocery workers in New York City go to UNITE? or nurses in Buffalo in the 1980s go to the Communications Workers?

Sometimes they are drawn by the romantic history of a union, or a trusted personal connection, or a union’s congenial politics, or its role in the community. Sometimes the obvious choice doesn’t have the capacity to work with them, or is too occupied with bigger shops to be interested in them. Sometimes, as in the case of those Buffalo nurses, they are revolted by the corrupt, do-nothing leadership of the sectorally appropriate local union. Woodruff et al. are right that, all things being equal, workers favor unions. But all things aren’t equal, and they don’t favor just any union. Those grocery workers who began organizing themselves in New York went to UNITE Local 169 because its president at the time was a political radical and immigrant who embraced the vigor of a worker-community campaign to win the simplest justice for super-exploited immigrant workers said to be unorganizable. By the NUP criteria it was madness–expensive in relation to the number of workers organized, unrelated to the needle trades, disconnected from any concept of market share–and indeed after the local president died, the International traded the campaign to the United Food and Commercial Workers. It was, as UNITE’s Bruce Raynor said, much more logical, but the new leadership was not as committed as the old one and the campaign lost steam. UNITE, which has a patchy reputation among New York immigrants, lost trust within the community. People really don’t appreciate being traded like commodities. And New York lost an extremely energetic, cross-class mobilization that raised fundamental questions about work, wealth, fairness and the power of collective action. The campaign forced the state to take action on wage and hour enforcement in an “industry” that wasn’t even paying minimum wage. It didn’t build union power in the traditional sense, certainly not in the NUP sense, but for a time it made the union seem more broadly relevant than many of the campaigns that do.

The NUP plan just rolls over the question of worker choice, and I mentioned SEIU’s deal with Tenet Healthcare Services because it does too. Woodruff points out all the improvements the deal brings, but from another perspective the deal shows that SEIU’s reverence for “unity” and “cooperation” among unions (the theory Kramer characterizes as “everybody work together to plan more organizing”) applies only on its terms. The Tenet deal is a good example of the contradictions that can attend strategic market-share organizing. Tenet is the second-largest for-profit hospital chain. SEIU represents the largest number of health-care workers. Shop-by-shop organizing is difficult, expensive and full of setbacks. NLRB elections are hazardous in a system stacked against workers. But there has been all sorts of organizing activity and the company, beset by criminal investigations and more, wants a break too. So the company buys labor peace in an agreement with SEIU and AFSCME. They negotiate a contract the workers have had nothing to say about. This is then to be presented for an up or down vote. The problem is the California Nurses Association has been organizing in some of those hospitals, so what have we got? A corporatist labor-management partnership and a full-out war between SEIU, embraced by the company, and CNA, which has petitioned the federal labor board to intervene. I’ll leave it to others to explicate the ins and outs of all this. CNA charges that workers should have a real choice, that contract provisions are inferior to those it has negotiated elsewhere and that under the deal Tenet nurses will not be allowed to exercise vigorous patient advocacy; SEIU disagrees. It has criticized CNA as a hoary craft union (though it has alliances with the independent Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union and the United Steel Workers) and has also attacked it for leading strikes.

Unless one lives by the commandment that big is best, and the smaller should always submit, this is an unhappy story. Even if CNA wasn’t in the picture, advocates of such strategic deals need to confront the price of collaboration. When companies hail a deal as a victory, as Tenet did, they usually have more to gain than the workers. Tenet, by all accounts a nasty outfit, has said it hopes unionization will help it with government regulators. The Tenet deal was predated by SEIU’s deal with Kaiser Permanente. This year Kaiser opposed legislation in California that would have restricted HMOs in the interest of patients’ rights. The LA County Federation of Labor and the LA Central Labor Council, in both of which SEIU carries the greatest weight, intervened on Kaiser’s side. The legislation failed. If we think of union members not just as dues’ payers, not just as workers but also as relatives of people not in unions, not insured, as potential patients, potentially unemployed, as members of the mass public that doesn’t have enough power anywhere, how did this serve the members?

Woodruff says workers just want unions that win for them. “Winning” has always been one of those contested terms. Last year there was a debate over it following an SEIU strike of immigrant janitors in Boston. The local had long been corrupt and was finally put under trusteeship, but member records were in disarray, many of the workers were undocumented and fearful, so the strike had to be limited. In terms of dollars and benefits, the resulting contract did not make a huge difference in the janitors’ lives (though it was proclaimed “a huge victory”), but the workers had done remarkable things: they made themselves visible in a city that had ignored them; they split elite opinion; they inspired wide support and tested their own power. I thought they did win, but the struggle is not over in that local and it’s not clear how much power the workers will have in it. An SEIU staffer whom I respect a lot said at the time, “You’ve got to trust the class”, by which he meant that if people have a union, even if it’s a top-down structure spanning a couple of states and so designed to limit their participation, they can fight for control of it. He’s right, but he was also under no illusions. It’s hard enough for workers just to keep everything together in their lives; most of them won’t have the energy to fight inside and outside the union. An SEIU member who read my article in CounterPunch wrote about being reassigned recently to a local organized-to-win on sectoral lines. “Everybody in the local has similar interests”, the letter said. “However, this new local has an appointed leadership that has made only the faintest step toward involving the rank and file in the day-to-day running of the local. No mechanisms exist whereby the members can empower themselves. Otherwise, I would not hesitate to recommend that [sectoral locals]. If what is going on in my SEIU local is any indication of what is in store for the labor movement nationally, we’re in trouble.”

Kramer says I’m so obsessed with the rank and file and so eager to bash the NUP that I don’t care if workers have the power to challenge huge corporations and right-wing movements. He then offers the example of Spanish workers from the ’30s and South Africans in COSATU to illustrate the age-old “tension between worker control and coordination of large, multi-faceted campaigns”. Who disputes such tension? Of course, those workers were wrestling with it in the context of a mass movement, quite a different kettle of fish from what pertains in the US today.

Maybe the biggest difference between my interlocutors and myself is in our perceptions of the relationship between union power and class power, and between institutions and movements. I know it’s sacrilege to say this, but I don’t think that even if unions devoted all the money and people they have to organizing new members, by sector or otherwise, it would fundamentally shift power in this country in their favor or dramatically change the situation of the majority of people on the short end. And, just so I’m not misinterpreted, that’s not to say they shouldn’t organize or innovate, and not to deny that, obviously, workers want “the good things in life”, as Kramer helpfully reminds us. But two-thirds of the working class are employed by small businesses, and unions, in the NUP or not, have no interest and no strategy for them. More and more Americans are being destabilized by the global economy, more and more internationals linked exploitatively into the US economy, and the formula of politics-for-organizing, advanced by the NUP and the AFL, has limited application for them. Seventy million Americans have lousy or no health insurance, others are teetering because, with or without a union contract, the cost of coverage is battering employers, and not since 1992, when Bill Clinton asked them to ease off, have the unions been actively engaged on the issue. (The NUP seems actually to be going backward, its document mentioning health coverage as a benefit of employment. SEIU is on record for universal coverage, as are a lot of unions that do nothing particularly to advance it.)

For decades unions were powerful and union members got a lot of the good things. They got those things, though, at the expense of others, their unions by and large perceiving their fortunes linked more to the needs of the state and the capitalist class than to those of the mass of the people. It was, additionally, an illusory power; when their “partners” tired of them, the unions found themselves isolated and clueless, remote from the vast working class, from the remnants of the social movement they had disdained, even from their own members. SEIU’s discussion paper says power was illusory because all the time their numbers were looking good, unions were losing density. Surely the people at SEIU know that an explanation suitable for understanding how a product lost market share, while true, is insufficient for understanding the course of organizations subject to human passions, peccadillos and politics. As an analysis that points to a plan that can be drafted and measured, however, it’s terrifically alluring. So the strategy of some in the NUP (I doubt Doug McCarron has such interests) seems to be: build union power, i.e. numbers, and these restructured, beefed-up institutions can lead a social movement. I don’t think it works that way, and historians like Piven and Cloward, and most recently Dan Clawson, have amply illustrated this. If institutions can’t create mass movements, though, they can do things that help or hinder their development. Currently no one constituency that we might imagine as part of a mass movement is strong enough by itself. How do they get stronger? Maybe by doing things that make everyone a little stronger, by building their own base (physically but also ideologically and culturally) while also championing the interests of those beyond it–in labor’s case, the working class, which we might construe today quite broadly. There are plenty of people in and out of unions who have been thinking about the relationship between democracy and power, and about the interconnection between labor (union and nonunion) and health care, labor and housing, labor and poverty, labor and race, labor and human rights, labor and the social contract, and so on. It would be good if the same energy that has gone into seeking the magic bullet for organizing since 1995, and that is now being diverted into the deceptive NUP, was applied, in true unity, to these deeper questions of the unions’ relevance to their own members and the class at large.

PS: About “the oily Tarpinian”, frankly this fellow has so perfected the distinctively American style of the pr hack, slipping in and out of his principles to suit his audience and moneyed client, that ethnicity is one thing I’ve never attached to him. In old days this American type was known as a snake-oil salesman; next time I’ll use something more modern–“sleazy”, perhaps, or “slippery”, “eel-like”. By the way, I believe Tarpinian is of Armenian, not Greek, extraction, but I wouldn’t dream of accusing Woodruff of making an ugly ethnic association.

Joann Wypijewski can be reached at:


JoAnn Wypijewski is the author of What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority & the Mess of Life.