What Does a Radical Labor Union Look Like?

There’s a tremendous variation among labor unions—not only among the industries with which they’re affiliated, but among the working people comprising their memberships.  There’s the guy toiling in an iron foundry in Indiana, the guy running a paper machine in Everett, Washington, the woman nurse tending patients in a San Francisco convalescent hospital.  And there’s George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriquez, Kobe Bryant and Tom Brady.

What do these folks have in common?  They are all dues-paying members of labor unions, organizations dedicated to improving the wages, benefits and working conditions of the American worker.  The first three individuals mentioned earn roughly $50,000-$60,000 a year, with decent benefits.  The others—the actors and athletes—earn millions.

In Clooney and Roberts’ case, it should be obvious that they don’t come close to representing the “average” SAG (Screen Actors Guild) member, the overwhelming majority of whom, unfortunately, can’t make a living acting, and require supplemental jobs to pay their rent.  According to union figures, something like 90% of SAG members earn less than $10,000 a year as actors.

That’s not the case for professional athletes.  A pro sports union stands as a lush oasis in labor’s otherwise barren wasteland.  Take the MLBPA (Major League Baseball Players Association) for example.  Its contract with team owners requires that the lowest-paid player earns more than the president of the United States.  Labor relations at this rarefied level break down, more or less, to disputes between the millionaires and the billionaires.

During a strike I was involved in some years ago, the federal mediator who’d been assigned to our negotiations shared an anecdote with us.  He said that the AFL-CIO had recently sponsored a union solidarity conference in Arizona (a right-to-work state!), and invited one union rep from virtually every union in America, including the MLBPA.

He told us that the AFL-CIO had to chuckle when it received the response from the baseball union.  The spokesman said that, while a player rep would be happy to attend the conference, he was going to expect “several thousand dollars” in appearance money.  After all, these guys were celebrities.  They got paid to show up at functions.  Ah, union solidarity . . .

Which brings us to the Service Employees International Union, America’s largest union (with 1.9 million members).  Lately, the SEIU  has been taking flak not only from its own membership but from the executive boards of dissident unions.  Although part of that can be written off to the petty jealousies and schadenfreude that stalk a high-profile organization, another part of it is understandable.

In truth, the SEIU has made some questionable decisions recently; it’s been accused of moving too quickly and carelessly, and, simultaneously, of being too cozy and accommodating with management.  To make matters worse, the Service Union’s leadership has been receiving glowing, positively gushing reviews from—of all places—America’s business community.  Talk about your kiss of death.

The major criticism of the SEIU and its Ivy League-educated president, Andrew Stern, is that in its aggressive (some say “dictatorial”) efforts to expand membership it has chosen to make some deals that appear to favor management and disadvantage the workers.

For example, it has agreed to no-strike clauses as a condition for management’s “neutrality” in organizing drives.  This is where a company promises not to sabotage a union election in return for the SEIU’s promise that, if certified, it won’t go on strike for  a minimum of 7 to 10 years.

Consorting with management and stripping union members of their right to strike even before signing their first contract is something that’s going to drive hardcore labor aficionados up the wall.  Meanwhile, Stern flies off to China on a corporate jet as a guest of Lee Scott, Wal-Mart’s CEO.  Andy Stern may be an effective administrator, but a Harry Bridges (the beloved “common man,” former-president of the Longshoremen’s union) he ain’t.

Another gripe is Stern’s devotion to New Age labor philosophy.  Despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, Stern preaches the view that, for unions to be successful in the future, labor and management need to put aside their ideological differences and join together to form symbiotic partnerships.  Moreover, he regards as “cynics” or “dinosaurs” those union folks who fail to share this vision.

While Stern’s enthusiasm and personal magnetism have attracted disciples, there are lots of skeptics out there who recall what happened the first time a major union jungled-up with management.  That was approximately 30 years ago, when Douglas Fraser, president of the UAW (United Auto Workers), was given a seat on Chrysler’s Board of Directors.  In the years that followed, contracts were ravaged, promises were broken, and several hundred thousand union members lost their jobs.

But saying that Andy Stern is bad for the labor movement is an unfair rap, one he doesn’t deserve.  No matter what his harshest critics think, it can’t be easy being the president of a union these days, not with staggering across-the-board losses of jobs and a decline in overall membership staring you in the face.  Your options are severely limited.

On the one hand, as president of an International, you’re committed to increasing the number of union members, recognizing that the only way labor is going to climb back into the picture is through increased membership.  And to do that, you can’t expect to come marching in all defiant and militant, because those days are over, at least for now.

On the other hand, if the only way to increase your membership is by diluting union contracts so badly that the members have little to show for it, other than wearing their union pins and receiving monthly newsletters, what’s the point really?

Which raises a question:  What would the model of a “radical” labor union be today?  Would it be a wildly “bottom-up” democracy, where the members run the whole show?  Would it be one where the executive board whips the membership into an ideological froth with its anti-management rhetoric?  Would it one that adopted a take-no-prisoners stance in its relations with management, no matter how unproductive that was?

It could be argued that—New Age philosophy aside—Stern’s pragmatic approach is, weirdly, as good a model as any.  Perhaps, what passes for a “radical” union these days is one that has, by necessity, re-cast itself; one that hasn’t abandoned its fundamental principles, but is now willing to make questionable compromises in order to get its foot in the door.

Maybe there’s more to that deceptive tactic of taking what they give you—of gaining an initial, modest foothold and attempting to build on it—than meets the eye.  It shouldn’t be forgotten that patiently chipping away at the edifice was exactly how management succeeded in breaking down labor unions in the first place.

Fortunately, some unions still have the leverage and whiskers to go on strike when necessary, and it’s important they don’t back off, despite what those well-oiled seminar leaders say about labor and management being on the same “team.”

But for those workers who don’t have that leverage, for those who are hanging on by their fingernails or, indeed, still looking for a way inside, it’s a different story.  Being patient and biding its time may be the only practical way for organized labor to regain its influence.

There’s a saying in poker:  “You can’t win the hand if you’re not in it.”  And accepting significantly less than you want (or need) as a means of getting a company to sign its first union contract may be the right move.  Preposterous as it seems, given today’s fragile labor climate, maybe it’s even a “radical” move.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was a former labor union rep.  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net






David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com