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Is Union Democracy at Risk?

There’s a nasty dispute going on between the IAM (International Association of Machinists) and one of its more successful but militant locals—S6, a large (3, 400 members) ship-building facility in Maine.  The dispute became so bitter, the IAM put the local under an emergency trusteeship (i.e., took over its day-to-day operations), removed its elected officers, and stripped it of its convention delegates.

Even though the union has appealed the trusteeship, there’s not much a local can do about something like this once the International has made its decision.  Beyond asking the AFL-CIO for help and suing the IAM in federal court (which they have done), the only choices left to the ousted executive board and their membership is either to ride it out or decertify—leave the Machinists and join another union, which is a momentous step for a dissident local to take, even one as confident and defiant as S6.

One of the complaints S6 formally lodged against the IAM was that the local was pressured to donate to the Machinists Non-Partisan League, the International’s political campaign fund.  According to S6 president Mike Keenan, the local is outraged that the IAM regularly makes political endorsements without allowing local members to vote on which candidates they prefer—from either party.

Among the local’s other charges:  the recent dues increase the IAM had proposed was too large and unnecessary; IAM officials were earning exorbitant salaries; per diem payments were excessive; IAM officials were “double-dipping”—drawing pensions from both the union and the company; and the International union was not only muscling in on the local’s autonomy at the bargaining table, but doing a lousy job of it.

Except for the political donations issue, the complaints, if accurate, seem eminently reasonable.  In fact, it’s gratifying to see a local with the guts (not to mention the support of the membership) to publicly challenge their parent union.  If the International’s officers are abusing their positions, it’s only right that they are exposed for the greedy bastards they are.  Union fat cats need to be brought down hard, slammed to the mat and crushed.

But demanding that locals have a say in how the International spends its political donations is another matter.  While it’s absolutely true that the Democratic party has been a disappointment to the labor movement, it’s also true that whatever legislative assistance organized labor has gotten from Congress has been provided by the Democrats and the Democrats alone.

It needs to be made clear that the Republican party is labor’s enemy.  Indeed, if the Republicans had their way, organized labor wouldn’t exist; there would be no unions in the United States.  And from the International’s point of view, a bunch of disgruntled union members can’t be allowed to dictate national politics.

A true story.  Back in the late eighties, when I was president of a manufacturing local in Southern California, a group of union people from a northern California branch of our International telephoned and requested permission to address our members at the next regular monthly meeting.

The northern group wanted to elicit the support of our membership for a statewide boycott they were planning, and also to inform us of the details underlying their decision to call a strike if, in fact, that decision were made (they were right in the middle of a contentious contract bargain).  Our executive board gladly agreed to let them speak.

The group consisted of two men and a woman, and their 20-minute presentation to the membership was tucked under the agenda heading of “New Business.” While their speeches were straightforward and articulate, they were also startlingly aggressive and anti-corporate in tone.  In fact, their remarks were so ferociously ideological, so “European” in their proletarian slant, many of our members appeared staggered by what they were hearing.

Although we’d always considered ourselves a fairly hard-nosed union (we’d had two strikes, 19 years apart, some lawsuits, many arbitrations, etc.), the contrast between this group’s sensibilities and those of our membership was immediately obvious.  It was like having a vivisection panel address the neighborhood chapter of PETA.  While I personally agreed with pretty much everything they said, it was clear that the audience considered these people—for want of a better term—flaming radicals.

In any event, after their speeches ended, but before the meeting was officially adjourned, one of the men (the group’s spokesman) took me aside and asked if we’d allow him a few additional minutes.  He wanted to give a short pitch to the members, asking them to donate to something called the Oliver North Legal Defense Fund.

I was shocked.  In fact, because the majority of our e-board couldn’t stand Oliver North, we felt mildly insulted by his request.  We didn’t like North’s saber-rattling, neofascist posture and we didn’t like his boss Ronald Reagan’s politics—particularly his demonstrably anti-labor policies.  We were stunned that an ardent labor activist  like this guy could be a fan of Ollie North.

I politely told him he was more than welcome to visit with our members after the meeting—and could even hit them up for donations if he wished—but that we wouldn’t permit him to give his pitch from the dais, because it would make his appeal seem as if it were “sanctioned” by our union, which it clearly wasn’t.

Although our answer disappointed him, he shrugged it off and thanked us again for allowing them to speak.  He and his companions hung around for half an hour, mingling with the membership, and then left.  From what I could ascertain, they didn’t collect any money for Oliver North.

The lesson, of course, is that you can’t necessarily predict (or explain) a person’s politics.  Obviously, these people from northern California represented a unique class of citizen, one I’d never before encountered—commie-hating, flag-waving, union-loving, anti-corporate American patriots.  Go figure.

But there’s a larger question involved.  What if the northern local these people represented were to insist that the International’s political donations go to the Republican party?  What if they had insisted that the International give money to Ronald Reagan, the man who fired 11,000 striking union members?

If that were the case, clearly, these people would need to be straightened out.  And if they were so filled with self-righteous piss and vinegar that they demanded that their democratic rights be honored—otherwise they would go the route of dissident “rebels”—it would be within the International’s jurisdiction to take appropriate action.

While union members are free to vote any way they like, insisting that a fraction of their dues go to a political candidate or party that would like to legislate organized labor out of existence isn’t one of their democratic rights.

Just as a patron can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater, a union member shouldn’t be allowed to insist that union donations be given to a union-busting candidate.  No way, no how.

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

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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

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