FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

How to Kill a Union

by DAVID MACARAY

There are two effective ways of destroying a union local.  The first and most obvious is the “traditional” method, where the membership (a minimum of 30% is required) formally petitions the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and requests that a decertification vote be conducted.  Then, if a majority of the workforce votes to dissolve their ties to the union representing them, they are officially union-free.

While a decert vote can be the culmination of a specific set of complaints by the membership, more often than not it’s the result of a grudge or perceived slight or general disillusionment with the parent union and is usually accompanied by a mandate to join another union (e.g., flight attendants leaving the Teamsters to join the Association of Flight Attendants, CWA), one which, in the opinion of the members, is better qualified to serve them.

Arguably, in some instances the parent union probably deserves to be jettisoned.  For example, in cases where the local in question has a tiny membership, or the company it’s affiliated with is a nondescript, stand-alone outfit, the International may regard the membership as marginal and insignificant, and, therefore, ignore (or appear to ignore) its needs.  Unfortunately, this is known to occur.

Neglect of this sort can create dissatisfaction and cause the local executive board to look elsewhere for representation.  To be sure, swapping unions like this doesn’t happen often, not only because it’s a bureaucratic nightmare, but because it’s regarded as “poaching,” and raises jurisdictional hackles (especially if both unions are affiliates of the AFL-CIO).

Rarer still, a workforce will decertify simply because they think they have a better shot at dealing with management on their own (poor babies) rather than having a labor union represent them.  In most of these cases the workforce winds up recertifying, either with their original union or with another International, once they find out how quickly a non-union shop begins to resemble “amateur night.”

The second way to destroy a union is more subtle.  It’s done through what is called “workplace democracy.”  This consists of the company persuading the membership to volunteer for joint management-hourly committees and then having these ad hoc groups co-opt the role of duly elected union officers.  In practical terms, it’s a strategy that makes eminent sense.  If you were management, whom would you rather deal with—a tough, hard-nosed labor union or a group of rosy-cheeked minions?

Appointed by the company, usually with the grudging approval of the local union who fears accusations of “obstructionism” if they protest too much, these committees are created, ostensibly, to address specific problems and issues.  The issues can be as small, literally, as how to remodel the employee breakroom and what the theme of the Christmas party should be, or as ambitious as how to restructure the crews.

Normally, one would expect the union to play a major role in such undertakings—especially something as important as crew restructure—but the way the company side-steps this is by arguing that if these gatherings were reduced to typical union-management affairs, the union could be depended upon to get all “adversarial” and pissy, which would defeat the purpose.  “We’re here to solve problems,” an operations manager once told a union officer, “not to have you get up on your soap box.”

This is not to say that union leaders don’t attend these committee meetings, because they do; but they are vastly outnumbered by eager and highly motivated “civilians” looking to get involved.  With management leading the way, the tone of these meetings tends to be one of cheerful optimism and phony vitality, reminiscent of those movies where a group of college kids gets together to put on a musical in an empty barn.

Management’s use of the term “adversarial” is pejorative and calculated.  Portraying the union as fundamentally “negative”—as being more or less opposed to any idea management proposes, no matter how reasonable—can have a profound effect on certain memberships, especially those that are naïve, worn out by a recent, debilitating strike, or predominantly anti-union.

Yes, anti-union.  Bizarre as it seems, there’s always a segment of the membership who resents its own union.  Despite enjoying superior wages, benefits and working conditions, these disgruntled members disapprove of their union in the same vague, undifferentiated way that citizens disapprove of their political leaders.  They won’t run for union office, attend regular membership meetings, or even vote in a union election, but they’ll engage in a running commentary on the union’s flaws.

In any event, the upshot of these crew empowerment exercises is fairly clear.  Despite all the hype and hoopla, genuine “workplace democracy” doesn’t actually occur, particularly in those cases where the “will of the people” involves suggestions that would result in the expenditure of money.  After all, management didn’t convene these groups to have them raise costs.

Moreover, if a union officer on one of these committees happens to object to what’s going on and tries to convince the group that they’re being played for chumps, he’s treated as a bully, defeatist or (my favorite) “dinosaur.”  As embarrassing as it is to admit, there have been cases where hourly workers have privately approached management people and asked that a union officer be removed from their committee.

It also needs to be recognized that the rise of this “workplace democracy” craze coincided with two phenomena:  the stagnation of wages of the average American worker (which haven’t increased in real dollars since 1973), and the staggering decline in union membership across the country.  That was not a coincidence.  As union rolls declined, workers’ paychecks shrank.

Although it generally takes a while to sink in, these “empowerment committees” eventually realize that they never really had a shot at getting the autonomy they sought.  For one thing, the company is careful to steer the proceedings in the direction it wants.  For another, why would management go to all the trouble of by-passing the union leadership and establishing “workplace democracy” if it resulted in decisions they fundamentally disagreed with?

The tragic part of all this is that people on the floor honestly believe that, by circumventing their union and having a direct dialogue with the company, they can “control” things.  Unfortunately, a group of novices, no matter how optimistic and well-intentioned, can’t deflect a management juggernaut.  Indeed, they’re more likely to get steamrolled by it.  That’s why Washington D.C. lobbyists favor mandatory term limits.  With an endless supply of fresh, inexperienced congressmen arriving every two years, these seasoned lobbyists see it as easy pickings.

The simple fact is that management will do everything in its power to keep from having to share money with its hourly employees.  This is not an hysterical tirade or camouflaged “socialist” message.  It’s not to say that corporations are evil.  It’s merely pointing out an obvious economic truth:  No matter how much they have, or how much more they stand to gain, businesses want to hang on to their money.

Look at Wall Street.  While financial managers had their snouts buried so deep in the money trough they had to come up snorting and wheezing just to get air, the folks who do the unglamorous jobs—the clerks, runners, administrative assistants—struggled to make a living.

The only reliable means of resisting this built-in reluctance to share the revenue is to have an equalizer, someone dependable on your side.  Someone whose job it is to fight on your behalf, whose sole aim is to get you your fair share.  Like a union.  What’s so hard to understand about that?

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

 

 

 

More articles by:

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

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 22, 2017
Jason Hirthler
Invisible Empire Beneath the Radar, Above Suspicion
Ken Levy
Sorry, But It’s Entirely the Right’s Fault
John Laforge
Fukushima’s Radiation Will Poison Food “for Decades,” Study Finds
Ann Garrison
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party, and the UK’s Socialist Surge
Phillip Doe
Big Oil in the Rocky Mountain State: the Overwhelming Tawdriness of Government in Colorado
Howard Lisnoff
The Spiritual Death of Ongoing War
Stephen Cooper
Civilized, Constitution-Loving Californians Will Continue Capital Punishment Fight
Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla
Cuba Will Not Bow to Trump’s Threats
Ramzy Baroud
Israel vs. the United Nations: The Nikki Haley Doctrine
Tyler Wilch
The Political Theology of US Drone Warfare
Colin Todhunter
A Grain of Truth: RCEP and the Corporate Hijack of Indian Agriculture
Robert Koehler
When the Detainee is American…
Jeff Berg
Our No Trump Contract
Faiza Shaheen
London Fire Fuels Movement to Challenge Inequality in UK
Rob Seimetz
Sorry I Am Not Sorry: A Letter From Millennials to Baby Boomers
June 21, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
Resist This: the United States is at War With Syria
James Ridgeway
Good Agent, Bad Agent: Robert Mueller and 9-11
Diana Johnstone
The Single Party French State … as the Majority of Voters Abstain
Ted Rall
Democrats Want to Lose the 2020 Election
Kathy Kelly
“Would You Like a Drink of Water?” Please Ask a Yemeni Child
Russell Mokhiber
Sen. Joe Manchin Says “No” to Single-Payer, While Lindsay Graham Floats Single-Payer for Sick People
Ralph Nader
Closing Democracy’s Doors Until the People Open Them
Binoy Kampmark
Barclays in Hot Water: The Qatar Connection
Jesse Jackson
Trump Ratchets Up the Use of Guns, Bombs, Troops, and Insults
N.D. Jayaprakash
No More Con Games: Abolish Nuclear Weapons Now! (Part Four)
David Busch
The Kingdom of Pence–and His League of Flaming Demons–is Upon Us
Stephen Cooper
How John Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle” Helps Us Navigate Social Discord
Madis Senner
The Roots of America’s Identity and Our Political Divide are Buried Deep in the Land
June 20, 2017
Ajamu Baraka
The Body Count Rises in the U.S. War Against Black People
Gary Leupp
Russia’s Calm, But Firm, Response to the US Shooting Down a Syrian Fighter Jet
Maxim Nikolenko
Beating Oliver Stone: the Media’s Spin on the Putin Interviews
Michael J. Sainato
Philando Castile and the Self Righteous Cloak of White Privilege
John W. Whitehead
The Militarized Police State Opens Fire
Peter Crowley
The Groundhog Days of Terrorism
Norman Solomon
Behind the Media Surge Against Bernie Sanders
Pauline Murphy
Friedrich Engels: a Tourist In Ireland
David Swanson
The Unifying Force of War Abolition
Louisa Willcox
Senators Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Tom Udall Back Tribes in Grizzly Fight
John Stanton
Mass Incarceration, Prison Labor in the United States
Robert Fisk
Did Trump Denounce Qatar Over Failed Business Deals?
Medea Benjamin
America Will Regret Helping Saudi Arabia Bomb Yemen
Brian Addison
Los Angeles County Data Shows Startling Surge in Youth, Latino Homelessness
Native News Online
Betraying Indian Country: How Grizzly Delisting Exposes Trump and Zinke’s Assault on Tribal Sovereignty and Treaty Rights
Stephen Martin
A Tragic Inferno in London Reflects the Terrorism of the Global Free Market
Debadityo Sinha
Think Like a River
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail