The Raiding Game

Membership raids, where one union targets the leadership/members of another union, hoping to persuade them (with promises of better representation and sweeter contracts) to pull up stakes and join them, is, understandably, a sensitive subject among organized labor folks.

While the topic of raids wasn’t “showcased” at the recent AFL-CIO convention, in Pittsburgh, it was an actual agenda item.  And, interestingly, it was the UBC—the United Brotherhood of Carpenters—who was more or less singled out as the chief violator of labor’s “no-raid” code.  Not a favorable brush to be painted with….particularly at a national unity convention.

Raids differ from mergers much as buy-outs differ from hostile takeovers in the corporate world.  When two like-minded unions merge, it’s usually done for mutual benefit, if not out of necessity.  The anticipated result is increased leverage and credibility.  In contrast, raids, infrequent as they are, are predatory attacks on union locals.  The raiders seek to pry the local loose from its parent organization.  Even when the members “benefit,” these attacks are frowned upon.

The argument against raiding goes something like this:  Organized labor has enough goddamn problems without creating new ones.  A union—even a “successful,” expanding one—should neither meddle in the internal politics of another union nor poach on its territory.  Simple as that.  Besides revealing a naked disregard for union solidarity, raiding another’s local is uncool.  It may not be illegal, like cattle rustling, but it’s unethical.

The counter-argument, the one supporting (or at least “tolerating”) raids, is this:  Sometimes things simply don’t work out….like marriages.  Sometimes they last, sometimes they end in divorce.  Accordingly, there are times when a bigger, more prestigious union happens to be better equipped to represent workers than a smaller, lesser known one.  It’s not personal.  It’s purely practical.  Like Tom Hagen said to the Godfather’s eldest son, Santino, “It’s business, Sonny!”

From the vantage of the invading union, raiding is not a matter of “poaching.”  Indeed, if the end result is that the members are able to improve their economic status, then the story has an undeniably happy ending.  As for the members who decide to switch, abandoning their home team isn’t seen as apostasy or treason; it’s simply “trading up.”

I once belonged to a union local that was the target of an attempted raid.  We were Local 672 of the AWPPW (Assoc. of Western Pulp & Paper Workers), and the union that made a run at us was the old UPIU (United Paperworkers International Union), ironically, the very same union (but with a new name) the AWPPW had broken away from in 1964, when the members voted to bail because the International wasn’t representing them adequately.

The circumstances under which we left the UPIU were acrimonious and brutal.  There was an ugly, brother-against-brother jurisdictional battle, which included a dramatic walkout at the constitutional convention in Portland, Oregon, a mutiny, several strikes up and down the West Coast, and a passel of lawsuits.

And even when it was finally over, it wasn’t over.  A brooding, decade-long blood feud followed the breakaway (the newly formed AWPPW was kicked out of the AFL-CIO and wasn’t invited back in until the late 1970s), a feud that didn’t abate until a critical mass of both memberships either retired or died.

Of course, all of this happened many years before I joined the union.  But I learned all about it from Local veterans who spoke of the historic 1964 “breakaway” with the same pride and defiant glee that student protesters in the Sixties spoke of occupying the campus administration building.  And now, years later, here the dreaded UPIU was, on our doorstep, looking to reacquire us.  If nothing else they deserved an “A” for audacity.

The raid failed.  It failed partly because our members were satisfied with the AWPPW, partly because they couldn’t imagine going through the hassle and uncertainty of reaffiliating with a new International; but mainly it failed because the UPIU’s attempt at “raiding” us was so ludicrously ill-conceived it had no chance of succeeding.  They couldn’t have “raided” an anthill with the tactics they used.

These UPIU “agents” didn’t even figure out who the officers of our union were.  Apparently, they couldn’t get a copy of the Executive Board roster.  And because they were unable to meet with the E-Board (the decision-making body of the Local), they decided to wing it; they approached people randomly in the parking lot and asked if they’d be interested in leaving their union and joining another one.  Instead of gaining the members’ confidence, they frightened them.  It was a debacle.

There were no hard feelings on our part.  In fact, over time, many of us decided that this had been a “rogue” operation, something done either spontaneously or independently by some very misguided union members, without the International’s knowledge or blessings.  It just seemed too wrong to have been sanctioned.  We’ll never know.  After a couple of weeks of slinking about, they quietly withdrew, and that was that.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep.  He can be reached at

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