Who is the Ideal Labor Leader?

Whenever labor wonks get together to hoist a glass and mull over the problems plaguing America’s unions, the discussion inevitably turns to the question of what sort of person it would take to lead organized labor out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.

The consensus is that in addition to being fearless, intelligent, charismatic, politically savvy, idealistic, conscience-driven and brilliantly clever, this person would need to elicit the grudging respect (if not secret admiration) of management, and inspire the undying and unquestioned loyalty of millions of union members in both the private and public sectors.

In other words, the ideal leader would need to be an amalgam of Harry Bridges, Eugene Debs, Mother Jones and Voltaire, which is another way of saying that no such person exists …. not today, not yesterday, not ever.  And even if this person were to exist—even if there were such a heroic figure waiting out there on a white horse—the last institution such a person would consider leading would very likely be a labor union.   Too many obstacles, too many headaches.

But what if, hypothetically, this person did exist?  What if this person not only existed, but what if, despite the woeful condition of organized labor, this person was willing to step up to the plate and try to help the American worker?  The sad truth is that even the ideal leader probably couldn’t fix but a tiny fraction of what needed fixing.  And that grim realization causes our union friends to hoist yet another glass.

On the general topic of union leadership, one difference between labor leaders today and those of, say, fifty or seventy-five years ago really stands out.  It’s the fact that most of the current crop are not only college graduates, many of them have law degrees to go along with their sheepskins.

Look at the roster.  James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters (and son of Jimmy), is a graduate of Michigan State and Univ. of Michigan law school; Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO is a Penn State grad with a law degree from Villanova; Jerry McEntee, president of AFSCME, is a La Salle Univ. grad; Andrew Stern, president of the SEIU is an Ivy League alumnus (Univ. of Pennsylvania), as are the CTW’s Bruce Raynor (Cornell) and UNITE HERE’s John Wilhelm (Yale).

When you compare these polished fellows with the likes of Big Bill Haywood, John L. Lewis, Samuel Gompers, Walter Reuther, et al, you’re staggered by the difference in backgrounds.  Some of America’s most distinguished labor leaders never even finished high school.

One wonders what a Bill Haywood (who left school at age 9 to work in the mines) would think of an Andy Stern.  What would he think of an Ivy League gadfly who stays in five-star hotels, uses linen napkins, hob-nobs at the White House, and flies to China with Walmart CEO Lee Scott on Scott’s private jet—but whose own membership, and the leadership of other unions, tend to distrust him?  (In Stern’s defense, you won’t find any high-profile union pol without his share of detractors.)

Tempting as it is to assume that those rough-and-tumble unionists of yore would view this college-educated crowd with a baleful eye, that’s probably not the case.  Arguably, the Old Guard would see them as precisely what the doctor ordered—as exactly the kind of leaders required to function in today’s complex world.  Why should a college education be an impediment to leadership?  Given the difficulty of navigating a union contract, how could a law degree be anything but an asset?

It’s been widely reported that UAW President Ron Gettelfinger  (who holds a degree from Indiana University) will be stepping down in 2010, and UAW Vice-President Bob King (University of Michigan grad, with a law degree from the University of Detroit), will be replacing him.

Not to be glib, but if Mr. King thinks his tenure in office is going to be anything but one long, hideous uphill battle, he’s naïve.  The UAW isn’t out of the woods.  And considering that Gettelfinger’s two terms resulted in labor dissidents (both inside and outside the UAW) comparing him to Neville Chamberlain, it shouldn’t surprise Bob King when he’s compared to Quisling, if not Judas Escariot.  In 2007, King was reviled as a “traitor” and “collaborator” for his role in ushering in a massive concession package.  He comes with baggage.

As for Gettlelfinger, fate dealt him a cruel hand.  Indeed, one could argue that his presidency was a classic example of post hoc, ergo propter hoc (“before which, therefore because of which”).  Yes, the UAW rank-and-file suffered considerably under his leadership, and yes, they are in substantially worse shape today than they were when he took over, eight years ago.

But was the UAW’s decline Gettelfinger’s fault?  Given the staggering problems the auto industry was already facing, would things have been different had someone else been president?  Clearly, Gettelfinger was there when it hit the fan; but did it hit the fan because Gettelfinger was there?

Mind you, we’re not defending him.  It’s possible Gettelfinger and his beleaguered band of brothers dropped the ball, that better options were available to them, that management stared them down, that it was the union who blinked first.  But responsibility isn’t a binary entity.  Take Mike Brown (FEMA’s head) for instance.  While he was undeniably responsible for FEMA’s criminally lackadaisical relief efforts in New Orleans, he didn’t cause Hurricane Katrina.

Since we’re doing hypotheticals, let’s pose another question:  Who would you rather be—Walter Reuther, who was harassed, vilified, physically beaten by strike-breakers (causing hospitalization and permanent nerve damage), and had at least two attempts made on his life, but who also had the privilege of overseeing the ascendancy of the UAW just as America’s love affair with the automobile was taking shape?

Or Ron Gettelfinger—who came aboard in the wake of hundreds of thousands of UAW members being laid off, in the aftermath of NAFTA and staggering trade imbalances, in the face of Chrysler and GM’s potential bankruptcies, and right smack in the middle of an aggressive campaign waged by the New South, where Asian and European automakers were being offered ridiculous subsidies to relocate to Dixie—a campaign that thrust a dagger in the heart of the UAW?

Whose shoes would you rather fill?

Reuther got Detroit when it was in its glory; when Detroit was Athens in the Age of Pericles.  Gettelfinger got it when it was depleted, rundown and disgraced, when no one else wanted it.  It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that if Detroit were a country rather than an American city it would be a Third World nation, an African nation.  It would be Nigeria.  Detroit’s unemployment rate now hovers at close to 50%.

As to the larger question of union leadership, maybe the answer is simple.  Maybe union leaders—no matter how well-educated—should follow their hearts and not their heads, because when it comes to social justice, intuition and conscience are more reliable than intellect.  Either you believe in advancing the cause of working people or you don’t; and while no one wants a bunch of dummies running their union, they don’t want a bunch of brainy guys who’ve forgotten what their mission was.

It’s been said that the two most powerful weapons working people possess are numerical superiority and solidarity.  There is nothing Corporate America fears more than the masses rising up….not in some timid letter-writing campaign, but in real protest.  A charismatic labor leader capable of energizing and mobilizing the country’s 16 million union members would be a juggernaut, a force to be reckoned with.

And those who are still in awe of an Ivy League education need to be reminded that George W. (“They hate us for our freedom”) Bush is an alumnus of both Yale and Harvard.  So, yes, I believe I will hoist another glass.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright (“Americana,” “Larva Boy”) and writer, 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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