While we wait for labor law reform, here are a few things unions can do.
President Bush, a scion of great wealth who has never had to earn an honest living, has abruptly wiped out the jobs, retirement security and health benefits of 850,000 blue- and white-collar
At a "Lean Workplace School" for union members, sponsored by the monthly
magazine Labor Notes in 1996, the discussion centered around how
to fight employers' speed-up and worker-manageme
Unions have improved their political game but are unhappy with the
he Powers That Be constantly try to keep the progressive majority
divided: workers against environmentalists, enviros against farmers,
farmers against consumers, consumers against workers, and around and
around it goes. As we squawk and squabble with each other, they scoot
off with ever more of our money and power, laughing all the way.
It's when we break this self-defeating circle that we put a little
progress back in "progressive," much to the consternation of those
Powers That Be, as we've seen recently with coalition efforts to pass
everything from living-wage ordinances to public financing of elections.
It's never easy to forge such coalitions--about like trying to load
frogs in a wheelbarrow--but it's essential to the development of a true
progressive movement that can be stronger than our separate parts.
If you were to map out a rational coalition strategy for a movement, you
probably wouldn't start by trying to link farmers and farmworkers, two
groups that have a long history of animosity and conflict. But
organizing a movement sometimes has less to do with rationality than it
does with creativity and opportunity, and, as Guadalupe Gamboa puts it,
"In times of trouble is when people are open to new ideas."
A Different Way
Lupe Gamboa is a regional director of the United Farm Workers of
America (UFW), and from his base in Washington State this grassroots
union leader knows plenty about times of trouble. The number-one crop
there is apples, mostly produced around the central Washington towns of
Wenatchee and Yakima. The apples are picked and packed by some 60,000
farmworkers, of whom 95 percent are Mexicans, averaging only $7,000 a
year in pay, with no benefits. They live in cramped and often squalid
housing, are constantly exposed to pesticides and suffer everything from
ruined backs to early death as they toil in one of America's most
So, time to strike against the apple growers, right?
No, says Gamboa and the UFW, we need a different way, because family
farmers are not really the power in this multibillion-dollar industry.
Indeed, farmers are suffering too, typically getting less money for
their apples than it costs to produce them, which means they're being
squeezed out of business. It's not that they're inefficient producers
but that, ironically, both the apple farmers and workers are literally
at the bottom of a food chain controlled by massive, monopolistic
middlemen dictating prices from far-away corporate headquarters.
In the big-business fresh-apple economy, those who do the most get the
least, which is perverse since, after all, an apple is an apple. From
tree to you, very little has to be done to it. Yet only a pittance of
what you pay in the supermarket trickles back to the actual producers.
Here's how today's apple dollar is sliced: Workers get 4 cents, the
farmer gets 7 cents, wholesalers and transporters take 21 cents and then
comes the hog. The retailers, dominated by Wal-Mart and Safeway, grab 68
cents of every dollar.
These powerhouses have consolidated and nationalized their purchasing
operations, eliminating regional buyers that dealt with individual
growers. This further concentrates the big chains' buying power.
Wal-Mart, now the largest grocery chain in the United States, proudly
proclaims that it offers "Low Prices, Always," but those low prices (and
high profits) are derived from its ability to bully the last dime from
suppliers and extract the last ounce of toil from labor. Someone down
the line always pays for Wal-Mart's cutthroat practices, and in apples
those someones are the hard-hit farmers and the oppressed farmworkers,
neither of whom Wal-Mart's ruling billionaires have to look in the eyes.
"Up to now we've been fighting with the employers," says Lupe Gamboa,
"but it's time to take on the retailers." Taking them on, however,
includes a positive and creative initiative that UFW is proposing: Fair
Trade Apples. Rather than surrender to the top-down restructuring of the
industry, the Fair Trade campaign creates an economic partnership among
the union, willing growers, retailers and consumers.
A Nickel's Worth of Fairness
At the heart of the plan is a Fair Trade price premium that would come
back to the growers and workers. Retailers would pay a bit extra per
pound, either eating this small increase or passing it along to us apple
buyers. Fair Trade Apples would bear stickers with the UFW's black eagle
symbol, certifying to consumers that these fruits allow the farmer to
earn a fairer return and workers to earn a fairer wage. As little as a
nickel-a-pound premium could make the difference, a negligible sum on a
high-volume, highly profitable grocery item.
The Fair Trade process begins in the orchards, where growers would agree
to a union contract assuring better wages, a small pension and safety
and health protections for apple workers. In turn, the farmers get an
able and stable work force, a certified UFW label on their apples that
carries special clout with consumers, and a premium price. Grocers get a
premium product that can generate extra sales and a ton of community
The key is you and me. As retailers have learned from organics, fair
trade coffee and no-sweat garments, there's a growing market of
consumers who care about how products are produced--care to the point
that they'll pay more if necessary. UFW is betting that we'll also be
there for apples, and it's planning a grassroots campaign through
churches, campuses, unions, consumer groups and other networks.
One grower of organic apples is on the verge of signing the first
contract, and some two dozen co-op grocers on the West Coast and in
Minnesota are prepared to be the first retailers to market them. If it
works with apples, it can work with other crops, solidifying the
farmer/farmworker coalition and bringing a measure of progress to fields
long barren of justice. To offer your support, contact the Fair Trade
Apple Campaign at (206) 789-1947 or email@example.com.
I was born into the House of Labor. My father was a Teamster who drove a truck for thirty-five years. He died with his first retirement check in his pocket, uncashed.
Even shrunken from its high point, the Teamsters union is a major force
in the American labor movement--for both good and ill. On the plus side,
building on its celebrated UPS strike of 1997, the union just negotiated
respectable wage increases for full-time workers, though as
BusinessWeek concluded, the agreement "doesn't deliver for
part-timers." On the downside, Teamsters' failures to organize
effectively hold back organized labor's drive to grow. In any case, much
of the credit for the rise from its nadir under mob control goes to a
1989 consent decree with the Justice Department, which has removed
hundreds of mob-influenced or otherwise corrupt leaders and given
members the right to elect major officers directly. Now Teamsters
president James Hoffa Jr. has made ending the consent decree and its
institutions--like the Independent Review Board (IRB), which
investigates and punishes corruption--his top priority.
That would be a bad move. It would risk undoing the good that pressure
from federal oversight has wrought, including gains in formal democracy
that surpass those at many other unions, such as last year's revision of
the constitution to mandate direct elections by members. But neither the
IRB nor internal union efforts at reform have yet succeeded in
establishing "a culture of democracy within the union," which the judge
overseeing the Teamsters identified as one of the two main goals of the
consent decree. Hoffa's internal structure to investigate and punish
corruption, RISE (Respect, Integrity, Strength and Ethics), so far has
only codified rules and done historical research, and Hoffa plans to put
it in action only after government oversight ends. Union democracy
experts, like professors Clyde Summers of the University of Pennsylvania
Law School and Michael Goldberg of Widener Law School, as well as the
Association for Union Democracy, argue that RISE is not sufficiently
independent to do the job and that top Teamsters brass could easily
override it. The Teamsters are certainly not the only union lacking a
robust democratic culture, but the Teamsters' unique history makes it
crucial that reforms are solidly secured.
The risks of backsliding are not just theoretical. In May the IRB
permanently barred from the union two of Hoffa's closest associates,
William Hogan Jr., president of Chicago's Joint Council 25, and Dane
Passo, Hoffa's former Midwest campaign manager and special assistant.
They were disciplined for trying for two years to force the Las Vegas
local to permit a mob-linked labor broker (of which Hogan's brother was
vice president) to provide low-wage, nonunion workers for convention
setup work, thus threatening to undermine the Teamsters contract and
displace union members.
Although the IRB did not reprimand Hoffa, he was distressingly close to
the corrupt deal-making. He knew the character of Hogan, who was Hoffa's
initial pick as running mate until the IRB charged Hogan with nepotism
and corruption. Passo had a history of physically attacking dissidents.
Hoffa also admitted receiving a "general overview" of the proposed deal
in a Chicago lunch meeting with Hogan and the broker's president. He
agreed to Passo's requests to put the local into trusteeship and later
to fire the assistant trustee and then the trustee when they resisted
the deal. But in March 2001 Hoffa rebuffed Hogan's bid to negotiate the
Teamsters' convention-industry contract in Las Vegas "because of the
background of all the things that have happened with the IRB," he told
investigators. Attorney Matt Lydon, who is appealing Hogan's expulsion,
said, "I don't know of anything that was kept secret from Hoffa or
anyone else about what [Hogan] was doing."
Union spokesman Brian Rainville argues that the initial aim of the
consent decree has been accomplished, and that continuing it simply
costs too much. But much of the expense would have occurred under any
regime that conducted democratic elections and investigated internal
wrongdoing. The Teamsters must demonstrate that RISE can do the job and
establish a final review board independent of Teamsters officialdom
before the IRB can be eliminated. "Of course, the Teamsters should
become a union like other unions," said Teamsters for a Democratic Union
organizer Ken Paff. "Rather than just complain about the IRB, prove you
can do it. Clean up your own house."
IRB decisions have not been beyond criticism. Supporters of former
president Ron Carey, for example, say that Carey's acquittal last
October on federal charges that he committed perjury in denying that he
knew about the scheme to embezzle union funds for his election raises
questions about the IRB's decision to expel him from the union. But
without some independent outside force, there would have been less
progress in reforming the Teamsters.
Ultimately, democracy should make the Teamsters and the labor movement
stronger. The union's desperate focus on ending the consent decree is
doing the opposite. It has partly driven their courtship of Republicans,
from their full-throated but failed support for Bush's plan to drill in
the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Hoffa's recent vote against
funding the AFL-CIO's successful political mobilization, because he
wants to give 30 percent of his support to the GOP. Also, unlike unions
such as the letter carriers and utility workers, Hoffa supports Bush's
controversial Terrorism Information and Prevention System (TIPS), which
would try to turn UPS workers into government informers. Although a new
dues increase will boost funds for organizing and strike pay, members
have more reason to worry about proliferating multiple salaries for
officers and about the decline in organizing victories and expenditures
than about the costs of federal oversight. Ending the consent decree
wouldn't have salvaged a failed organizing strike against the ruthlessly
antiunion Overnite, but it might have let a sweetheart deal undermine
Las Vegas Teamsters. Democracy, including ferreting out corruption, is
worth the price, and democracy in the Teamsters still needs outside
Attempts to organize are squelched by a flying column of
Labor-backed politicians are being asked to return the favor in union fights.
Unions are gradually making fuller use of the Internet's capacities to
improve communication with their own staffs or members. But increasingly
they are also using the web to recruit new members or to establish
"virtual communities" of union supporters in arenas not yet amenable to
the standard collective-bargaining model.
Alliance@IBM (www.allianceibm.org) is an example of an effective
Net-supported minority union, operating without a demonstrated pro-union
majority and without a collective-bargaining contract at a traditional
nonunion company. The alliance provides information and advice to
workers at IBM through the web. A similar effort at a partially
organized employer is WAGE ("Workers at GE," www.geworkersunited.org), which draws on contributions from fourteen cooperating
international unions. The Microsoft-inflected WashTech
(www.washtech.org) and the Australian IT Workers Alliance
(www.itworkers-alliance.org) are open-source unions that are closer to
craft unions or occupational associations. Both are responsive to the
distinctive professional needs of these workers, such as access to a
variety of job experiences and additional formal education, and the
portability of high-level benefits when changing jobs.
The National Writers Union (www.nwu.org), a UAW affiliate, is another
example of a union virtually created off the Net. It provides
information and advice--including extensive job postings--to members,
and it lobbies on their behalf, most spectacularly in the recent Supreme
Court decision it won on freelance worker copyright rights. But most of
its members work without a collectively bargained contract.
In Britain, UNISON (the largest union in the country) and the National
Union of Students have a website that tells student workers their rights
and gives them advice about how to deal with workplace problems
(www.troubleatwork.org.uk). It is a particularly engaging and practical
illustration of how concrete problems can be addressed through Net
Finally, for a more geographically defined labor community, take a look
at the website of the King County AFL-CIO (www.kclc.org), the Seattle
central labor council that uses the Net to coordinate its own business,
bring community and labor groups together for discussion and common
action, post messages and general information to the broader community,
and otherwise create a "virtual" union hall with much of the spirit and
dense activity that used to be common in actual union halls in major