Checking the Union Labels

Checking the Union Labels

The election of new AFL-CIO leaders more than three years ago ushered in an era of glasnost.


The election of new AFL-CIO leaders more than three years ago ushered in an era of glasnost. Where open discussion and criticism of union problems was once verboten under the regime of George Meany and Lane Kirkland, current labor federation president John Sweeney has, to his credit, let a hundred flowers bloom. As a result, some union activists and officials have joined academics who write and consult on workplace issues in a wide-ranging dialogue about what must be done to revive the labor movement. One byproduct of this exchange is a minor book-publishing boom. Houghton-Mifflin, Monthly Review, Verso and university presses like Cornell, NYU and Wayne State have all brought out collections of labor-related essays inspired by or related to the 1995 leadership shake-up.

Jo-Ann Mort’s Not Your Father’s Union Movement and the Ray Tillman-Michael Cummings collection due out this spring, The Transformation of U.S. Unions, are useful additions to this literature of change. They offer different but complementary perspectives on the challenges facing labor today. Both address many of the same topics: how and why Sweeney’s reform administration came to power, what it’s doing to promote new organizing and political initiatives, the importance of community-labor alliances, the challenge of globalization and the role of women and immigrants in unions.

However, as Mort’s subtitle suggests, her contributors are mainly “insiders”–new AFL-CIO department chiefs, other union headquarters staffers or their pollsters, consultants, speechwriters and journalistic admirers. In contrast, the Tillman-Cummings book draws more on the workplace and organizing experience of union rank-and-filers, past and present. Its nineteen contributors include two subway motormen, several auto workers, a letter carrier, a machinist, a former Teamster and a onetime telephone installer.

The authors rounded up by Mort, communications director for UNITE, give Sweeney’s team high marks for its media savvy, campus outreach, liberal pronouncements, sensitivity to diversity issues and purge of cold warriors. Some who aided in the production of the book are, in effect, grading their own papers or something close to that. For example, the editor thanks “Denise Mitchell and her entire AFL-CIO public affairs staff…for assistance in making sure that the articles got written.” Three chapters later, there’s a laudatory account–by Mort–of the $10 million “repositioning” ad campaign engineered by Mitchell to enhance labor’s public image. The overall tone of the book is thus more self-congratulatory than self-critical. (One writer–an outside-the-Beltway contributor–does warn his colleagues that “we must be careful that our public relations initiatives don’t outweigh the substance of our accomplishments.”) There is heavy emphasis on technocratic solutions to labor’s problems (i.e., more sophisticated use of paid media, opinion surveys, union pension funds and new policy ideas) and not as much focus on membership empowerment.

The Tillman-Cummings crowd acknowledges the differences between Sweeney and his conservative predecessors, but they are more apt to find gaps between the new AFL’s upbeat rhetoric and the grim reality of continuing union decline. They express concern about the degree to which implementation of the federation’s programs is still top-down and staff-driven. They believe there’s a crucial link between union strength and internal democracy (a subject rarely mentioned in Mort’s book) and that organized labor’s failure to permit a greater rank-and-file role in decision-making will prevent it from becoming an instrument of fundamental social change. Says Herman Benson, elder statesman of the group and defender of union dissidents for the past forty years: “Before the labor movement can effectively spread the message of freedom and social justice to the nation, it must renew that same spirit within its own ranks and convince its own members that this great movement belongs to them and not to its officials.”

Contributors to both books agree that Sweeney’s ascension to power was, as Benson notes, more in the nature of a “palace revolt” than a rank-and-file rebellion like the one that made Ron Carey the first member-elected president of the Teamsters in 1991. Yet Los Angeles journalist Harold Meyerson, author of the lead essay in Not Your Father’s Union Movement, takes a particularly narrow view of the historical context of the first AFL-CIO leadership fight in more than a century, while other contributors to the Mort book and Transformation see a connection between mounting local unrest and the 1995 leadership coup.

To Meyerson, the deciding factor in Sweeney’s challenge to Kirkland and later his successor, Tom Donahue, was the AFL-CIO’s “dismal performance” in the 1994 midterm Congressional elections, which elevated Newt Gingrich to the House speakership. Neither Sweeney, then president of the Service Employees International Union, nor Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, could imagine battling Gingrich’s Contract With America without progressive “alliances with community, civil rights, and feminist groups” and “large-scale and highly effective political action programs” like the ones their own unions had developed. So they organized an Executive Council majority to oust the old leadership and overhaul AFL-CIO departments along the lines of SEIU and AFSCME headquarters operations. “This insurgency was not ideologically based,” writes Meyerson. “The revolt would not have broken out even among the most diehard anti-Kirkland unions had the Democrats maintained their hold on Congress.”

In contrast, Chicago UNITE leader Noel Beasley, one of the more rank-and-file-oriented contributors to the Mort collection, views the election of Sweeney and his “New Voice” slate in broader terms, as the product of membership reaction to lost strikes, concession bargaining and organizing defeats. “The new AFL-CIO is,” he declares, “the accomplishment of thousands of union activists who pushed and shoved and argued against stagnation, who shook off the status quo.” Those helping to lay the groundwork for change at the top in the nineties included reformers in the Mine Workers, Steelworkers and Teamsters whose grassroots organizing in the seventies and eighties was aided by Benson’s Association for Union Democracy.

Benson traces the development of these and other less well-known union reform movements in his essay, “A Rising Tide of Union Democracy in the American Labor Movement.” He recounts how New Voice slate member and now AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Rich Trumka got his chance to become president of the United Mine Workers because of the miners’ decadelong struggle against authoritarian practices left behind by John L. Lewis. The even longer (and ongoing) rank-and-file fight for Teamsters reform contributed directly to the success of Sweeney, Trumka and their running-mate, Linda Chavez-Thompson, now executive vice president of the AFL-CIO. Carey’s election as Teamsters president in 1991 put 1.4 million votes in the New Voice column four years later–providing most of Sweeney’s margin of victory. Furthermore, according to Benson, the reformers’ “successful insurgency in the Teamsters gave moral legitimacy to insurgency throughout the labor movement and demonstrated that such a revolt could refurbish labor’s public image.”

Since taking office, however, the main priority of the Sweeney administration has been external rather than internal organizing. The latter obviously remains the province of individual reform caucuses–where they exist–within the local, regional or national bureaucracies they seek to transform. What Sweeney and his staff have done is challenge AFL-CIO unions to “change to organize.” To “make itself a living example of the organizing model,” the federation has shifted millions of dollars of its own resources into campaigns to recruit nonunion workers. It has also aided the training and deployment of new organizers by expanding the activities of the Organizing Institute, brainchild of Richard Bensinger, a contributor to Mort’s collection and, until recently, Sweeney’s organizing director.

Bensinger’s chapter highlights the gains made through efforts backed by his department, like the Las Vegas hotel and casino drives conducted by the Hotel and Restaurant Employees. He calls for more coordinated, multi-union campaigns aimed at strategic targets. He also wants greater member involvement in organizing (although one-third of all OI graduates are still recent college graduates rather than union rank-and-filers). Labor’s attempt to increase its “organizing capacity” will not succeed, Bensinger predicts, without “a cultural transformation of our institutions,” “a fundamental, even radical, urgent institutional shift” in the way unions operate.

Since writing for Mort’s book, Bensinger’s own boat-rocking in this area has earned him an early retirement from the higher echelons of the AFL-CIO. He was suddenly sacked this past June and replaced by an ex-SEIU staffer described by Fortune as “a career bureaucrat and former political campaign manager with close ties to Sweeney.” This controversial move was protested to no avail by organizing directors from the AFL-CIO affiliates most actively involved in membership recruitment. In Fortune‘s account, Bensinger fell out of favor because he questioned the cost and effectiveness of the federation’s ad blitz and the “large-scale staff buildup…in departments like field mobilization, which some on Bensinger’s team derisively nick-named the ‘Department of Buzzwords.'”

Such criticisms, needless to say, don’t appear in the pages of Not Your Father’s Union Movement. But numerous contributors to the Tillman-Cummings reader–all activists far removed from Washington headquarters squabbles–echo Bensinger’s concerns in their critiques of mainstream organizing and contract campaign strategies. In six different essays or case studies, researcher Jane Williams, former organizer Michael Eisenscher, labor educators Staughton Lynd and Pete Rachleff, and longtime Labor Notes contributors Jane Slaughter and Kim Moody all make the point that, in Rachleff’s words, these strategies “do not begin by empowering rank-and-file workers to fight their own battles directly, but rather are premised on taking such power out of the workplace as quickly as possible and putting it at a bargaining table where full-time union officials can wield it ‘responsibly’ in the interests of a ‘larger agenda.'”

In Williams’s chapter on SEIU’s creative, high-profile Justice for Janitors campaign, she praises its tactical militance and strategic breakthroughs in overcoming contracting-out schemes designed to keep low-wage workers from unionizing anywhere in their industry. However, in both of the locals she mentions–in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles–tensions and divisions quickly developed because of the clash between the high expectations of newly organized workers and the “hierarchical power relations” of existing union structures. “We built this union,” she quotes Local 399 member Cesar Oliva Sanchez as saying. “We want to be able to make the decisions…. We must be respected as much by the companies we work for as by the union we pay dues to.” What Slaughter calls a “militancy-without-democracy” approach to organizing can boost union membership, plus add to bargaining clout, but, as Eisenscher points out, the ultimate source of any union’s power is the members,” and that power can be fully realized only if they–not just full-time staff and officials–are engaged in all aspects of union-building, including key decisions about leadership, tactics, strategies and goals.

Current attempts at “rebuilding the labor movement…by hiring and training more staff” will, according to Eisenscher, provide only “a patina of activism” and lead ultimately to “staff dependent unions” not much different from the old “service-model” variety. Nevertheless, one hallmark of the new AFL’s organizational style is “staffing up” rather than tapping the skills and abilities of rank-and-file volunteers. Not just any staff will do, either. When Amy Dean, a Mort contributor and Central Labor Council leader, was profiled recently in a San Jose newspaper, she boasted to the reporter: “I have the brightest staff in the county! We have a joke that the first week you come to work at the [100,000-member South Bay] Labor Council, you have a nervous breakdown, because you’re used to being the youngest and smartest, and here are all these other people who are also used to being the youngest and smartest. You have to figure out who you are and what you’re about.”

When going to work for a workers’ organization has become an experience akin to being a freshman at Harvard, there’s definitely something wrong with the “new” organizational culture that’s being created to replace the old one. Labor’s old guard may have been eased out in some places and its new faces may be more energetic, racially diverse and gender mixed. But if the main movers and shakers are appointed hotshots instead of the people who punch a clock and pay dues, not enough has really changed.

That’s why, to a degree greatly downplayed in Mort’s book, it is their “fathers’ union movement” that workers must still try to change. In fact, some sections of organized labor are in such bad shape under today’s leaders that an earlier generation of leadership–whatever its shortcomings–looks good in comparison. One striking example of this is the recently trusteed AFSCME District Council 37, one of the union’s largest local bodies. Its mounting corruption scandals have generated almost daily bad ink in the New York Times for months. How many millions of dollars in “repositioning” ads will it take to repair labor’s image in New York City, thanks to the ratification-vote fraud and massive dues ripoffs perpetrated under executive director Stanley Hill’s reign? In addition to damage control on the PR front, shouldn’t some of labor’s “best and brightest” be grappling with the question of how large union structures like DC 37 can be made more accountable to the workers they are supposed to serve?

Under former director Victor Gotbaum, DC 37 was once a beehive of activity, with progressive staffers and policy experts like those Dean has recruited, who belonged, as Mort does, to the Democratic Socialists of America. They went to work for the labor movement to do good, did some of that and did well for themselves in the process. But what did they and the elected officials who hired them bequeath to the members? Several decades later in DC 37, it’s not a pretty sight. No matter how liberal-minded a union may be in its political endorsements, coalition partners or policy statements, if the members don’t have any effective control over the functioning of the organization, particularly its finances, that’s a formula for decay and decline–sooner or later.

The contributors to Transformation have, for the most part, been active participants in union cleanup efforts. So they understand this iron law of union organization (and how hard it is “organizing to change” or “changing to organize” within the DC 37s of the world). With a few notable exceptions–newspaper-union activist and columnist Juan Gonzalez among them–Mort’s contributors have not had the same personal exposure to the underside of business unionism. Or perhaps their reform impulses have been directed elsewhere. That’s why Not Your Father’s Union Movement needs to be read together with The Transformation of U.S. Unions to get a more accurate picture of life “inside the AFL-CIO.”

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