You may have seen the same article as I did. The Carpenters Union, it said, was hiring homeless people to walk picket lines where there is a labor dispute. Now, I must confess, the article did not come as a complete surprise. I had heard whispering about this for a while, but as much as I disagree with the direction that the Carpenters Union under the leadership of Douglas McCarron has been going, I think that I still wanted to deny that this was transpiring.
My reaction was visceral. The first thing that I thought about was how the Republican Senatorial campaign of former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele had, on election day November 2006, hired busloads of homeless African Americans from Philadelphia to hold up signs for Steele. I remember that I felt insulted, indeed, violated by this action.
My second thought is that while I am sure that the homeless people-in both circumstances-needed money, what does it say for a labor organization that it MUST hire individuals to involve themselves in a protest that does not directly involve them? Think about it for a second. Could you imagine, let’s say, Martin Luther King hiring people to engage in civil rights protests?
I will catch hell for saying this, but trade unionism in the USA has sunk to new lows when it is necessary for a union to hire people to engage in a protest that should, by all rights, be one that involves members of that same union. It is one thing for individuals to join picket lines-as many of us have done-as an expression of solidarity with a protesting group. It is entirely a different matter when that protesting group subcontracts the protest for someone else to engage.
It is not enough to dismiss what the Carpenters Union has done as something idiosyncratic to that union. Rather, it is a more extreme example of a further de-ideologizing of the organization of workers. It is part of a tendency that has existed within US trade unionism since its foundation, but has now found new life, to treat union activity as the equivalent of a business, with the same sorts of strategies and tactics.
This is more than what usually goes by the name of “business unionism,” that is, the more traditional, narrow forms of labor unionism that are so common in the USA. This form of business unionism models or replicates-some would say apes-the approach that contemporary corporations take toward the challenges of change, and attempts to introduce them into the inherently political environment of a labor union. The fundamental flaw in all of this, of course, is that a labor union is at least supposed to be the democratic organization of the workers themselves rather than an alien organization operating allegedly in the interests of the members (or, in the case of a corporation, of its stockholders).
In the case of the Carpenters Union, Mr. McCarron took office in the mid 1990s and in his early years was allegedly quite comfortable with comparisons being made between the dramatic changes that he was introducing in the union and those introduced by the now discredited Al “Chainsaw” Dunlop of the Sunbeam Corp, the latter known for his spectacular and ultimately catastrophic corporate reorganizations. It is not a vast distance, then, from modeling the restructuring of a workers organization on the restructuring of a corporation, to the tactics of subcontracting out the activism that is supposedly the lifeblood of any labor union.
What does it say about an organization if its own leaders and members do not think that it is a priority to engage in struggle for the issues that are allegedly important to it? Rather than an organization of the workers, the union ends up becoming the reflection of a corporation, only this reflection is more analogous to one from a funhouse mirror at an amusement park, with all of the distortions that such a likeness implies.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and can be reached at [email protected]