As history has repeatedly shown, the rulers of “one party states” rarely concede power gracefully or quietly. When organized opposition emerges, such regimes often resort to a strategy of disinformation and intimidation to maintain their grip on power over a nation state or—in a context closer to home–a national union.
After the Landrum-Griffin Act was passed in 1959, union reform groups—the equivalent of an opposition political party–gained more legal protection for their electoral challenges and issue-oriented campaigning. Yet, in the last forty years, entrenched leaders of major unions have displayed a similar pattern of undemocratic behavior and heavy-handed treatment of internal dissent. In each instance, the incumbent administration focused its most intense attacks on an independent-minded official from its own ranks who “defected” to the cause of reform.
The latest case in point is United Healthcare Workers-West (UHW) and its president Sal Rosselli. Along with a new rank-and-file group called SMART (SEIU Member Activists For Reform Today), UHW has called for direct election of top officers of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and other changes that would give members a greater voice in bargaining. Rosselli’s very principled, even reluctant, break with SEIU President Andy Stern has, nevertheless, elicited a coordinated International Union counter-campaign, replete with personal vilification, legal harassment, threats of trusteeship, and/or dismemberment of 140,000-member UHW, SEIU’s third-largest affiliate.
In February, for example, Rosselli appeared on Democracy Now to debate union reform with Ohio SEIU leader Dave Regan. (Regan is now in line to become a national EVP of SEIU, after backing its failed attempt to disrupt the Labor Notes conference in
Past union reformers–like Jock Yablonski in the United Mine Workers (UMW), Ed Sadlowski in the United Steelworkers (USWA), Jerry Tucker in the United Auto Workers (UAW), and Ron Carey in the Teamsters (IBT)–all attracted similar, or worse, attacks when they broke with their respective union establishments. Well-funded and much better-staffed foes in the labor bureaucracy did their best to discredit them—but each of the four played an important role in struggles for union democracy and reform (just as Rosselli, UHW, and SMART are doing today).
UMW Defector Paid With His Life In The Sixties
As Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette reporter Paul Nyden points out in a forthcoming Verso collection on labor insurgency in the 1970s, Yablonski “had not been an active miner for twenty-five years when he challenged W.A. (Tony) Boyle” for the UMW presidency in 1969. He turned against Boyle after serving eight years as an International Executive Board member—the same position Rosselli holds today in SEIU. Skeptics questioned how a bureaucratic insider— “a careerist” in a corrupt and violent union—could give effective voice to the complaints of long-suffering rank-and-filers.
Yablonski proved his mettle on the campaign trail by reaching out to the union’s numerous wildcat strikers, black lung activists, and mine safety advocates. He even opposed the Vietnam War, calling for immediate troop withdrawal at a student anti-war rally held on May Day. Amidst massive vote fraud (that later led to the election being overturned), Yablonski lost to Boyle in December, 1969. Three weeks later, union assassins killed him in his home, along with his wife and daughter. In a federally-supervised re-run election held in 1972, the Miners for Democracy, a rank-and-file slate formed by Yablonski supporters after his death, finally ousted the murderous Tony Boyle. They succeeded in democratizing the structure of the UMW, while providing inspiration for reformers in many other unions.
Dissident USWA Director Aided “Fight Back” in the ‘70s
Ed Sadlowski was a new USWA Int. Rep and former local union president in his early 30s when he first ran for director of USWA District 31, covering 130,000 workers in the Chicago-Gary area. Like Rosselli and SMART now, Sadlowski’s goal then was to “return the union to the members” who had, in secretive negotiations with the steel industry, been deprived of the right to strike even when their contract expired. Like Yablonski, Sadlowski had his first election stolen from him by what was called, in those days, the “official family”—an army of 600 appointed staffers all answerable to USWA headquarters in
Unlike Jock, “Oil Can Eddie” survived to win a DOL-supervised re-run by a 2 to 1 margin (thanks to legal work by Yablonski’s son, Chip). This mid-1970s electoral upheaval threw USWA officials into a panic. They
continued to red-bait Sadlowski—even after he joined the international executive board—and starve his district of resources and staff in an effort to turn the rank-and-file against him. Meanwhile, among restive members in mines, mills, and smaller manufacturing shops around the country, Sadlowski’s post-election formation of a multi-district reform group called “Steelworkers Fight Back” helped legitimize organized dissent everywhere.
As Phil Nyden writes in his 1984 book, “Steelworkers Rank-and-File,” Sadlowki’s defection from USWA’s “old guard” bolstered longtime
critics of the union in established left-wing and minority caucuses; it also “transformed other latent rank-and-file activists—those who were sympathetic but never felt their involvement would make any difference—into active supporters of the broader reform movement.” Sadlowski went on
to lose a hotly-contested bid for the USWA presidency in 1977, but his
backers retained control over District 31 and remained a force in the union elsewhere as well. Over time, as Nyden notes, the USWA moved away from “leadership centralization to better control dissidence’ because it didn’t help “maintain union strength.”
UAW Regional Leader Challenged “Jointness” in the ‘80s
Before running afoul of the “administration caucus” that has
dominated the UAW since the days of Walter Reuther, Jerry Tucker was—like Sadlowski—a former local officer in the
opposition caucus under that name
Tucker’s 1986 attempt to move up from assistant regional director to the top job in 90,000-member UAW Region 5 was thwarted illegally by UAW headquarters, which favored the incumbent. As soon as Tucker declared his district director candidacy, he was fired from the staff. Despite a systematic national union effort to squelch “New Directions,” Tucker was denied office by only fraction of the vote. A successful two-year legal fight ensued. After winning a DOL-supervised re-run, Tucker was finally able to serve eight months of his 3-year term—but faced constant undermining and interference from “Solidarity House” in
While in office, Tucker—like Rosselli today–continued to criticize the union for being too “top-down” and cozy with management. As a result, Tucker was barred from the largest GM plant in his district when he campaigned for re-election. Tucker’s opponent, meanwhile, was welcomed there and UAW staffers throughout the country were each dunned $500 to finance Tucker’s defeat. Then-UAW Secretary-Treasurer Bill Casstevens traveled to Region 5 to inform members that Tucker was a “communist.” The union even pressured the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) to dis-invite Tucker from speaking at
Tucker’s inter-racial marriage was the subject of a racist whispering campaign. UAW retirees were mobilized to protest his appearance at a Labor Notes conference and, later, formed the administration-backed voting bloc that deprived him of re-election in 1989. Nevertheless, Tucker’s New Direction movement continued to contest UAW policies—including the lack of a referendum vote on top officers—well into the 1990s.
TDU-Backed Reformer Helped Re-Make Teamsters in the 90s
When longtime UPS local president Ron Carey bravely agreed to
run for president of the Teamsters in its first-ever “one-member/one-vote”
election in 1991, he was dismissed by the press, union insiders, and even some radicals in his own hometown. Despite his local’s history of UPS strike activity and aggressive contract enforcement, Carey was accused of being a “Queens Republican” because of his aloofness from
In office from 1992-7, however, Carey immediately discontinued the past Teamster practice of endorsing GOP presidential candidates (including Nixon and Reagan twice, and George Bush in 1988). He ended IBT isolationism vis-à-vis community-labor coalitions like Jobs With Justice and the national AFL-CIO, playing a key role in the 1995 rebellion that made “New Voice” candidate John Sweeney federation president. Carey’s administration also embraced a “Justice For All”—not “Just Us”—approach to cross-border labor solidarity efforts. He sponsored widespread membership education about the dangers of “company unionism” in the form of management-dominated “team concept” programs. And, with strong grassroots backing from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Carey launched member-based organizing and bargaining initiatives that culminated in the IBT’s much-heralded 1997 strike victory over UPS.
Although Carey was forced out of office in an election fund-raising
scandal in 2007 (and later acquitted in court on related charges), TDU
continues to promote reform activity in Teamster locals around the country and challenge the current IBT leadership at the highest levels.
Relevance Of All This To SEIU Today
Many observers of the Change To Win union challenge to the AFL-CIO in 2004-5 lamented that the accompanying political discussion—not to mention the resulting organizational split—didn’t seem to be over very substantive issues. Ironically, the much-needed debate about union structure and functioning that didn’t occur then is happening now, albeit within just one union, SEIU. Given SEIU’s size and much-applauded vanguard role in labor, the tough questions that Rosselli and his local have raised about the downside of some SEIU organizing and bargaining strategies are much too important to be dismissed as the product of an intra-union “turf battle” or personality clash. (See www.seiuvoice.org or www.reformseiu.org for further details.)
Regardless of how SEIU reformers fare in the difficult arena of a leadership-controlled convention in
In addition, many outsiders have been forced to rethink the meaning of “progressive unionism”—based on UHW’s programmatic critique and SEIU’s own retaliatory actions (like the attempted Labor Notes conference invasion in April that sent a threatening message to SEIU dissidents in attendance, not just the handful of CNAers there). SEIU nationally has won numerous plaudits for its organizing success, while simultaneously moving in political directions that no longer fit the label “progressive.” Friends of the union in academia–both students and professors–have begun to take notice and some have publicly taken Stern to task in recent weeks.
A group of more than 100 labor-oriented intellectuals sent the SEIU president a May Day letter opposing his threatened trusteeship of UHW; meanwhile, undergraduates involved in anti-sweatshop activity and campus-based labor solidarity at four colleges criticized SEIU for treating “students and campus workers as little more than pawns” in its “corporate campaigns.” Key UHW and SMART demands—such as the right of workers to have a real voice in major decisions about local mergers and membership transfers—are now in the media spotlight. It will take a strong coalition of reformers inside SEIU—aided by friends of labor outside it—to help bring about much-needed institutional change in
In the 1970s, Steve Early worked with union reformers in the Mine Workers, Steelworkers, and Teamsters. In the 1980s, he was a supporter of UAW New Directions. In 1992—while on loan from his job as a CWA organizer—Early was part of the headquarters transition team of Ron Carey, the first membership-elected president of the Teamsters.