The Corporatization of Unions

Jim Smith 

every poll shows that workers favor having a union by a large majority.
According to an Associated Press poll (August 30, 2001) “General
approval for unions runs by a nearly 3-1 ratio, roughly the same
as in recent years but higher than 20 years ago, when it was less
than a 2-1 ratio.” Yet, unions continue to stagnate or lose
membership and elections at an alarming rate. Can this be attributed
solely to employer resistance? 

experience in leading organizing campaigns for a period of more
than 20 years inclines me to believe that fundamental problems within
labor are also to blame. Beginning with Samuel Gompers and the founding
of the AFL, a corporate model has been embraced by much of labor.
This development parallels the growth of the modern corporation.
It is characterized by a “top-down” decision-making structure,
relatively high salaries for those on the top and low salaries at
the bottom, an ever expanding staff at the top levels, a reduction
in autonomy at lower levels, an exclusionary structure, a broad
agreement with corporate political goals, and an intolerance for
democratic dissent at all levels. 

the corporate model came to dominate labor, there was the collegial,
or equalitarian model, where every member was called brother or
sister. The earliest guilds were based on this concept as were the
early unions—and their parties—in the U.S. including the
National Trades’ Union, the Working Men’s Party, the Molly
Maguires, the National Labor Union, and the Knights of Labor. Many
of these unions philosophically, and sometimes practically, supported
worker associations and cooperatives where income was shared equally
or according to a strict formula. 

the highest development of the collegial model is the Industrial
Workers of the World (IWW). Its decline was a product of a number
of factors. Philip Foner describes the IWW as a congenial organization
for immigrant workers and migrants because of low initiation fees,
small dues, and “rank-and-file” rule. In contrast to the
exclusionary policy of the AFL toward immigrants, the IWW proclaimed:
“Meet the new arrival at the immigration dock; introduce him
to his fellow workers in One Big Union of the working class…”
As a result, says Foner, the IWW “quickly won a reputation
among the foreign born as their spokesman and they came, often without
being asked, to join.”  

The Growth Of A Corporate Model 

the same time the IWW was organizing the poor and dispossessed,
the AFL was recruiting skilled workers—the so-called aristocracy
of labor. The skilled trades had a bigger stake in the survival
of the capitalist system and were by nature exclusionary. Immigrants,
workers of color, and unskilled workers were seen not as fellow
toilers but as enemies, inferiors, and potential strikebreakers.
A highly complex control of membership and a hierarchal structure
to protect these craft workers seemed to make sense. 

to the goal of autonomous power, in other words, Gompers and the
executive council had by World War I decided to become a “junior
partner” of business. Even as the AFL was flourishing in the
1920s and the IWW was fading, a new “enemy” arose, preaching
industrial unions. The Communist Party and its Trade Union Unity
League (TUUL) began organizing workers on an industrial, not craft,
basis. Repression by the state and employers kept these unions from
being successful in anything beyond isolated strikes. However, they
laid the foundation for the rise of the CIO. 

Congress of Industrial Organizations was a hybrid organization.
It combined a core of radical union organizers and collegial-based
rank-and-filers with a leadership that broke away from the AFL but
retained much of its admiration for a corporate model of organization.
The McCarthy-style purge of Communists and militants in the late
1940s paved the way for a merger of the AFL and CIO that would be
firmly based on the corporate model. 

Rise Of The Public Workers Union 

new element—the professional union functionary—came to
prominence with the rise of the public sector unions in the late
1960s and 1970s. When collective bargaining laws for public workers
swept the country, unions scrambled to hire organizers regardless
of their trade or industry. Since public workers covered the gamut
from blue collar and skilled workers to white collar and professional
employees, nearly any savvy organizer equipped with generic “join
the union” pamphlets could fill the bill. 

the government agencies that employed these workers, their unions
tended to be extremely hierarchical and filled with “headquarters”
staff rather than field organizers. Rank-and-file unionism was diffused
by the establishment of small locals without treasuries or power
that were controlled by districts or councils with a hired professional
staff. There was little difference between the council director
and a corporate CEO. Both reported periodically to a board of directors
and occasionally to stockholders or carefully controlled conventions. 

top staff (leaders) of the public workers unions joined the craft
union leaders in receiving salaries that were much higher than those
of most of the members in their unions. The appeal of high salaries
became a bigger incentive for workers to seek union office or be
appointed to staff positions than did a commitment to union ideals
and goals. 

the 1980s the growth of union salaries had been extended to the
top of most unions. For instance, Research-Education-Advocacy-People,
a rank-and-file group in the United Food and Commercial Workers
(UFCW) union, lists 37 officers with salaries ranging from $111,000
to $304,000 and 39 directors with an average salary of more than
$120,000. Most members of UFCW are grocery store clerks. 

or collecting multiple salaries, is another common practice in some
unions. At the Western Regional Convention of the Service Employees
Union (SEIU) in 1995, “Make the Best Better,” an insurgent
group at the time, proposed eliminating double-dipping, which was
enjoyed by a number of leaders including then-president John Sweeney.
The proposal was defeated after fierce lobbying by Sweeney, Gus
Bevona (president of the New York janitors’ union, with a salary
of $450,000 per year), arguably the highest-paid union official
in the country, and others. 

such high salaries, these union leaders tend to associate with others
in their same income level, adopt habits and haunts of corporate
officials, and believe they are gifted, or at least better than
those they lead. In many cases, they equate their continuation in
leadership with the survival of the organization. Many become “presidents-for-life.”
In the case of the plumbers union and the laborers unions, the presidency
was handed down from father to son. The current president of AFSCME
is the son of one of the most powerful council leaders in the union.
The desire to cling to leadership was so powerful in the Mine Workers
union that it lead in 1969 to the murder of challenger Jock Yablonski
by incumbent Tony Boyle. 

union presidents have crossed the line from following a corporate
model to corporate profiteering. In its May 2002 issue, Labor
reports on the scandal in the Union Labor Life Corporation
(ULLICO) where a number of board members who are union presidents
have made hundreds of thousands of dollars by using inside knowledge
on stock trading, particularly shares of Global Crossing. ULLICO
was founded in 1925 to provide death benefits for union members.
However, since then it has become a “player” in investment
banking and is currently financing the construction of Playa Vista
in Los Angeles, which is opposed by a broad coalition of community
and environmental groups. 

development that can be associated with the rise of the public worker
unions is the phenomenon of “managerial” staff. In addition
to the hierarchy of elected officials, another level has developed
where union employees are divided into managers and workers. With
this division, internal labor unity is additionally fractured. The
income division widens and managers tend to associate with other
managers, while union “workers” associate with their own
kind. Among workers, there is a further division between predominately
low-paid and women workers in the office, and higher paid and predominately
white men in the “field.” In many unions, the office workers
have unionized (usually with the Office & Professional Employees
union), while union managers and officials have vigorously battled
attempts by field staff to organize. 

some cases, the pay of field staff has gone down, but with a racist
edge. In the Los Angeles hotel workers union, highly paid white
field reps under the regime of Scotty Allen were fired when the
local was trusteed as the international union sought to address
the needs of Latino members. They were replaced by field reps and
organizers of color, but at half the salary of the previous (white)
reps. When they tried in 1989 to organize with the Newspaper Guild,
the leadership and international fought vigorously, and was ultimately
successful in eliminating the staff union. 

The Neoliberal Bombshell 

union density (percentage of the workforce) had steadily declined
since the 1950s when labor lost the aura of a movement, it was the
rise of neoliberal globalization in the late 1970s that turned the
slow fall into a nose dive. 

desire of Gompers to have labor be “junior partner” to
capital had largely been implemented in the period from the beginning
of McCarthyism until the wave of plant closings in the late 1970s
signaled a new attitude by capital. The “social compact”
disintegrated with the triumph of finance capital over industrial
capital and with scientific-technological advances that freed capital
from its nation-state restrictions. 

dominance of finance capital—caused partially by the huge demands
for investment capital triggered by new technology—homogenized
industry. No longer was the long-term well being of the company
(including maintaining a skilled and loyal workforce) foremost in
the goals of the Board of Directors. Instead, cutting costs and
maximizing short-term profits in order to be more attractive to
investors became the order of the day. 

the 1970s, competition was worldwide. No interference with the markets
could be tolerated. None from government trade barriers and certainly
none from unions. Less profitable enterprises had to go, regardless
of the social consequences. 

Los Angeles, in a period of a few short years during the late 1970s,
the region lost four major rubber plants, three auto plants, three
steel plants including the giant Kaiser Steel Works in Fontana,
plus countless other “feeder” plants and businesses. The
result was devastating to inner city neighborhoods, which had depended
on the availability of good union jobs for economic survival. Unemployment,
suicide rates, and drug use skyrocketed. Meanwhile, corporate bottom
lines increased as did the income disparity in the U.S. 

response to the neoliberal attack was militancy on the part of many
workers. Plant closing coalitions sprang up around the country.
Bitter strikes were waged against Hormel, Staley, Phelps Dodge,
and other corporations. Most of these strikes were smashed and in
many cases workers found they had to fight a two-front war against
their employer and their international union. The unequal battle
got even worse when government support for neoliberal tactics against
unions was signaled by President Reagan’s firing of 11,000
PATCO air traffic controllers in 1981. Some union leaders were frightened
of the militancy exhibited by formerly tranquil members. These leaders
had come to power during the social contract and had neither the
skills nor the inclination to lead a strike, go to jail, or form
an alliance with non-labor groups (or other unions in some cases). 

The Loyal Opposition 

AFL-CIO staggered on through the Reagan and the elder Bush regimes.
Rank-and-file groups formed in a number of unions and called for
more democracy, more militancy, and more organizing. However with
few exceptions, they did not call for wide-ranging structural reforms.
Usually they were ignored or coopted. 

typical example may be the Concerned Guild Members, a reform group
in the Newspaper Guild (TNG), for which I was the national organizer,
and Juan Gonzalez of the NY Daily News and Gail Lem of the
Southern Ontario Newspaper Guild were the co-chairs. At one time,
CGM had 1 percent of all Guild members as members of its caucus.
This is perhaps the highest percentage achieved by any rank-and-file
group. We were able to dominate discussion and win significant votes
at annual conventions. The international leaders then eliminated
annual conventions. We called for autonomy and self-determination
for Canadian members, more women and people of color in leadership,
more resources for organizing, and merger with a larger union. In
the end, Canadian members were able to leave the U.S.-based TNG
without retaliation (which weakened CGM), a career staffperson was
elected international president, and TNG “merged” with
the Communications Workers. 

retrospect, the merger movement was an example of corporatization
infecting even the most progressive elements in labor. The merger
of the Newspaper Guild with CWA did not result in more resources
for organizing, but did result in less democracy since TNG became
a numerically insignificant part of the larger union. 

argument for union mergers can be reduced to “the companies
are merging so we should too.” Neglected in the argument is
the vast difference in resources and economic might between merged
corporations and merged unions. At worst, the union merger movement
is a form of a “cargo cult.” There is no experience to
which we can point of vastly increased union might as a result of
mergers, but there are many cases of the erosion of union democracy.
The merger of the progressive Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW)
into the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy Workers
(PACE) is a case in point. Leaders of the more democratic OCAW had
initiated the formation of the Labor Party with which PACE is not

inability of unions to organize bears some examination. As corporate-model
executives, union leaders would certainly welcome more income derived
from organizing. However, a risk-benefit analysis would likely show
that the prospects of gaining income from organizing were problematic.
First of all, it was expensive, around $100 per worker in a labor
board election. Secondly, there was a 50-50 chance of losing the
election, and even if it was won, there was still a difficult first
contract to be negotiated. There was a political element too. Newly
organized workers tended to be militant and involved. They tended
to identify with their union organizers, not the remote leaders
of the union. In some cases, they had the ability to turn the incumbents
out of office (when janitors did just that in Los Angeles, the SEIU
international swiftly put the union into trusteeship). Surely, a
better way to increase income was by raising dues. 

spite of all the obstacles, a well-functioning organizing committee
is a prime example of the collegial model at work. The collective
spirit, the enthusiasm and confidence can be inspiring. The energy
and excitement of an organizing campaign stands in sharp contrast
to the ho-hum world of routine union business. As a result, it can
come as quite a shock to organizing committee members when they
come face-to-face with corporate model unionism. 

measures by many unions alternately inspired and frustrated non-union
workers. My own experience in organizing is illustrative. After
organizing the LA Daily News—the largest Newspaper Guild
group to be organized in more than 20 years—I appealed to the
international to continue funding the campaign until a first contract
was secured. “Why should we do that?” asked the international
secretary-treasurer. “You’re just going to get decertified
anyway.” We didn’t get the funding nor were we decertified.
The campaign remains a high point in recent Guild organizing. Later,
after amassing a 100-member organizing committee at the Los Angeles
, the international again decided to cut off its funding.
The local union could not afford to continue the campaign and the
paper remains non-union today. 

lack of organizing by the AFL-CIO has led to a kind of third-worldization
of the U.S. workforce, ala Mexico and Venezuela, where unionized
workers form an elite with health care and pension benefits while
non-union, and mostly workers of color, are mired in poverty. 

Exit Kirkland, Enter Sweeney 

ongoing crisis in the AFL-CIO came to a head, oddly enough, under
President Bill Clinton. Lane Kirkland had presided over the decline
of the AFL-CIO since 1979 and had faithfully carried out the legacy
of his mentor George Meany, as well as the demands of the State
Department. After reeling from the passage of NAFTA, the final straw
for the AFL-CIO Executive Council was the Dunlop Report. This Clinton-appointed
commission was supposed to lay the groundwork for labor reform,
according to Kirkland. Instead, the report argued for sanctioning
company unions. Republicans gleefully introduced enabling legislation
called the “Team Act.” Kirkland was finished. 

“New Leadership Team” lead by John Sweeney, who was previously
not known as a reformer, promised “a new dawn for American
workers” as it took office on October 25, 1995. Unfortunately,
the Sweeney vision was to run the union corporation more efficiently.
Seven years later, the AFL-CIO is still slipping and rumors circulate
of a new round of musical chairs at the 16th Street headquarters. 

Sweeney “revolution” was never anything more than a palace
coup. Called the “New Void” by a prominent independent
union wag, the New Leadership was not put in office by a mass uprising
of the members (many of whom didn’t know who either Kirkland
or Sweeney was). 

there been an election for the leader of the AFL-CIO, Sweeney probably
wouldn’t have been in the running (no scientific polling was
conducted among union members, however, Labor Notes conducted
a mail-in ballot which was won by Mine Workers union leader Richard
Trumka, with Sweeney trailing far behind). 

lack of direct democratic elections is reflective of a top-down
leadership and is an attribute of the corporate model. Leaders of
the AFL-CIO are selected at a convention of international unions
to which local unions, and members, are not invited. At least one
AFL-CIO leader has been candid in defending this limited democracy:
“The question that arises in our union and many others is whether
or not the ideal of democracy and practical reality have a matchup,”
said Andy Stern, a reform-minded leader, who took office last year
as SEIU’s president. He ticked off a number of reasons why
union elections have their drawbacks: “They politicize the
union’s staff, they are costly, they are distracting from the
union’s business and they often benefit incumbents” (Chicago
, “Democracy Dream Still Eludes Unions,” April
7, 1997). 

Seattle And Its Aftermath 

as challenging to labor as the rise of neoliberalism has been the
fightback against it. When the fightback erupted in the U.S. with
the massive demonstrations against the World Trade Organization
on November 30, 1999 in Seattle, the AFL-CIO seemed positioned to
rebuild an alliance (proclaimed as “Teamsters and Turtles”)
with other progressive forces. But even on that now historic day,
as we marched in a labor column 40,000 to 50,000 strong to link
up with a like number of community and environmental protesters
in the center of the city, we were turned away at the last minute
by labor monitors and told to return to the stadium where our rally
had been held. Many of us broke through to stay with those who had
already shut down the city and the WTO. As soon as the thousands
of labor marchers disappeared from view, the police began their
rampage with volleys of tear gas grenades. 

then, the AFL-CIO has been unwilling to enter an alliance of equals
with other progressive forces where each would compromise some of
their agenda for the sake of the alliance. The Teamsters, under
James Hoffa, have broken with the Turtles and supported expanded
drilling for Alaskan oil. The Machinists Union became cheerleaders
for “Star Wars,” the hugely expensive and unproved anti-missile
defense. That bastion of progressivism in labor, the United Auto
Workers, rallied to the support of their employers in opposing pollution
controls and safety standards on SUVs. 

corporate and collegial models as they apply to labor have also
been characterized by opposite ideological imperatives. The IWW,
et. al., viewed workers around the world as allies. The AFL-CIO
adopted the views of the corporate class in identifying with the
national interests of the U.S., even when they were harmful to workers
in other countries (when German workers, or at least their leaders,
exhibited this identification with their national interests 100
years ago they were condemned as “social imperialists”). 

common front with employers led the AFL-CIO’s international
department to become a tool of the U.S. state department and the
CIA. Reforms made in this area by Sweeney now appear to be ineffective
or half-hearted. The AFL-CIO has cheerfully supported every U.S.
military adventure, even those against progressive governments.
They have done this in spite of the evidence that it is primarily
working class youth—including union members and sons of union
members—who fight and die for the benefit of U.S. corporations. 

extremely rare exceptions, labor leaders have been unwilling to
break with the Democratic Party, even when the latter is obviously
acting against the interests of workers and the poor. Calls for
support for the Labor Party or for candidates of the Greens or Peace
and Freedom have largely fallen on deaf ears. This has prevented
union activists from being able to associate with third-party progressives
and radicals and with organizations based on a collegial model.
It has also prevented labor from establishing links with cynical
non-voters, including some of the most oppressed workers, who are
effectively outside the system. Instead, labor has sought to curry
favor by means of monetary contributions to Democratic political
leaders who follow a pro-corporate line. Fearing to rock the boat,
labor has not even promoted reforms in its best interest, including
establishing long-term unemployment insurance at two-thirds of salary
and making it available to strikers. Nor have they fought for single-payer
health care (in 1994 some California unions opposed the single-payer
initiative because it would hurt their Taft-Hartley plans), a universal
basic income, a reduction in the workday, etc. Surely, a collegial-based
labor movement with real democracy would have made these and other
pro-labor goals a priority. 

The Future Of Unions 

this writing, there is no end in sight for the decline of corporate-model
unions. Economic and technological trends antithetical to this union
model continue to accelerate. Unions are becoming more and more
insignificant in the media and in society as a whole. Yet they are
desperately needed. A real revolution in the structure and outlook
of the AFL-CIO must take place or it will surely arise independently
of it. The nature of this revolution will likely be different than
any of us can imagine. However, it may well include some common
elements, including:

  • A collegial
    model where decisions are made at the lowest effective level,
    that is, at the department, plant, office level where the problem
    originates and where the real power of the union—collective
    action—can be most impressive. 
  • Outreach to
    people in struggle outside the union to form broad alliances to
    fight common enemies. This would involve new ways of thinking
    about problems. For instance, it would be easier for building
    trades workers to oppose unneeded corporate projects that are
    harmful to the environment if there is a broad alliance fighting
    for and winning new affordable housing construction. 
  • Leveling of
    salaries and differential prestige within unions. If individuals
    are attracted to working for unions because of the salary, then
    labor is on the wrong track. Working for a union must be seen
    as a cause and an honor for which individuals are not penalized
    financially (compared with continuing to work on the job). Ultimately,
    there is no good reason, except for seniority, why John Sweeney
    should make more money than a competent union office worker. That
    is, if both are doing it for the “cause.” 
  • Reduction in
    the size and complexity of labor union employment as the movement
    elevates elected job stewards to the top position in the “hierarchy.” 
  • A democratic
    process from top to bottom, including direct election of all officials.
    This should be combined with strict term-limits to avoid continuation
    of an entrenched leadership. 
  • A quota-based
    affirmative action program that will make union leaders look like
    the membership. 
  • Move the union
    out of the office buildings and into the streets with store-front
    service centers. 
  • An inverted
    pyramid where “higher” levels of the union are tools
    of local unions to accomplish goals they can’t do alone,
    such as industry-wide bargaining. Trusteeships, which are often
    used for political purposes rather than to root out corruption,
    must become a thing of the past. 

A Final Thought 

is a theory called Glocalism, which in true dialectical fashion
says the development of globalization is causing local communities
to assume more importance. Katherine Harmsworth writes in Glocalism:
“The shrinking of the world reinforces the link between the
local and the global. As engagement in the globalized world increases,
so too does the importance of the local places where individuals
live. In part, this is a reaction to the loss of control on the
vast global stage.” 

may well apply to unions as well. Intensive development of the locally-based
union, instead of extensive development of merged unions, may point
the way to the future. It is at the local level where democracy
is found in its purist expression. It is also here that the opportunity
for developing links with the community are the greatest. This is
not an argument for company unions, but rather for democratic associations
of local unions united for a common purpose. 

future of labor may entail an understanding and appreciation of
those pioneers of union democracy, the IWW’s Wobblies. Nearly
100 years ago, they acknowledged the utility of city locals made
up of workers of all types. In true social movement fashion they
were concerned about the worker on the job and in the community.
The free speech fights of the Wobblies were not necessary to win
a better contract, but they were essential to the dignity of the
working class. Today, the role of the union must be to ensure fair
and equal treatment of all workers, both on and off the job.                                 Z