The Necessity For, and Obstacles To, Transforming the Unions into a Fighting Force For Workers


While the Trump administration has been pressing forward with its hate-filled, bigoted, 100-percent-pro-corporate agenda, the resistance movement has been rising admirably to the challenge by organizing massive demonstrations in defense of Trump’s victims: immigrants, Muslims, women, people in the LGBTQ community, etc.

Labor unions represent one potentially crucial component of this movement. After all, the unions are in theory institutions democratically controlled by workers and dedicated to the defense of the working class. With their millions of members and millions of dollars, unions are ideally positioned to defend working people.

The Chicago Teachers Union represents a sterling example of how a union can bring members together, educate them, mobilize them into action, and win inspiring gains. But too many unions are ossified. The members are disengaged; only a handful attends membership meetings; and members don’t even bother to vote in union elections, let alone come out for a union-organized rally. Understanding why this has happened will facilitate understanding how to transform these unions.

Unions were established because workers quickly discovered that as isolated individuals they have no power when confronting their employers. Without a union, individual workers can be fired at will; their wages can be reduced; they can be forced to work unreasonable schedules; they can be denied benefits; the list is endless. But when workers unite and act collectively, the balance of power shifts. If workers decide to strike, for example, they can bring the employers to their knees, provided their picket lines are impregnable.

This means that unions must reject the culture of capitalism that atomizes people by forcing them to compete against one another. To operate effectively, unions need to embrace semi-socialist, collective values where an injury to one is an injury to all, and everyone works for the common good.

During the 1930s, union members stood together in solidarity and battled both bosses and cops in order to win union recognition and economic gains. But after World War II, the U.S. economy was booming. Europe and Asia were in shambles, and competition posed little threat. Many workers began to enjoy gains without putting up a fight, and class struggle in the union movement was gradually replaced by class collaboration.

Even worse, some union officials embraced the worst elements of capitalist culture. They began to luxuriate in their own, individual self-importance as they saw themselves as people of power. They enjoyed being wooed by politicians who want union members’ support.

Once this logic set in, union officials began to view the membership as a threat to their own privileged status. The pursuit of the collective good was traded in for the goal of holding on to personal power, which meant disempowering the membership. And some union officials have excelled in creating obstacles to membership involvement in union power by keeping members atomized and ignorant. Even worse, since most members have never belonged to a healthy union, they have no idea that they have been disenfranchised.

Here are common techniques some union officials employ:

* At union conventions when the members finally have an opportunity to influence union policies, most of the convention is devoted to presentations by “especially important” people. Membership participation is squeezed into a small fraction of the convention.

* Minutes of executive board meetings of local unions are not publicized to the membership, so rank-and-file members have no idea what their leadership is doing or how it is spending their money.

* If a union executive board passes a resolution, the resolution is not posted on the website so no one finds out about it.

* Officials make it difficult for members to discover the amount of their own salaries or the salaries of staff members.

* Local unions are consolidated into mega unions so that each union member’s voice becomes correspondingly miniscule. Getting to a union meeting might then require driving for hours.

* Contract negotiations are held behind closed doors. Rank-and-file members are given only vague indications of what transpires. (The Chicago Teachers Union made a concerted effort to keep the membership closely informed of their deliberations so as to make sure the negotiations reflected the will of the membership.)

* Political candidates are endorsed without canvassing the members. Unions then make it difficult for members to find out how much money the union gives to politicians.

* Officials occasionally take progressive stands on issues that do not require much in the way of action or money. In this way they give the impression to their disengaged members that they truly are a progressive union.

During economic booms, even bureaucratized unions can thrive. But in the 1970s the U.S. boom came to a grinding halt. Global competition accelerated, and U.S. corporations no longer enjoyed unchallenged hegemony. To make themselves more competitive, U.S. corporations, with government support, began to impose their neo-liberal agenda. This amounted to aggressively attacking unions, lowering wages, reducing corporate taxes, persuading the government to reduce or eliminate regulations, and undercutting government spending.

As a result of this unmitigated war on the working class, wages have fallen, the “middle class” has shrunk, and job insecurity has become the norm. The class collaboration policy of the union officials has proven disastrous. Now with the Trump administration terrorizing the working class and threatening to smash the unions with right to work laws, the need to transform the unions from ossified bureaucracies into class struggle weapons has become urgent.

But while imposing its anti-humanitarian agenda, the Trump administration has at the same time been politicizing the general population. People who have been uninvolved in politics are suddenly becoming active. And this new climate will bode well for those who want to create new unions or transform current unions from top-down bureaucracies into democratic institutions run by the members who are defending their collective interests. Dramatic change is on the horizon.

Ann Robertson is a Lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org

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