Monday, August 25, 2008

Hollow Unions

One of the foundational purposes of this blog was to be an place for five people currently or formally involved in America's labor movement to comment on the current state of the movement. Much like unions themselves, we have been easily distracted by electoral politics and bright shiny things.

Back to basics.
I don't want to speak for my fellow OGians, but I am a believer in strong membership involvement and control of the labor movement. Whether the goal is to build a vibrant social justice movement centered on union rights or to win better wages and benefits, the membership must lead. They are the union's strength. Not just in terms of a strike, but in the everyday maintaince of the contract, knowledge about workplace issues, and (yes) political news.

Those of us who have spent way too much time debating union-race politics in Detroit in the 1940s know that "the will of the membership" is not always progressive, community-based, or farsighted. One the other hand, at times the union membership can be far out ahead of what is realistic to achieve at a bargaining table or in a grievance hearing. The key to success is to be open in communication, constantly talking, always in touch, and to know that it is the members' union.

As such, regrowing our labor movement will be very difficult. It is a lot of hard work getting the membership involved in a union. People tend to be busy these days. No one has free time. Getting people to make time in their schedule for a union meeting is difficult. And having a meeting with the goal of making sure everyone has a voice and everyone feels comfortable with the decision reached is not easy. But it is this hard work that cements people to their union. People will fight for something they have built.

Unfortunately, our friends at the Service Employees International Union have taken a different approach to unionism. In many areas of the country and in different service sectors, SEIU has negotiated agreements with employers whereby employers allow SEIU to organize certain workplaces, but not others. But "organize" is a misnomer. Before SEIU even enters the workplace, they negotiate the first contract with the employer, setting wages, benefits and working conditions without any input from their future members. Some contracts have provisions that prohibit employees from reporting unsafe working conditions or violations of state and federal laws. These agreements are usually secret and only leak out when disgruntled union members speak out.

Inside Higher Ed has an article on what happened at the University of North Carolina when SEIU signed one of their secret deals and left a motivated workforce with no union.

SEIU routinely denies that these agreements exist, but when presented with overwhelming evidence, SEIU typically falls back on the argument that without these secret deals, workers wouldn't be able to unionize at all, given employer resistance to unions. Better to have a quarter of the workforce in a union with a non-negotiable contract than to not have anyone in a union at all, they argue.

Except that once in the union, SEIU members aren't allowed much of a voice there either. The members of United Healthcare Workers-West have dissented from SEIU's secret deals for nursing home workers in California, so SEIU is attempting to break up that local and put those members in more compliant locals. Even SEIU members who are generally happy with and proud of their union complain that they have little to no say in what their union does.

For his willingness to completely leave the members out of decisions about their union, SEIU President Andy Stern is hailed as a visionary. Mostly he is hailed as such by people outside of the union movement. Mostly he has been hailed as such by people who have a vested interest in seeing a weak union movement. It is no coincidence that he became a media darling right around the time he was dividing the labor movement. When Stern speaks of creating one big labor movement that speaks with one voice, he can sound like a 1930s union radical. He sounds like the kind of powerful labor leader that we look back on with nostalgia. Unfortunately, SEIU operates in a a way that makes it clear that there is only one voice that matters, Stern's. He does not seem terribly interested in building a movement of workers who seek to challenge the power of the bosses.

We must find a way to prevent the SEIU model from becoming any kind of national model. SEIU cannot be the future of the labor movement, only the end of it. While SEIU is rightly celebrated for diversifying the American labor movement, we cannot forgive their efforts to create hollow unions. No lasting structure can be built on such a weak foundation.

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