Unions Do Or Die Dilemma
By Shirley Pasholk
Reporting on a closed door meeting of top union officials, New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse wrote: John J. Sweeney, the President of the AFL-CIO, gave an unusual do-or-die warning at a meeting of labor leaders here, telling them that unless unions did far more to increase their ranks, organized labor could drift into irrelevance.
Rather than castigate his fellow bureaucrats for failing to sign up more dues paying members, Sweeney would do well to talk to Fannie Payne, a member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW), who works at a major Cleveland grocery chain. (The UFCW which signed up approximately 50,000 new dues payers last year is one of the organizing success stories mentioned in the February 19th New York Times article.)
Payne, herself the subject of a New York Times feature on the working poor, doesnt earn enough money to properly feed her own family. She told New York Times reporter Elizabeth Becker, Its difficult to work at a grocery store all day, looking at the food I cant buy. So I imagine filling up my cart with one of those big orders and bringing home enough food for all my kids.
In Cleveland, the UFCW regularly pays informational picketers to stand outside non-union Super Kmarts. Given the failure of the UFCW to fight for decent wages and benefits for workers like Payne, is it any wonder that workers at these Super Kmarts arent clamoring for similar representation?
Questioning the benefits of union membership
The United Steel Workers of America (USWA) launched an organizing drive at McDonald Steel near Warren, Ohio. This drive, led by Steelworkers at nearby mills and a strong in-plant committee, fell apart when workers learned of a sweetheart deal the Steelworkers had signed at a nearby facility. When these unorganized workers found out that the unionized workers had lower wages, they questioned the benefit of union membership. Although the Steelworkers organizers argued that the union is as strong as its members and that there was no reason they should expect a similar lousy contract, the drive was lost. However, the organizers message apparently got through to these workers in a subsequent organizing drive that ended successfully.
Or possibly Sweeney should talk to members of his own union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a union which the New York Times article said organized 70,000 new dues payers last year. In Youngstown, Ohio, SEIU Local 1199 organized nursing home workers. The union then took these newly organized workers out on an ill-prepared strike to win an initial contract.
The organizers, in line with the SEIUs blitz organizing approach, had already moved on to the next campaign. The nursing home workers were part of a state-wide local with offices, and meetings, in Columbus, some 2 1/2 hours drive away. The Youngstown workers were not even provided picket signs or burn barrels by their local union. Needless to say, this did not inspire other area nursing home workers to organize.
A union which does not fight for its membership at the point of production doesnt need to worry about drifting into irrelevance. It is already irrelevant.
A union leadership which views itself as separate from the membership it services, and sees its interests as linked to the bosses it negotiates with, doesnt need to worry about drifting into irrelevance. It is already irrelevant.
A union leadership which views the union as a business and which is afraid to risk violating court injunctions to win strikes, lest its leaders be jailed and its assets seized, doesnt need to worry about drifting into irrelevance. It is already irrelevant.
A union leadership which views organizing as signing up more dues payerseven if it means cutting sweetheart deals with employers, promising them that a union contract will actually help discipline the workforcedoesnt need to worry about drifting into irrelevance. It is already irrelevant.
A union leadership which devotes dues money and human resources to elect friendly Democrats, that spends more time organizing phone banks than organizing picketlines, doesnt need to worry about drifting into irrelevance. It is already irrelevant.
Does this mean labor is doomed to irrelevance? Workers still have the power to bring the economy to a grinding halt. From France to Korea, workers have demonstrated this power in action.
The U.S. labor movement can regain its relevance by recognizing that the interests of workers and bosses are mutually exclusive. To be relevant, unions must actively defend workers living standards and working conditions from the companys drive to increase profits at their expense.
Just as in the 1930s, the Minneapolis teamsters strike, the Toledo Auto-lite strike, the San Francisco general strike, and the sit-downs in auto, rubber, and meat-packing inspired other workers to join unions, and forced concessions from the bosses and their government, a similar fighting approach would inspire workers today.