Although this message is addressed to John Riemann, it is presented for wide consumption.
In some of Johns posts, he broached the subject, "where did unions go wrong." Ive often wondered about that my self since my first experience with unions 55 years ago. A few days ago in moment of soul searching I posted an example of my frustrations on a couple of sites. I commented that there has been a long term unchanged trend in rank and file labor thinking. It was a comment upon a condition which I feel is partially responsible for some of the predicaments labor suffers from today.
Confucius said, "one picture is worth a thousand words." Picture a high wall, so high that no one can get over it. The builders who constructed this wall were very clever guys and they had a special objective in mind when they built this wall. They constructed this wall so that if a fire occurred opposite their side, they could not be harmed, not even if it raged for a long time. But these crafty guys made this wall so that if there was a fire raging on their side, it would quickly create hell on the other side. The guys on the protected side are the top union officials and the folks on the unprotected side are the rank and file union members. On the unprotected and vulnerable side are all kinds of wonderful things, inscriptions of the names of all the labor martyrs and heroes, their speeches, stories and legends of their deeds, and the message of a moral working class culture that they intended to be passed down to future generations. This side of the wall is the side of " Moral Labor Heroics."
On the protected, invulnerable side of this wall there is inscribed the union Constitution, the names of all the General Presidents, General Executive Board members, and the names of the members of their patronage system. (Patronage system being defined as; the right to distribute offices, especially political offices and to , enjoy, hold and to distribute within the system, any power, wealth, and privileges accumulated through the exercise of the powers of the system). On this side of the wall is also inscribed all of the business skills, plans and methods of intrigue necessary to operate a patronage system. This side of the wall is the side of "Business Unionism Prerogatives."
The wall constitutes an impenetrable one way barrier between union management and the rank and file.It makes it impossible for the rank and file to influence the conduct of the unions business in any meaningful way. Conversely, it allows union management to wield extraordinary powers over union members and relegates them to the status of impotent, dues paying clients. The rank and file have no control over and little knowledge of what happens on the "Business Unionism Prerogative" side of this wall.
Unfortunately, rank and file thinking has almost always exclusively concerned itself with "Moral Labor Heroics." One can only guess why; probably because "Heroics" is the most necessary attribute needed to maintain ones self in employment, and doing battle with the employer is more exciting than running a business. Another reason may be that since rank and filers consider business the enemy, they are turned off, or feel inadequate at the thought of engaging in that very vital aspect of unionism. Members who aspire to office are probably the exceptions to this trend of thinking.
So by default, a separation and difference occurs at once between the rank and file who are inclined towards labor heroics and those individuals who are inclined towards labor business. Unless the individuals who are inclined towards labor business also possess a firm working class grounding and a fidelity to "Moral Labor Heroics", and unless there already exists a strong, effective governing code, ( a strong ethical Constitution) the potential for uncorrectable injustice and corruption is ripe.
When the United States Department of Justice places a union under trusteeship or supervision, it does not tear down the one-way firewall between union members and management officials because its objective is not to endow members with superior democratic powers. It perceives that the corruption of top union management officials represents the threat of expanding their brand of corruption into the greater business community and commercial environment. So it simply breaches the firewall in enough places to allow the union members to be an inhibiting force against unwanted union management corruption, but not in enough places to transfer superior power to the members. Its the old game of ; "if you can keep your enemies busy fighting each other, they wont bother you". The government fears a powerful work force more than it does corrupt union bosses. So there are real limits to what can be expected from the government.
So what are we the rank and file to do? I personally do not have the ultimate answer, as a matter of fact I dont believe that an answer exists which we are willing to accept. I have no certitudes, no sure ideology, no infallible solutions. However, I believe that the first step is to place as much of the Civil Law on our side as possible by amending the constitution, deleting language which confers extraordinary powers with union management and inserting language which gives union members the unrestricted right to control how union managers conduct the business of our union. Needed on our side of the wall are the inscriptions of a democratic Constitution and a code of "Moral Labor Business Practices."
I do not support measures representing a knee-jerk reaction which renders it impossible for management to do an effective job. We may not like the idea of our union being a business, but any organization whose worth measures in the billions of dollars is a business. Whoever our managers are they will need the authority to conduct our business in a manner benefiting to us. There must be checks and balances to mitigate against excesses by all concerned.
And last, the only way these reforms can be instituted and maintained will necessitate a change in the body politic of the union, how we all think in relation to the union and to each other. How we view, accept responsibility for and influence the business aspects of the union is equal to or of slightly greater importance than labor heroics.
It may not be possible to pass all of the necessary reforming amendments at this convention due to the extraordinary coercive power enjoyed by this management. But the strongest candidates possible who are also committed to democratic change must be sought out for the General Executive Board and elected to office. Provincialism and cronyism must be set aside in order to ensure the election of candidates who must win.
We face a very difficult situation. If McCarron wins, he will act to consolidate his power even more. If other candidates are elected who represent the status quo, then victory will be like a big red balloon, colorful, short-lived, hollow, and empty except for hot air.
In Solidarity, Mustardseed
I would like to thank "Mustarseed" for his in-depth explanation of his views of where the unions went wrong. I think when there is a serious problem we need to retrace our steps in exactly the way that he has sought to do.
However, I dont fully agree with him.
He seems to lay much of the blame on the division between the leadership and the rank and file. I agree that the leaders should have to live like their members live, but I dont think thats all there is to it. I remember, for instance, a hospital strike out here some years back. During that strike there was a business agent for that union who was out on the picket line twenty four/seven. He literally had a cot that he slept on out on the sidewalk. Clearly, this guy was not in it just for a cush life style. Yet, this same guy ended up giving away conditions and justifying all sorts of betrayals of the membership.
On the other hand, look at Jimmy Hoffa (Sr.): Even today many of the older Teamsters look at him as almost a god. Why? Because Hoffa brought home the baconhe won good contracts. yet Hoffa DID live the easy life, participated in all sorts of corruption, etc. etc.
I believe that what happened was that our entire union leadership was caught totally by surprise when the "good times" economically came to an end in the late 70s. Big business set about taking back all that had been won in the decades after WW II. When they started bringing scabs through picket lines, our leaders were faced with a choice: either return to the methods of the 30s (defy the courts, mass pickets, sit down strikes, etc.) or accept that we have to give back conditions and wages.
Our leaders were completely unprepared for this and as a result they chose the second option.
Of course, they knew that the members wouldnt go along with this forever, so they took all sorts of steps to ensure that they could stay in power.
Theres one last point Id like to make: Ive just been discussing with a brother carpenter here on one subjectthe power that the owners of capital (the capitalists) have to move their capital (meaning their factories, etc.) to anywhere in the world. Under this system, they have to have that right; it cannot be stopped. It cant even be regulated effectively. I think that the last 15 or so years show that as long as we accept this situation, we will continue to be forced backwards; in the end, it seems to me that we have to take the position that we must take those giant corporations and put them under the ownership and the control of ourselvesthe working people who actually do the work.
If not, then well keep on going backwards and our leaders will have to accept this and participate in forcing it down our throats.