This is a hot button issue among rank-and-file union members from nearly ever mainstream labor organization in the United States. It matters little whether the union is public or private sector, trade union or white collar. Ask your random dues paying member if the International Office staff understands what they are going through on a day to day basis, and the answer is almost always no. This presents a serious problem for a labor community in the Unites States that is already suffering from declining membership and growing apathy within their ranks.
What is the cause of this dilemma?
I believe there are two main factors that have led to the disconnect between the international and the local levels of the labor movement:
- Over the last decade or two, labor unions have all but abandoned the practice of identifying potential leaders from their rank-and-file members and then training them into leaders at the international level. It has become far too common for labor organizations to recruit kids right out of college to become staff members at the national office. Hiring them as organizers is even more common. The problem with this is that your average Yalie has no clue what it's like to work in a steel factory, or to be a housekeeper at a hotel. Chances are, the closest they have ever come to real work is the federal work-study program. I don't mean to disparage education. It is very valuable and important, but it is not more important than real life experience. Members of the working class resent some ivy league kid who's never had his hands dirty insinuating that he feels their pain.
- Labor unions have wasted an obscene amount of money on Political Action Committees that frankly have not yielded results even remotely close to being on par with what has been spent. The fact that has somehow managed to escape the leaders of the labor movement is that the biggest successes that were achieved were not the result of political action funds. They were the result of forcing our will on management(sit-down strikes ring a bell?).
How do we fix the problem?
We need to step up our efforts to recognize rank-and-file members who, given the necessary training, could be effective leaders. I don't think we need to stop hiring recent graduates, but there has to be a healthy balance.
The time for unions to take the fight to the streets is long past due. We need to build another public movement to mobilize our members in real actions that produce real results. In case you were wondering, I'm not talking about canvassing and labor walks here. What I'm talking about is taking large groups of workers to town halls and the halls of congressional office buildings, and corporate offices. We don't need several million dollars to win this fight.
We just have to find the heart to win again.