Although I recognize May 1st as the true day to celebrate Labor Solidarity, I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on my personal and family background in the labor movement that has shaped my ideology when it comes to labor issues. I have split it into chapters for length. This is chapter 1:
My grandfather, Melvin Turner, was a member of the United Auto Workers in Michigan until he passed away in a tragic car accident in 1968. As a child, I remember my grandmother showing me a bible given to her with an inscription from the UAW Local. It was a small gesture, but the solidarity shown to my grandmother by her husband's union family has always stuck with me.
My first personal experience as a union member was at the age of 19, when I went to work at the VA Hospital in Dallas, TX. Having grown up in a historically anti-union state, I didn't have a lot of knowledge regarding my collective bargaining rights, or the benefits of being a union member. I signed my membership card for AFGE Local 2437, and went about my business.
It wasn't until a few years later that I would get actively involved in union activity. Like many union members, it took me personally being affected to get me off of the sidelines. We had a supervisor that was transferred in from another location. The supervisor was incompetent, vindictive, and downright nasty. She would openly threaten workers, many of whom were minorities and elderly. They were terrified of losing their jobs if they spoke up.
By this point, I had been taking college courses in the evening, and had chosen Political Science as my major, and had taken an interest in labor issues. I organized the other workers and convinced them that the only way we could succeed was to stand together. I drafted a letter outlining the gross misconduct and after getting every member in our department to sign their names(this took some work), I coordinated with our shop steward to send a copy to the national office. Three days later, the supervisor was removed, and my co-workers and I learned a valuable lesson in sticking together.
Amara Enyia, a municipal planner and daughter of Nigerian dissidents has officially entered the Chicago mayoral race.
Enyia is exactly the type of candidate that the labor movement should be excited about, but in a city with a deeply entrenched Democratic machine, it remains to be seen if she will be able to land any endorsements from labor organizations.
You can read an in depth exploration of Enyia's positions at In These Times:
This article is in the May/June 2014 edition of the Union Democracy Review. You can become a subscriber here:
WE ARE THE UNION?
Oxford dictionary describes a labor union as, “An organized
association of workers, often in a trade or profession, formed to
protect and further their rights and interests.” Labor unions were
born out of the struggle and common purpose of the working class in
order to protect and advance the collective interest of the workers.
This struggle was, and is fueled by the fact that the interests of
the workers is often quite different than the interests of
what if the group of workers are the actual staff of the union
itself? This is the unique situation that staff unions find
themselves in. Staff unions might very well be the only labor entity
whose interests are simultaneously identical and opposite of the
interests of management.
of Staff Unions
Staff unions are by no means a
recently developed phenomenon in the labor movement. The origins of
staff unions in the United States dates back to at least 1951, when
the Labor Management Relations Act(LMRA) was deemed by the National
Labor Relations Board(NLRB) to be applicable to unions as employers
in the case of the staff of the Airline Pilots Association(ALPA).
This was followed by several
cases and appeals until the matter of unions as employers under LMRA
was settled by the Supreme Court in 353 US 313. In its ruling, the
court asserted that when unions find themselves in the role of
employer, the Taft-Hartley Act “Applies to its operation just as it
would to any other employer.”
With their status as employers
established, several unions, as well as the AFL-CIO itself contested
the status of union staff as employees under the act. In 1958, the
AFL-CIO fought against an organizing petition filed by the Field
Representatives Federation to represent organizers and field
representatives. In 120 NLRB 969, the AFL-CIO argues that it would be
“Contrary to the best interests of the labor movement for the
AFL-CIO to recognize a union of its organizers.” The NLRB rejected
the Federation's arguments and ordered an election. The AFL-CIO
complied with the ruling and has engaged in collective bargaining
since that time. The current position of the AFL-CIO according to
their Communications Department is that they “Strongly support
staff unions.” Staff at federation headquarters are covered under
contracts with several unions including OPEIU, CWA, and IBEW, among
Aside from the aforementioned
arguments over whether the union is an employer, and that union staff
are employees under the law, another early argument used by unions in
opposition to staff unions was that staff unions are not actually
labor organizations at all. Such was the claim made by the Retail
Clerks International Association in 1965 in its opposition to the
organizing efforts of the Agents and Organizers Association(AOA).
The RCIA also raised the claim of dual unionism as a disqualifying
factor for employment. Although this claim was dismissed by the
NLRB(RCIA vs. NLRB), it has been used by the United Mine Workers, as
well as other unions in opposition to staff organizing campaigns.
It should be noted that not all
unions fought the desire of their staff to engage in collective
bargaining. After the Union of Airline Pilots Association
Employees(UALPAE) was chartered in 1951, several unions, including
the International Union of Electrical Workers(IUE), Newspaper Guild,
and AFSCME all voluntarily recognized staff unions representing their
not all early efforts ended in eventual recognition by union
management. In 1960, the Federation of Union Representatives(FOUR)
petitioned for an election involving some 260 organizers employed by
the International Ladies Garment Workers Union(ILGWU). Instead of
complying with the NLRB ruling in FOUR's favor, as well as the
subsequent election results in favor of the staff union, the
leadership of ILGWU refused to recognize the results of the election
and instead of bargaining with FOUR, chose to pursue its case to the
US Court of Appeals. After lengthy court battles with ILGWU
management depleted their resources, FOUR disbanded in 1966 without
ever settling a contract.
In some cases, union management
have chosen to bypass legal challenges in favor of outright refusal
to comply with the National Labor Relations Act(NLRA), committing
Unfair Labor Practices that they are usually fighting against in
order to decimate organizing efforts. The American Guild of Variety
Artists in 1967, and Machinists District 8 in 1965 are two notable
After the early battles between
staff unions and some union management, relationships between staff
unions and labor leadership settled into a fairly copacetic period in
which staff unions continued to grow and coexisted with management in
an environment mostly free from the public strife of the 1960's.
There were a few exceptions, such as the 1986 strike by the employees
of the Food and Allied Services Trade Department(FAST). This
resulted in several AFL-CIO officials being placed in the awkward
situation of having to cross the picket line.
1976, Steve Early, now a labor journalist and author of Save
was editing the daily proceedings of the United Mine Workers(UMW)
Convention at which the union's national officers were directed to
cease all negotiations on a first contract with a headquarters staff
union formed just the year before. UMW lawyers sought to excise this
action from the official record of the convention because, as Early
notes, “the several thousand delegates were committing a mass
unfair labor practice, probably the most blatant by any union, acting
as an employer, since passage of the Wagner Act.” After the UMW's
1976 convention, negotiations with the union's professional staff
were never concluded; the unionization effort petered out as many
original bargaining unit members, like Early, a UMW Journal staffer,
and now AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka,then a UMW lawyer,left their
headquarters jobs for employment elsewhere."
UUR Members Picketing SEIU Headquaters
While there is no shortage of
examples of friction in recent years between staff unions and union
leadership, the most public clashes have been within SEIU. In 2007,
the staff of SEIU Local 1, which is represented by the Teamsters,
went out on strike over low wage levels. There have also been high
profile cases of staff unions openly disagreeing with union
leadership over the direction of the organization. In May, 2008, the
Union of Union Representatives(UUR), which represented around 200
International staff at SEIU passed a unanimous resolution announcing
their opposition to their members being used in the internal conflict
between the leadership of SEIU and SEIU-United Healthcare West. The
resolution stated, “In accordance with our contract, UUR members
should not participate in work that interferes with the ability of
UHW-West members to express their opinions on issues that concern
them.” SEIU leadership subsequently pushed through an amendment at
its convention to reallocate organizing resources to various Locals,
which UUR is barred by its contract from organizing. In early 2009,
SEIU announced it would layoff 75 of the 210 members of the UUR
2011, after two previous failed attempts, the staff of SEIU/District
1199 WV/KY/OH were able to gain recognition of their staff union.
Staff Union 1199 was successful in negotiating their first contract,
but less than two years later, management ran a successful campaign
to decertify the staff union in late 2013, dismissing some of the
pro-union staff members the very day the staff union was decertified.
disclosure: the author was a charter officer of Staff Union 1199)
Even the oldest staff union in
the United States, UALPAE has had recent friction with management.
In 2011, the NLRB ruled that ALPA committed Unfair Labor Practices
alleged by the staff union when it implemented unilateral changes
before reaching impasse.
Unions are not a phenomenon strictly limited to the United States.
According to Derek Blackadder, Regional Director for the Canadian
Union of Public Employees(CUPE), staff unions are very common in
Canada. Andrew Casey, a LabourStart correspondent based in
Australia, informed me that the Australian Services Union represents
union staff as well. There are also forms of staff unions in the
United Kingdom and India as well, but they seem to follow a system
used by the United Steelworkers in which staff are members of the
parent union, so that everyone is a card-carrying member.
if union staff are indeed workers just as the members they represent
are workers, how do they serve the interests of their members, as
well as their own best interest at the same time? What purpose in the
labor movement as a whole can they serve? Are staff unions a
progressive or regressive force in the labor movement? To gain some
insight into these questions, I reached out to Bill Fletcher,
longtime labor activist and educator, as well as the author of
and the recently released
“They're Bankrupting Us!” And 20 Other Myths About Unions.
On the question of the role staff unions can play in the labor
movement, Fletcher responded that they have the ability to be both a
positive and negative force. They can be a positive force by being
“Partners for change, working with elected leaders to help change
the direction of the organization as well as stopping arbitrary
conduct of some leaders.” Fletcher also cautioned that there
exists the possibility to be a negative force by “Freezing ways of
doing work even if it doesn't serve the purpose of the union.”
While there are certainly a
variety of positions regarding exactly how staff unions fit into the
labor movement, a consistent sentiment expressed by everyone
contacted for this article was the necessity of staff unions.
Fletcher, who identified himself as a strong supporter of staff
unions, expressed the reason staff unions are necessary is that “In
any organization that is cause driven, there is a tendency to treat
the staff as almost disposable quantities, and it is OK to burn them
out in service to the cause.” Since the beginnings of organized
labor in the United States, one simple philosophy has united labor
organizations of every kind. As I used to hear J. David Cox,
President of the American Federation of Government Employees(AFGE)
say: “If you've got a boss – you need a union.” It should not
matter who the boss is.
labor unions are to remain the vanguard of the working class, it is
imperative that they remain true to the ideals of the labor movement,
both in theory, as well as in practice. All members should look at
their union and ask, which
side are you on?
The leadership of the labor movement has finally gotten on board with the notion that beating the drum on income inequality is striking a chord with the populist trend that has been growing with the general public in the last year or two.
This is a smart move, but there is a downside to this strategy for many unions: the income inequality that exists in their own organizations. For instance, here are a few of the leadership salaries of some of the most well known unions in the United States:
Richard Trumka(AFL-CIO) -$298,542
James Hoffa(Teamsters) - $ $381,409
Randi Weingarten(American Federation of Teachers) - $543,150
Lee Saunders (AFSCME) - $350,058
Donald Moak(Airline Pilots Association) - $627,796
Robert Buffenbarger(Machinists) - $319,667
Edwin Hill(IBEW) - $400,968
Terence O'Sullivan(LIUNA) - $663,981
*Special Recognition to LIUNA for having ten officers making over $300,000
Mary Kay Henry(SEIU) - $295,870
I'll be the first to point out that these salaries are not even in the same universe as the outlandish corporate CEO levels out there. That's not the point I'm making here. While I'm not opposed to union officials making a good living, could anyone imagine Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, or Joe Hill taking home over half a million dollars a year?
I don't think so.
The labor leaders of the past we regard as heroes were true believers in the cause. They were leftist, usually broke, often arrested, some were deported, and some were even killed for the cause.
With salaries so much higher than that of the average member of their respective unions, labor leaders run the risk of looking more like the Chamber of Commerce than Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill, and Mother Jones.
The leaders of the labor movement have an opportunity to lead by example by voluntarily capping their own pay, and investing that money in new organizing campaigns to grow the movement. Think of the contrast to the excess and greed of corporate America this action would demonstrate to the American public.
It seems that since UAW's defeat at the VW plant in Chattanooga last week, big labor has finally decided to embrace the task of organizing the South. The situation at VW drew a lot of media attention, although none of it came close to the on the ground reporting of In These Times' Mike Elk. (You can read his in depth dissection of UAW's missteps and the outright sabotage from conservative groups and politicians here. ) Elk did a fantastic job of showing how the anti-union political culture coupled with the top-down management style of the UAW created a perfect storm of sorts. However, I believe that Chattanooga was just one of countless situations in the south that could have happened on any given day in any southern city.
While you can surely point to mistakes in the way unions handle specific campaigns, I believe that big labor has failed that the reason their efforts have been largely fruitless in the south has much more to do with a fundamental lack of understanding of culture and social class in the south than it does with strategy. Allow me to throw a few suggestions that the labor movement could implement to truly make a push to organize the South:
1. Train Rank-and-File Organizers from the South - I started noticing 7-8 years ago that unions were heavily recruiting organizers fresh out of college rather than from the rank-and-file. While there is definitely a technical aspect that comes along with organizing, especially understanding labor law, sending in a field organizing staff that is comprised almost entirely of college grads will not amount to a hill of beans in the rural south. Have you ever heard the term "carpetbaggers"? The folks I grew up with are more likely to trust health advice from their pastor than their doctor, which is why I have pushed Salting as a viable organizing strategy in the past.
2.Stop Wasting Money On Hopeless Political Races - I attended the first Next Up Workers' Summit a few years ago, and I used my only time at the podium to direct a statement at Richard Trumka that if he was serious about organizing in the south, that it would be a better use of PAC funds to spend on local school board races, etc to influence things like teaching trades in school and woring with trade unions. This brings me to my next point.
3. Push For More Building Trade Education in High Schools - Trades have always been popular in the South, and labor could utilize that to train a generation of pro-union tradesmen. The organization is already there, and many schools are open to working together to develop apprenticeship programs.
4. Invest More Resources in Community Groups Like Jobs With Justice - Why do I like Jobs With Justice so much? Because they build coalitions, and that's what it takes to win a union election in hostile territory. As Mike Elk pointed out so well, one of UAW's biggest blunders was not working with community groups. If labor takes the time to build up JwJ chapters in the South, and really pushes the Student Labor Action Project(SLAP) on southern college campuses, the benefits could be enormous.
These are just a few suggestions to start off with. We can keep plugging away with the same strategies that don't play well with southern culture, or adapt our message to fit the audience. The South can be organized, but it must be homegrown.
As I watched the situation at the Volkswagon plant unfold last night, I was in a state of not so utter disbelief. I am from Texas, and have a lifetime of experience watching people vote against their own self interest. While last night was a tough one to swallow for the labor movement, I believe their are some valuable lessons from this defeat that can be applied to future attempts at southern organizing.
I believe that labor organizations have a complete fundamental lack of understanding of southern culture that has been a major obstacle in attempts to organize there. Often, labor does not understand that the only experience that many southerners have with unions are the hyperbolic, cartoonish mob influenced figures seen in movies. This is exacerbated when unions have out of state staff run organizing campaigns. I've previously proposed the salting approach at Wal-Mart, but every time I see a failed organizing drive in the south I am more convinced that salting might be the only approach outside of the Employee Free Choice Act(EFCA) that will work.
Speaking of EFCA, the loss at VW might be the best example you'll ever see on why labor must focus its attention on passing EFCA. In Chattanooga, you had a situation in which the employer was fairly neutral. And by neutral, I mean that they did not run a viscous anti-union campaign. Although they did not recognize the union via card-check, they were much more friendly than you usually see, especially in the south. Even with somewhat friendly management, without card-check, politicians and outside groups were able to influence the election.
We are allowed to enter into legal contracts by signing our names on everything from gym memberships, to buying a house. Why are we as workers not allowed to do the same when it comes to joining a union? This system of double jeopardy when it comes to forcing unions to organize twice, while allowing corporations and politicians several months to scare people into voting against their own self interest has to stop, and EFCA could do just that. I just don't see a logical path forward for the American labor movement without substantial labor reform. The system is that broken.
I spoke to my stepfather, Scott Noon, who worked at the GM plant in Spring Hill, TN that is represented by UAW. He was saddened by the loss in Chattanooga, and thought that the heavy-handed anti-union stance taken by local and state politicians played a big part in the result of the election. He also believed that Senator Bob Corker was likely pressured by Grover Norquist and other top GOP donors into taking a public stance against the union. "Nobody looks out for the little guy anymore," he added. "It's all about the big money and corporations."
Can unions win in the south? I still believe they can, but it will take combined legislative and social change to make it happen, and it could take a little while. Don't give up on us yet.
As I previously mentioned, I recently became a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters(IBT) Local 830. After one of my union brothers mentioned that there was an initiation fee, I began asking around to find out why the fee was assessed, and how much I would be charged. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to have an answer for either question.
I actually knew the answer to the question of why the fee is assessed - at least in theory. Initiation fees have been used in the past to fund member benefit funds. Historically, they were specifically used to fund decedent benefits for members' surviving spouses and dependents. In current times, the money is usually just funneled into the general expense fund.
This experience got me to thinking, why do unions still assess this fee? Many unions do not charge an initiation fee, and a lot of those who still do have lowered the fee to a nominal amount around $20. But is charging an initiation fee still a good idea?
Consider the following scenario:
You have been out of work for some time, and are excited to find a job, and it is covered by a union contract. You've never worked anywhere that had a union before, but you've heard they provide better wages and working conditions. You work hard to make a good impression, and can't wait for your first paycheck. Because you've been out of work for a while, bills have piled up, and you've calculated how much money you'll make and what bills you need to pay with it.
Then you receive your paycheck, and you notice it's a couple hundred dollars smaller than you think it should be by your calculation. You go see the payroll department, and they explain that the union has assessed you a $200 initiation fee.
What kind of first impression do you think that would make on someone who has never been in a union before? In times like these when unions are already fighting an uphill battle with mobilization and trying to battle apathetic membership, why would they still charge new members who are likely already financially strapped an extra charge in a closed shop?
I must have a mea culpa moment here. I believe I criticized AFGE's practice of giving new members a $50 bonus for joining the union. After considering the initiation fees charged by some unions, I have to say that AFGE might have the right approach. I still remember the $50 bill the shop steward gave me when I filled out my union card at AFGE, and I'll surely remember the $200 the Teamsters are taking on top of my regular dues(which are pretty high as well).
The question for unions is: Which memory do you want members to have?
A lot happened over my Christmas hiatus this year. I transferred into a job classification that is covered by our collective bargaining unit, which means I am once again a rank-and-file hell raiser.
Thus far in my working career, I have been a member of The Association of Pizza Delivery Drivers(may they rest in peace), American Federation of Government Employees(Locals 2437, 2798, and 17) and a charter member/elected officer of Staff Union 1199 while I was an organizer. Management at SEIU 1199 WV/KY/OH recently ran a successful campaign to decertify their own staff union(how's that for leading by example), but that's a story for a separate blog post. You can now add Teamster to that list. As of 12/16/13, I am a dues paying member of IBT, Local 830.