August 9th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Why That Intra-Union Dust-Up Affected You

Go back to yesterday's journal entry, and take a good look at paragraph two and the first half of paragraph three. In less than two paragraphs, in about 12 sentences, I laid out the case for why both workers and employers need strong unions if capitalism is to survive. For many of you, that's the first time that anybody has bothered to explain that to you. Even for those of you who've heard some variant on it before, you heard a weakened or twisted version, usually from the other side of the debate, the side that wants to turn this country into a high-tech version of medieval serfdom. And that is why what happened last week matters. You should not have had to have learned that from an unemployable crazy guy in his personal journal.

That message should have been omni-present. Oversimplifications of it, with very personal stories by people who were suffering and the union alleviated their suffering, should be on television at least once every week. It should be something that everybody knows, so that TV hacks working on scripts for yet another police procedural work it into at least one episode. It should be brought up by widely recognized commentators on every news show whenever anything having to do with the US economy is in the news. Fully elaborated versions of it should be taken for granted as already proven by credentialed experts at the universities and think tanks who produce the policy journals that guide the issues debates of the nation's elites. It should be such an obvious truism that political candidates of all parties pay at least lip service to it, the way they mouth bromides about the need to preserve the family farm and the need to encourage adoption. Everybody in America should know the names of several very telegenic and sympathetic people who benefited from collective bargaining.

When it comes to organizing workers so that they can act collectively to keep individual companies from cheating on the rest, from taking an unfair advantage of individual worker ignorance of economics to gain an advantage they can use to buy out the companies who think that American workers should be able to afford to buy American products, there are things that an individual union local can't do. There are things that even a national union headquarters can't do. There needs to be somebody who speaks to the need to unionize workers in fields where there aren't unions yet. There need to be nationally recognized experts on labor rights in other countries. There needs to be somebody who hires the lobbying firm that goes to the individual congressional staffers who write and review laws that affect unionized workers and makes the union's case. There needs to be somebody refereeing disputes between unions over jurisdiction. There needs to be somebody that TV news producers can call when they need to know who represents the union workforce.

To pay for all of those things, every union worker in America contributes a tiny amount of money to the nationwide organization called the AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations. It's a tiny slice of their union dues. The biggest part of the dues goes to their local branch of their own union, to pay for the lawyers and negotiators and shop stewards whose job it is to hold the local employers' feet to the fire to make sure they honor the terms of their contract. The remainder goes to the national headquarters for their union, the one that represents everybody in their job description or everybody in their industry depending on which way they unionized. Of that tiny sum per employee, a tinier sum gets handed to the AFL-CIO to do the things I described above. But if you add it all up, for all the union workers in this country, it comes to quite a tidy sum.

For the last 10 years, that organization has been headed by a guy named John J. Sweeney, the former head of the Service Employees International Union. By the time of his first election to the job in 1995, a tiny faction inside the Republican Party, made up mostly of fanatical commie-hunters, followers of Ayn Rand, and a few CEOs who wanted to own slaves, had been mounting an increasingly successful propaganda campaign for more than 30 years. Their goal was to make sure that whenever you heard the word "union," you imagined a mobster or a Communist. They've now spent almost 50 years trying to drown out, by sheer volume, any stories of good that unions have done with stories of union corruption, anti-Christian or anti-American statements by union officials (however unrepresentative), and stories of inexplicably freaky sounding workplace rules. And by repeating their story at least 10 times for every time the pro-union side made their point, they brought this country to the point where when Ronald Reagan declared war on the unions, blaming them (and not Vietnam, corporate mismanagement, federal deficit spending, or OPEC) for the stagflation of the 1970s, he had broad public support.

What's John Sweeney's answer to this been? For the last ten years, and for that matter for the next ten years now that he's been re-elected, he has had a simple plan. Of course he has. As the saying goes, for every problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, easy ... and wrong. What's John J. Sweeney's simple, obvious, easy and wrong plan? Since he blames elected Republicans for the downfall of the unions, his number one priority, just about the only thing he thinks about all day, is how to defeat Republicans at the polls. Huge amounts of the portion of their dues that workers pay to the AFL-CIO have been donated to various political campaigns, political action committees, "527 organizations," and any other place where the AFL-CIO can legally spend it to get more money to the Democratic Party and its candidates. What he, and his supporters, are ignoring is that ever since 1980, their own workers have been voting Republican. More money isn't going to help until the AFL-CIO figures out why workers, even unionized workers already benefiting from their unionized status, are voting for the anti-union party.

Giving that money to Democratic candidates isn't going to get the union message out, specifically because it's currently an unpopular message. I don't care how much money the AFL-CIO gives to Democrats, no Democratic candidate who spends any significant amount of his time making the case for why unions are a good thing and all Americans should support them, not hate them, is going to make it past the primaries in any state-wide or national election. The Democratic Party loves that money, oh yes it does. And the Democratic Party knows that without the unions, it has no volunteer base to speak of. If you go to any Democratic Party Township Club, nearly everybody there is wearing a pin, hat, jacket, or t-shirt with their union's logo on it. (And if you ask them, you'll find out that nearly all of those people are retirees or union officials, not front-line workers.) Watch TV footage of the Democratic National Convention, and you'll see that at least half of the delegates are retirees or union officials sporting their union logos. No Democratic Party national candidate gets out of having to travel to the AFL-CIO annual convention that year and having to make vague, unenforceable, unlikely to be kept promises to look out for the interests of ordinary workers. (Although even standing in front of a crowd of union officials, you don't hear very many of those candidates bluntly say that unions are a good thing. They're afraid of being quoted.) Gut that money and those volunteers out of the Democratic Party and the result would be very bad, another giant step towards Republican single-party rule.

And that is exactly what a reform movement within organized labor called Change to Win just partially achieved. By persuading several of the largest unions to stop paying dues to the AFL-CIO until John Sweeney goes, they have gutted about a quarter of the AFL-CIO's manpower and budget. That's a big chunk of bucks that won't go to the Democratic Party's nominees and candidates in the 2006 mid-term elections, and unless Sweeney is convicted of some crime (unlikely) or voluntarily steps down (even less likely), probably not in the 2008 national elections. And if the disaffection spreads (and it probably will), that percentage will rise. The result will almost certainly be disastrous for the Democratic Party. It will mean that more sleazy attack ads on Democrats will go unanswered, or not answered often enough or in time or effectively enough. It will hand even more of the control over the nation's military, and budget, and schools, and spy agencies, and federal courts to the worst parts of the Republican Party. And whether you're union, a non-union worker, management, or unemployed that will affect you directly.

But throwing more money at Democratic candidates won't help until somebody persuades the voters that most of what they've heard about the unions is distorted, unfair, and/or dishonest. Dangling fat checks to get Democratic candidates to pay facile and unconvincing lip-service to union ideals doesn't do anything to persuade voters or un-unionized workers that unions are a good thing. In fact, it's worse than useless, it's outright harmful. When the majority of the workers vote Republican, but their dues get sent to Democratic candidates, do you think that that makes them feel better about their union or worse? That exact issue has provided the anger that fueled an awful lot of anti-union legislation in the last 20 years. But three quarters of the union officials voted to keep spending huge chunks of AFL-CIO money on Democratic candidates, by voting to re-elect John J. Sweeney. And that is why I say that the wrong side won.

(P.S. I really expected a lot more comments yesterday about those two paragraphs. I know that there are union-bashers among my readers. Were you waiting to see where I was going before stepping up to the plate? Or have you given up on me and on my readers as a lost cause, just not worth the effort?)