Do Unions Sometimes Behave Like Cults?

Paul Garver

On November 18 Steven Greenhouse published an article in the New York Times entitled Some Organizers Protest Their Union’s Tactics.” In the article, several former organizers for Unite-Here, one now working for SEIU’s Workers United (WU/SEIU), alleged that Unite Here organizers had been subjected by the supervisors to a practice called pink sheeting,” by which personal details of organizers’ lives were used as an improper method of control over the organizers.

While citing Unite-Here President John Wilhelm’s response that pink sheeting” was an isolated and abhorrent practice that he had firmly forbidden, Greenhouse appeared to largely accept the claim that the practice was widespread and continuing.

The Union of Unite Here Staff (UUHS) has responded with an open letter (PDF link), accusing Greenhouse of irresponsible reporting and lack of journalistic integrity. The union asserted that as current staff, they exercised their rights to think and critique in an organizing culture that provided space for them to challenge and discuss key decisions of the union.

It accused the disgruntled former staffers of colluding with Workers United/​SEIU and pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Unite Here staff had chosen the UUHS as their union and left the former staff union FOUR, which now represented only the staff of the breakaway WU/SEIU.

The 22 comments that have appeared on the NYT web-site to Greenhouse’s article are rather evenly divided between those calling the article false and misleading, those asserting that they were victims of pink sheeting” while working for Unite Here, and others simply using the report to denounce all unionism.

I have no special insight into the truth or falsity of these allegations. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of either the disgruntled former staffers testifying to their negative experiences with pink sheeting, nor the positive experiences with the union’s organizing culture reported by the current HERE staff union. It is also obvious to me that this is in good part another salvo in the dismaying propaganda war, in which WU/SEIU has gained an advantage because Greenhouse’s article will be much more widely circulated and discussed than the response of the Unite Here staff union.

It does cause me to muse a bit about the internal culture of American unions, and whether there is enough respect in general for the personal lives of union staffers and organizers. Greenhouse refers to the tragic period in the history of the United Farm Workers, when Synanon-like methods of humiliation and vituperation were used to control staffers and drive out those who did not conform to the narrow cult that developed around Cesar Chavez.

(Michael Yates, who worked briefly as Research Director for the UFW in 1977 when these events were taking place, brilliantly recreates this atmosphere in his creative non fiction” piece entitled Cesar” in his unique collection In And Out of The Working Class (Arbeiter Ring Publishing, 2009)).

I have little to add to the critique of SEIU’s recent repugnant misbehavior at the Los Angeles fundraising event for the NUHW. Read Randy Shaw’s article in this blog, and for an excellent first-person account read Paul Krehbiel’s blog entry for Labor Notes.

Such counter-productive actions appear to be stemming from a self-deluding organizational culture that is beginning to act more like a national cult. I know that the vast majority of SEIU members and local unions continue their responsible representational and political activities, but do not such actions tarnish the organization as a whole?

But milder forms of cult-like practice often occur in organizations of all types, businesses and unions, religious and social movements. If your organization is committed to ambitious goals, and yet is dependent on securing the loyalty and mobilizing the energies of over-worked and often under-paid staff (a good description of most union, community, and political organizing projects!) that organization can develop an internal culture that is not conducive to balanced personal and family lives.

Typical symptoms are feelings of isolation from the external world, overwork, too many inefficient working hours, uneasily compensated by a sense of mission and sometimes grandiose feelings of accomplishment.

Sometime in the mid-1980s when I was staff director for SEIU Local 585 in Pittsburgh I was invited to speak at an SEIU District 925 staff conference on a topic related to how to manage a long-term commitment to working for the union.

I don’t recall if I had any particular wisdom to impart (though at the time I experienced some precarious balance in my personal and work life) but my leitmotif was the song by folksinger Charlie King: Our life is more than our work. Our work is more than our jobs.”

I am not sure how that was received by the union leadership (I was not invited to speak to another conference of this type), but I do remember what happened afterward. Four African-American women organizers from District 925 asked to speak with me privately. They told me how much they appreciated what I had said. They wanted to know if I could help them deal with their supervisor, a committed socialist-feminist whom I had known quite well from the New American Movement chapter in Pittsburgh.

According to these women, who were single mothers, their supervisor (who had no children) had no understanding of how they had to balance their personal lives with their work. For instance, that the providers of their child care had to have adequate notice on changes of work schedule or that they could simply not work long into the night on a regular basis. I urged them to directly discuss their problems with their supervisor. What concerned me the most is that they did not feel free to raise these issues openly in the discussion that followed my talk.

Achieving some sort of personal and organizational integrity and balance under such pressures is difficult. For myself I’ve been working at that for over forty years since I became an activist” and still often don’t get it right. But with all due understanding that our labor movement is bound to have warts, including personality cults, lack of honest open internal criticism, and other such defects, I have increasingly less tolerance for such all-too-human behavior.

To the extent that some form of pink sheeting exists, it has to be rooted out. To the extent that thuggish behavior, character assassination, and unprincipled attacks are becoming standard weapons in inter-union disputes, we must not tolerate them. They repel and do not attract the people we want to organize. They are damaging the moral commitment and integrity that must be at the core of what must make our movement different from business as usual.

Those of us who work for labor unions do not have the option of checking our moral compasses at the door when we go to work. We have the obligation to challenge unacceptable organizational behavior, and if we cannot be heard in our own union, there may be other places to do good work. Our lives are more than our work, and our work is more than our jobs.

This article originally appeared at Talking Union

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Paul Garver recently retired as a a staff member of the International Union of Foodworkers. Before that he was active in the U.S. labor movement, including a stint working as staff director for SEIU Local 585 in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is a member of the national political committee of Democratic Socialists of America and part of the editorial team of Talking Union, DSA’s labor blog.
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