Minority Contract Ratification Is a Crime Against the Labor Movement

The IATSE disaster should never happen again.

Hamilton Nolan

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

The Electoral College is a profoundly anti-democratic institution that warps America’s political landscape in harmful ways, disenfranchises millions of voters, and has twice in this century given us presidents who lost the popular vote yet won the election and went on to cause numerous global disasters. 

Hey, let’s give that a try in our union!

If only I was kidding. Yesterday, IATSE, the powerful entertainment worker union, announced that members had voted to ratify its two enormous contracts with the Hollywood studios, producers and streaming services. [Disclosure: I am a council member at the Writers Guild of America, East, a union that bargains with the same employers.] Yet the biggest contract, the Basic Agreement, passed” with 49.6% of members voting for it, and 50.4% voting against it. How is that possible? Because IATSE uses a sort of Electoral College-style ratification system, based not on popular vote, but on a convoluted method of assigning a certain number of delegates to each individual local, then awarding all of the local’s delegates to whichever side wins, rather than awarding them proportionally to the actual vote. So even though a majority of members voted against ratifying this contract, it has nevertheless been ratified because the delegate count was in its favor. It’s enough to give you warm and happy memories of election night, 2016

Last month, as these contract negotiations reached an impasse, IATSE held a strike authorization vote. More than 90% of the 60,000 workers voted in that election. Ninety-nine percent of them voted yes. It was one of the strongest showings of support for a major national strike in living memory. The entire labor movement rallied to IATSE’s side. The union had everything in place to shut down the entire Hollywood machine in order to achieve transformative change for the industry. Tens of thousands of working people, fed up with the status quo, had declared that they were ready and willing to fight. 

And what did they get for that? They got a contract that they voted against. 

I have no opinion on IATSE’s contract. Whether or not it is sufficient is a matter for IATSE members to decide. They are the experts on what they need, and what they will accept. And what we know for certain is that they did not find this contract acceptable. We know that because most IATSE members voted against accepting it. 

I do, however, have a strong opinion on a labor union voting system that allows a contract to be ratified after a majority of members voted against the contract: It’s bad. It’s very bad. It is, in fact, outrageously bad. The badness of the IATSE system — much like the badness of the Electoral College — was there from day one. It is a system that is poorly designed, because it allows for outcomes like we just saw. Any such system is bad. It is in the nature of these things that their badness can often be ignored for long periods of time, because they may produce outrageous results only rarely. But now the outrageous results are here, and we all need to be up front about the fact that this was a disaster waiting to happen, like a poorly designed dam that finally fails and drowns an entire town. 

Whether the contract itself is good or bad, this outcome is an atrocity. Unions, for all of their flaws, are supposed to be democratic institutions. The fact that unions are democratic institutions is, in fact, a basic and necessary quality. This is how they derive their moral claim to represent working people. It is why unions have more moral worth than companies. Everyone who is a union member may or may not agree with all of the big decisions that get made by their unions, but we ask them to accept those decisions, because those decisions carry the moral weight of being democratically made. As soon as a union starts doing things like imposing major contracts that a majority of members voted against, that union has lost its ability to truly claim to represent the will of the workers it represents. It is now giving orders, rather than taking them. It becomes a boss. 

I am not trying to assert that there was some monstrous conspiracy afoot here. Unions, like all big organizations, are bureaucracies governed by rules that were, at some point, made up by groups of people, and in many cases those groups of people used the rule making method called, Well I Guess This Seems Good Enough, More Or Less?” If you dig through the bylaws of every union in America you will no doubt find many nonsensically designed rules and procedures. It is fair to say, though: This was not just some minor fuck up. This was major. And anyone who understood that voting system could have seen this coming long ago. 

This is bigger than IATSE. Much of the talk of the strike wave” that you’ve been hearing for months was driven by the looming prospect of an IATSE strike, which would have been, by far, the biggest and most visible strike in the nation. The tragedy is not that the strike didn’t happen. The tragedy is that all of the faith that hundreds of thousands of union members and allies put into the power of organized labor to be a real tool for meaningful democratic change — faith that manifested itself in broad, nationwide support for IATSE in its fight — was not rewarded. By ending this story with a contract that members voted against, that faith has been made a mockery of. 

There is a very important rule in organized labor that you should not presume to speak for the members of a union if you yourself are not a member of that union. That rule makes good sense, and I respect it. The rage aneurysm that I felt upon seeing this outcome is a purely personal problem of little importance. But we are all part of the labor movement, and what happened has undermined the ability of the entire labor movement to look working people in the eye and tell them that they should believe in the union, because they are the union, and the union is their collective will. 

So I feel safe in saying that every union better take a long, hard look at their own rules and procedures. Any procedure that would allow such an egregious outcome must be fixed. This kind of thing should never happen again. 

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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