After Wisconsin and Labor’s ‘Civil Wars’: Will Unions Insist on Loyalty Pledges?

Mike Elk

Young protesters outside the assembly chamber express sorrow and outrage following the Wisconsin Assembly's vote to essentially eliminated collective bargaining rights for public union workers. For many in Madison, it was their first labor protest.

Steve Early’s The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor: Birth of a New Workers’ Movement or Death Throes of the Old? is essential reading for those interested in understanding how difficult it is for young organizers to change the U.S. labor movement for the better. The book, released this month by Haymarket Books, focuses on a generation of campus radicals who entered the labor movement in the late 60s and early 70s (in part) to make it more democratic.

But instead of doing that, during the last few years campus organizers turned international union presidents Andy Stern (SEIU), John Wilhelm (HERE, the hotel works union), and Bruce Raynor (UNITE, the garment workers union), among many others, helped to create an atmosphere that was in some ways more repressive. In the process, they engaged in a massive civil war that created disunity. And massive costs; Early demonstrates that unions engaged in intra-union raiding between 2008-2010 spent at least $140 million, without organizing a single new member. (Full disclosure: Steve Early is an occasional contributor to Working In These Times, and a friend of mine.)

In addition to the financial costs, the intra-union battles had many human costs. Organizers who refused to go along with union raiding were promptly fired, as Early notes. Steve Early’s own daughter, Alex Early, a 24-year-old former organizer for United Healthcare Workers (UHW, part of SEIU) in California, was fired by SEIU because she refused to sign a loyalty pledge to DC-based SEIU leaders who wanted to cut sweetheart deals with major hospital chains in exchange for members.

(Permit me a small digression to note the strangeness of what Stern is up to these days: In June 2010, former SEIU President Andy Stern took a high-paying position on the board of directors of SIGA Technologies, the biowarfare firm. SIGA’s largest shareholder is the private equity firm MacAndrews & Forbes, the CEO of which is Ron Perelman. Perelman’s holding company owns AlliedBarton, a security company Stern was accused of making a management-friendly deal with in 2006. SIGA once threatened to sue Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, who reported details of the deal.)

However, in the intra-union wars of 2008-2010, SEIU was not the only union firing young organizers who refused to carry out unethical acts. Early writes about how a young 24-year-old, Elvis Mendez, was fired from UNITE-HERE (the two unions merged in 2004) for refusing to engage in unionbusting against SEIU. Mendez was sent to Arizona by the John Wilhelm-led UNITE-HERE after the Bruce Raynor-led Workers United split from UNITE-HERE to join SEIU. Mendez was directed to hand out anti-SEIU leaflets among unorganized public workers in Arizona that SEIU was attempting to organize and that UNITE-HERE, Mendez’s employer, had no intention of organizing.

It was all to create a retaliatory front against SEIU, which then was trying to make moves on HERE hotels, food service units, gambling casinos, etc. When Mendez refused to engage in what he saw as essentially unionbusting against SEIU members, he was promptly fired.

The firings of young organizers for refusing to carry out unethical acts have not been limited to the intra-union wars of 2008-2010. A recent Washington City Paper article highlighted how several young union organizers were fired from the Laborers’ Union (LIUNA) after they refused orders to call immigration authorities on immigrant construction workers hesitant to join the union.

While I’ve never been fired or shunned by editors for criticizing the labor movement in my articles, I’ve certainly seen relationships with some unions sour over certain pieces I wrote. (Granted, losing access to sources because of coverage they dislike is a perennial problem for all journalists, not just labor journalists.) Last year, I wrote a piece criticizing the California Nurse Association for high union official salaries (more than $100,000) that were not only wasteful, but had become fodder for right-wing attacks. I promptly received a phone call from CNA telling how the piece was damaging my relationship with CNA.

While many unions foster free-flowing discussions and critique, there is a general tendency within the labor movement to not rock the boat. People have established relationships and patterns of doing things, and are often quite embarrassed when someone criticizes those patterns. Young organizers lacking the organizational alliances built through decades in the labor movement can quickly find themselves in the hot seat when they challenge high speak out about executive salaries, obedience to the Democratic Party or attempted raids on another union’s members or turf.

Last year I suggested that the salaries of top union officials needed to be examined in order to reform the labor movement. While the labor movement has lost 1.1 million members, the salary of top labor officials’ salaries has nearly tripled, according to a recent study by Labor Notes. If unions capped their total annual compensation at $150,000, they would save the labor movement $143 million dollars annually. At a time when unions are laying off young organizers as they lose members, there’s no reason why officials should take such exorbitant salaries when money is needed to retain and hire new organizers to counter horrific unionbusting.

I was very quickly chastised by a senior AFL CIO official who characterized my discussion as counter-productive,” saying We have too many enemies, well-funded and ever-ready to take down the entire structure that enables working people to have a voice, to spend time on anything other than taking on those who would take us down.”

This is the equivalent of a football team losing a game badly and saying that they can’t discuss different plays in the huddle because they are losing so badly. Something needs to change, because organized labor’s efforts to combat unionbusting have not been working.

Some claim that unions decline is due solely to unionbusting; however, unions have expanded in American history at times when strikebreakers literally broke the bones of strikers. It is possible for unions to expand even against the toughest of odds. Doing so requires a smart strategy that unites and empowers those involved in the movement.

It also requires welcoming young people with different opinions and voices into the labor movement. Unions must do this not just for their ability to work long hours organizing workers, but for their new energy and ideas.

Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.
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