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Unions: The New Reality


Hamilton Nolan has an interesting interview with AFSCME president Lee Saunders. Nolan can’t quite get over his Berniebroism in this interview, asking if unions supporting Hillary was a mistake and hinting at that old line I despise, that unions should organize instead of playing politics. Saunders has a good response here I want to highlight:

Do you think there’s a tension between the resources you put into politics, and the resources you put into organizing? Is that a zero sum game?

Saunders: Organizing is our number one priority. We spend about 30% of our budget on organizing. But we also believe that we have the ability to play heavily in the political arena. And especially where it matters most to our members—and it matters most to our members when you talk about governors races, state legislature races, city council races, and things of that nature. If you get them enthused and active in the local fight around politics, then you can start connecting the dots as far as the importance of federal politics associated with that. But a lot of our members say, “Why spend all this money on politics? Because it doesn’t matter.” I think what happened in 2016 was you had a lot of frustrated people who said, “It just doesn’t matter. We don’t care who’s in charge, because it just doesn’t matter.” And that’s why we’ve got to organize around the issues that impact them, and their communities, and their families. We’ve got to play. We’ve got to participate in the political arena. That’s how we’ve been able to move things in a positive way, not just at the bargaining table, but through legislation.

The problem with this whole construction of organizing versus “playing politics” that is so common on the left (and you will hear this from labor historians at labor history conferences, challenging unionists who are speaking), is that there is nothing in American history that suggests that unions can succeed in the face of a hostile government. There just aren’t examples suggesting otherwise. My forthcoming book on American strikes will explore this in detail. Counter examples just don’t exist. Now, that doesn’t mean organizing is pointless. The left critique of union leaders in not organizing for many years is largely accurate. Unions in the mid-twentieth century, largely believing they were a permanent part of American life, did stop organizing to a large extent, not building on their gains and ensuring that the government would continue being a more or less neutral arbiter between themselves and employers. Government certainly isn’t going to act unless people organize and make demands. But even if they do organize and make demands, if the government opposes them strongly enough, they will lose. Unions HAVE to be involved in politics if they want to succeed. It’s not all they have to do, but it is necessary.

Also, Saunders’ eyes are totally open to what this Supreme Court is going to do to public sector unions. We all need to understand this.

A lawsuit that’s making its way to the Supreme Court, Janus v AFSCME, could make public unions like yours “right to work”—which would be a serious blow to your ability to collect dues and maintain membership numbers. What are your thoughts on the suit?

Saunders: I’m not optimistic. If you look at the makeup of the Supreme Court, I believe that this time next year, this country will be right to work in the public sector. We can’t hide from that, we can’t bury our heads in the sand. The question is, what do we do about it? AFSCME has been very aggressive in making a lot of changes in our union, dealing with what we believe [will] be the Supreme Court ruling against us and overturning 41 years of law with the [Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, which allowed public unions to collect agency fees from all workers in union shops, to cover the costs of representing the workers]. We’ve developed a program called AFSCME Strong, which is essentially back to basics. It’s talking with our members one on one, and listening to our members… At one time, we treated all of our members as if they were activists. And all of our members aren’t activists. That doesn’t make them bad people. They love their union. They understand the value of being a union member. But it also means that their plates are full, and they can’t devote 100% of their time to being a union member. And there’s nothing wrong with that…

Our folks are public service workers. They didn’t get into that profession to become millionaires and billionaires. They got into that profession because they care.

Public unions have been a popular political target, especially on the state level, in Wisconsin and elsewhere. Is there a way to make the public care about what’s happening to them?

Saunders: Quite honestly I think we have not done a good job of educating our communities and the public at large about what public service is all about—how people rely and depend upon those public services every single day, whether it’s picking up the trash, keeping your water clean so you don’t get sick when you drink it, repaving and rebuilding roads, providing health care services, providing child care services, providing home care services, having workers in libraries that work with kids. That’s the kind of work that our members perform. And we’ve got to promote that kind of work, because communities rely up on that. And sometimes that connection is not being made, where we’re providing those essential public services, yet we’re under attack.

Are you projecting a certain amount of membership loss, if the Janus case goes against you and you’re facing a “right to work” situation?

Saunders: I think there will be a loss of membership. But by the same token, with what we’re trying to do in recasting and rebuilding our program and developing the kind of strategy that I just talked about, I think that in many ways we can be a stronger union. And maybe a little bit smaller. But a stronger union, where we’ve made the connection where non-members are saying, “Wait a minute, I need this. And this is important to me. So I should be a member, and not someone who’s relying upon the benefits but not paying a dime. That’s not fair.”

He’s absolutely right. The funny part to me about this is that it provides the answer for Nolan’s later question about politics. How would this have been avoided? Hillary Clinton winning the presidency and Democrats winning the Senate. Of course, Nolan and his Deadspin bros notoriously hemmed and hawed and eventually most of them came around to reluctantly supporting Hillary, but not before proclaiming their purity about Bernie. But there are real life consequences to elections. When dimmer parts of the left talked about Democrats “blackmailing” them into voting for Hillary with the Supreme Court–There’s always the Supreme Court! they said–they were blithely choosing to ignore that a Trump victory meant real life suffering for real life people. And here we see it.

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