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The Unreflective Nature of Union Democracy Activists


This might be a bit inside baseball on the labor movement, but there is a huge disconnect between the actual existing labor movement in this country and the labor movement as it exists online or in print publications. The latter is basically people pushing their own ideology about what the labor movement should be rather than what it is. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, except to say that if your exposure to the labor movement is primarily in the labor intellectual world, you aren’t getting a good sense of the movement’s diversity in ideology and tactics. This is how you get a situation where one union campaign wins a single election at Amazon and the entire labor world turns him into a celebrity and then the union stalls out because it becomes a cult of personality and there are very real issues that do not get addressed.

The most prominent example of this kind of labor intellectualism is Jane McAlevey, who is beloved by the labor intellectual world. However, to me she says the exact same thing every time–labor leaders are corrupt and union democracy is the answer. It’s a very limited argument, but it is one that has legs. That’s for a couple of reasons. First, it’s not hard to find examples of bad labor leadership. In fact, it’s quite easy. So fair enough. Second, it provides a simple explanation for organized labor’s decline that downplays the political and structural issues and instead gives everyone a class of people to blame, i.e., the labor bureaucrat. But what this leads to in McAlevey’s writing is that every time a movement loses, it’s the fault of leadership and every time a movement wins, it’s because workers demanded democracy in their unions.

So I appreciated this Ege Yumusak piece in Boston Review, critiquing McAlevey’s new book, co-written with Abby Lawlor.

The win is compelling, but it is not always clear whether high participation is the decisive factor that leads to success in the book’s examples. Indeed, many of the cases involve departures from the twenty basic principles, and other factors evidently play a significant causal role. Given the book’s largely instrumental account of participation—the suggestion that worker involvement matters to the extent that it helps to build power and thus achieve a “win”—a reader might take these nuances as reasons to reject even the kind of participation that McAlevey and Lawlor call for.

In PASNAP’s case, for example, the campaign abandoned bigness and openness by allowing two people—McAlevey and the union’s executive director—to negotiate a framework agreement for the timeline of the bargaining process. (In an effort to be transparent, the two leaders do call two workers to outline the deal and allow them to make some calls before accepting the schedule.) The campaign also risked McAlevey and Lawlor’s principle that 90 percent of workers should vote for a strike threat in order for it to be credible, as the vote was held without due notice and only over four days. McAlevey and Lawlor report that of the PASNAP nurses who voted, 90 percent moved to strike, but they do not mention how many people voted out of all 925 workers represented by the union. And while the book omits the terms of the Einstein contract, McAlevey and Lawlor disclose at least one tragic concession: in order to get the agreement, PASNAP signed a temporary agreement not to organize three new hospitals in the Einstein network, effectively depriving hundreds if not thousands of other nurses of the right to collective bargaining.

Despite these limitations, I found the PASNAP campaign remarkable in the nurses’ ability to keep marching past tough decisions. They applied the rules to win by selectively and at the right time. Indeed, case after case in the book demonstrates the need for improvisation, creativity, and the savvy use of luck. The nurses pushed Einstein to come to the bargaining table by threatening to picket the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia after they learn that it will take place on the same day as Einstein’s deadline to appeal the recognition of the union. “What a gift,” the authors write.

In fact, Einstein nurses could count on another gift: favorable objective conditions. At the time of the campaign, Einstein was desperately trying to recruit more nurses, and a national nursing shortage helped to empower them. In their case, management proved willing to concede even before nurses set a strike deadline, but others haven’t been as lucky, as nurses at St. Vincent Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, can attest. Organizing with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, they saw a bitter fight, including a ten-month strike.

Now, Yumusak strongly believes in union democracy too. And in general, so do I. But I have a sense of ambivalence about this too. Union democracy is not in itself a good thing. At the core of union democracy as ideology in itself is an assumption we have seen on the left for a long time now, which is this: “If just the workers have real democracy, they will implement my personal preferred ideology and union structure.” You see this throughout leftist politics, which often critiques the Democratic Party by saying “If only Democrats enacted my personal preferred ideology, they would win.” Well…….

There are three major issues that make me uncomfortable in discussing union democracy. The first is that a lot of democracy activists, when they have taken control of a union or a local (or a part of the political machine when we are talking about the Democratic Party) prove utterly incompetent. Running this stuff is really hard! Unions are large, bureaucratic organizations! They require legal skill. They require experience. They require knowing when to yell at the bargaining table and they require knowing when to cut bait and take the best deal you can. None of this can be easily replicated through just engaging workers more. Arnold Miller’s disastrous leadership of the United Mine Workers in the 1970s is a great example of this. Miller took over after the vile murderous Tony Boyle was finally imprisoned and the UMWA opened up to democracy. That really needed to happen and was of course good in the long run, but Miller was completely incompetent and it set the entire union back recovering from that. I would also note that one of the most dramatic union democracy actions in history was the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization kicking out its already fairly militant leadership and going full militant and struck against the government after endorsing Reagan, which was also a democratic action. That worked out real well!!!! In the political realm, I would note was a total disaster it has been to see DSA people take over the Nevada Democratic Party. Like, democracy is good, but so is being good at your job. Expertise matters!

My second reservation is the idea that workers should be involved in the daily running of their union. Again, this is more good than not. I most certainly wish more members were actively involved in my union. But isn’t the point of the dignity that union provides you is that you have the space in your life to do what you want? If you want to take your kid to their soccer game instead of working a second job to make ends meet, that’s a political win! If you want to sit around and watch Wheel of Fortune instead of going to a union meeting where the same people bloviate for hours on end, then I don’t see the problem with that. That’s your call. Again, the ideology behind all of this assumes that workers actually want to go to meetings in their off hours. Workers absolutely should have the power to do that if they want. But as we saw during Occupy, for example, what always happens is that a few people dominate the proceedings, it becomes about personal ego, and natural new hierarchies develop. Have all the democracy you want, but keep the utopian ideas about what will happen to union decision making behind.

My third reservation is the simple fact that union democracy can lead to very bad decisions, including horrible political positions. I note that the very first thing that Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union did when it formed in 1894 was to ban Black people from the union. Debs didn’t support that, but he didn’t care too much (Debs also loved telling racist jokes so as always don’t turn anyone from the past into your idealized hero in the present). I note as well that while the quite leftist and staunchly democratic International Longshore and Warehouse Union had some locals that promoted racial equality, other locals were staunchly in favor of white supremacy and based on the principle of union democracy, Harry Bridges refused to intervene to force them to open hiring to Black workers. So the idea that union democracy will lead to more radical positions–which is the real desire of the labor intellectual–has historically not exactly worked out. Of course, it might! It’s not 1894 or 1946 anymore!

My problem here is the lack of reflection on these issues among union democracy activists. It’s ideologue stuff, not hard analysis. As a general rule, I would say more democracy in unions is better than less. But we also need to note the historical limits of union democracy in the United States and stop projecting our desires as labor intellectuals onto the working class. Not everything in the labor movement can be explained by any one thing and not everything in the labor movement can be solved with more union democracy.

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