Restructuring Won't Happen Top-Down

January 2003

In his article Three Steps To Reorganizing And Rebuilding The Labor Movement, the SEIU's Stephen Lerner explains how employer hostility, economic restructuring, and massive plant relocation have caused unions to lose the power they formerly had to set wages and standards across entire sectors like steel or communications.

Lerner makes the convincing argument that unions' current responses to the ongoing crisis - organizing members in various and sundry sectors, merging workers and unions from unrelated industries, and creating general workers' unions - are based on what is easy and convenient for incumbent organizations. At the same time, he insists that this approach is doing nothing to address the continuing decline of the overall labour movement.

As an answer, Lerner argues for restructuring the labour movement along sectoral lines in order to create unions with sufficient size and resources to tackle today's rampaging corporations. This part of Lerner's argument makes good sense to me.

In laying out his plan, however, Lerner pays little attention to the role that internal union democracy might play in restructuring and revitalizing the labour movement. Implicit in his argument is a faith that visionary union politicians and bureaucrats in a handful of existing unions will grasp the bull by the horns and promote the changes he advocates.

But lack of internal democracy is not an incidental problem in the labour movement today. We are all familiar with instances of corruption, hierarchy and material privilege which undermine unions' vitality. In the wider society, our electoral systems are decaying and voter turnout is declining due to the purely formal nature of political participation which allows politicians to function with minimal accountability. By the same token, union members are increasingly alienated by their inability to exert meaningful influence on the unions to which they belong. Is it any wonder that such a small fraction of their members are actively involved in unions' affairs?

Apparently Lerner doesn't consider that the impetus for the changes he is advocating might come from a democratic, grassroots initiative encompassing organized and unorganized workers as well as sympathetic union politicians and bureaucrats. Instead, he pins his all of his hopes on the same top-down approach which lies at the root of many of the very problems he describes.

Lerner's neglect of democracy was not incidental. Placing enormous importance on the issue of organizational unity, he declares that "We need strategies and decision-making structures that match today's employers and their political allies." It apparently does not occur to him that many of the problems besetting the labour movement today stem from the fact that unions already bear too great a resemblance to employers' highly centralized, top-down structures. Nor, apparently, does it occur to him that a hyper-centralized approach is unlikely to generate the kind of inspiration that is needed to galvanize working people into action.

Lerner is singularly focused on the need for labour to achieve a sufficient scale to tackle corporate power. In a comment worthy of a CEO announcing the transfer of assets from one corporate entity to another, he calls for "Transferring and exchanging members/bargaining units to support industry organizing and bargaining strategies."

While Lerner convincingly argues for organizational changes which are needed to strengthen the labour movement, he ignores the 900-pound gorilla standing in the way of such challenges: the lack of vibrant, participatory internal union democracy.

Sid Shniad is a researcher for the Telecommunications Workers Union, Vancouver, British Columbia

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David Cohen: Labor Needs a New Approach to Organizing...But Members Must Be a Part of It

Steve Early: AFL-CIO's Organizing Summit Looks at "Best Practices" - But Leaves Much Unexamined



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