Reply to Lance Compa's Response
Lance Compa's thoughtful response to my "Worker-Student Alliance" piece is much appreciated. It helps illuminate several of the issues I attempted to raise about the importance of rank-and-file leadership development as opposed to an organizer hiring strategy that bypasses experienced union members and focuses instead on enlisting campus activists and other nonmembers, who then become candidates for higher-level union jobs, appointed or elected. (Nonmember recruitment is still being pursued, by the way; as I write, I'm looking at full-page ads that ran recently in the Nation, In These Times, and American Prospect urging interested readers of those publications to "join the fight for justice" by becoming a "full-time union organizer" for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Workers (AFSCME). (Since AFSCME's national newspaper has a circulation six times larger than all three combined, wouldn't it be a better idea for these "help wanted" ads to appear there?)
Such "jibes" aside, my Contemporary Affairs column was not intended to be an attack on labor-oriented students, whose efforts on campus and off have strengthened and enlivened many recent labor struggles. Nor was it an attempt to steer them in the direction of only one form of labor involvement-"going into workplaces where Teamsters for a Democratic Union-style dissident groups take on their national union leadership." Rather, its purpose was to stimulate debate, discussion, and more critical thinking among campus activists about the union structures that many of them are being encouraged to enter and serve as full-time staffers. My hope was that more young people, while accepting organizer positions. might be emboldened to reject narrow institutional loyalty in favor of a broader political commitment to labor that might include support for cross-union formations and grassroots networks like Jobs with Justice, Labor Notes, or the Association for Union Democracy (AUD).
I'm pleased to report that, in addition to Lance's comments, there was positive feedback to my essay from members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS). Informal discussions with and among various USAS members led last August to the scheduling of a first-ever workshop on building democratic unions at the national USAS conference in New York City. In addition to this event, which featured presentations by rank-and-file reformers from AFSCME, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the Transport Workers Union of America, delegates to the conference adopted a resolution stating "that the labor movement will be stronger when it is democratically controlled by workers." USAS resolved "to make continuing efforts to build alliances with those organizations fighting for a more democratic labor movement" and will promote future exchanges and contact with Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), Labor Notes, and the AUD.
As the AUD's Union Democracy Review reported after the conference, the "resolution reflects the dissatisfaction of some USAS members with its serving as a recruiting ground for unions with top-down, undemocratic strategies. USAS members are drawn to the labor movement because of their concern for workers rights. But, according to Charlie Hoyt, a leading USAS activist at the University of Wisconsin, upon graduation, some USAS members have taken union staff jobs and become apologists for, even participants in, such undemocratic methods." Lance suggests that it's unfair to blame former students, in a handful of AFL-CIO affiliates, for organizational behavior that deprives many workers of a United Electrical Workers-style membership experience. Throughout American labor, he suggests, top-down organization, undemocratic practices, and personality cults are more widely perpetuated by elected leaders or staffers who emerged from the rank and file. Thus Lance and another friendly critic (who chose to remain anonymous) both contend that my article should have focused less on student recruitment per se and more on the organizational context or culture in which this is occurring-primarily in "New Unity Partnership" (NUP) unions.
As my anonymous respondent argues, "The question is not whether union staff are recruited from the rank-and-file or from the college campus, but what kind of persons are recruited, how they are developed, and what is the relationship of the staff to the rank-and-file. If unions recruit persons based on their working class consciousness, commitment and potential for leadership, develop their abilities to the fullest extent without regard to their origin, and maintain a vital participatory democracy in the union, the relationship between rank-and-file and professional staff can be positive and creative."
This observer-someone obviously familiar with the internal workings of key NUP affiliates-points out that UNITE, HERE, and SEIU actually "hire a lot of staff out of the ranks as well as off the campus," but that those "from the ranks are generally treated as 'cannon fodder,' foot soldiers to be directed by the college-educated." The real problem within the NUP is that "these most 'modern' trade unions-those that have 'changed to organize'-closely resemble a modern corporation in their internal organization and in the nature of the relationship of the professional management to the non-professional workforce." Lance offers up the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) as an inspiring organizational alternative, both in the "old days" and now. I share his admiration and warm regards for that union, having also had some personal contact ration with impressive UE figures that he mentions (James Matles and Doug Perry) and one that he doesn't (a feisty Vermonter named Jim Kane, who served as both New England district leader and national UE president). Unfortunately, their "anti- personality cult" style of leadership and the UE model of small, self-sufficient locals, with strong shop steward systems and shop floor militancy, is not much in vogue at the moment. Theorists of the NUP, for example, value "market share" above all and believe unions should achieve greater "density"-through partnerships with management, if necessary-before worrying about internal democracy in "local" unions that have more members than most AFL-CIO national affiliates.
Their preferred model-in SEIU at least-is neatly aligned, staff-dominated, multi-state megalocals that, as Dan Clawson warns, have begun to resemble staff-run "public interest" lobbying groups who relate to their "dues payers" largely run through direct mail, phone solicitation, or door-to-door canvassing. In NUP eyes, the UE's steadily dwindling manufacturing membership and lack of density within key employers-a problem shared by other General Electric unions, including IUE-CWA-makes it one of labor's heroic losers. A mere shadow of its former self, the UE is viewed as a hopelessly "out-of-mainstream sect" struggling to survive as what Steven Lerner dismissively calls the "corner store" variety of "General Worker Unionism." So I wish Lance well with his efforts to inject "balance" into the debate about student recruitment and the larger issues of union structure, internal democracy, and leadership development. Hopefully, his defense of the UE and what its racy, history really represents will be of interest to the Cornell students that he, Kate Bronfenbrenner, and others are now steering toward NUP unions. (If you're not already a union member, they are the ones, after all, who are hiring these days.) As noted above, however, these unions don't share the organizational values of the UE.
Nor is their modus operandi similar to that of the UE and other left-led unions in the 1930s-notwithstanding the NUP's attempt to recast its possible breakaway from the AFL-CIO as a daring CIO-style initiative. Recent campus recruits to union staff jobs will have to decide which side they are on. They can embrace, uncritically and unquestioningly, the way NUP frames our available options: "Organize"-its way-"Or Die." Or, as in the 1930s, younger activists can join with worker allies in efforts to rebuild labor differently, from the bottom-up, in a new organizing upsurge that aims to regain lost workplace power through unions run by and for the rank and file.