Raiding: Fighting Over Scraps Leaves Labor Hungry
For an opposing point of view, see Malik Miah: Raiding: Workers Should Have the Right To Choose in this issue of the magazine.
The question of raiding — one union convincing members of another union to decertify and join the competitor — has been a hot-button issue once more this year in the labor movement.
In one of the largest flash points, the California Nurses Association and the Service Employees have been trading blows over an escalating series of raids conducted by both sides.
Much of this recent raiding is done in the name of building “union density,” which is narrowly described as all the union members in a profession or industry belonging to the same union, and perhaps the same union local.
My views on raiding are shaped by the experience of my own union, the United Electrical Workers (UE). When the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1948, corporations, the government, and their union allies conspired to destroy progressive, militant, and democratic unions, including UE.
Taft-Hartley required union officers to sign anti-communist loyalty oaths, and those who refused could not appear on ballots in NLRB-run elections.
Unions like the UAW or the newly created International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) would demand recognition from an employer whose workers were members of UE. The employer would file a petition with the NLRB asking for an election.
The courts then would deny the UE the right to appear on the ballot and the other union would win.
In a handful of years, several hundred thousand members were raided out of UE, at one time the third largest union in the CIO. Twelve other unions were simply raided out of existence.
The only union of the progressive stripe to survive was the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. The destruction of the progressive unions has had repercussions to this day.
HOW ABOUT ORGANIZING?
Union raiding adds no new members to the labor movement.
There are about 100 million unorganized workers in the United States today—plenty to go around for unions that want to organize. The problem is that it’s harder to organize new workers, for all the reasons we know. It’s much easier to raid existing unions.
In Connecticut, UE represents a group of workers in the public sector. They formerly were members of an independent union that was made up of bargaining units that had left various other unions. In some cases, the independent union raided other public sector unions—and was raided in turn.
Raiding was an accepted way of life in the Connecticut public sector in the last two decades. Although many unions didn’t like it, they justified their raiding on account of other unions’ raiding. It was a vicious cycle.
At the end of a contract, during the “open period” (when unions can switch affiliation), many locals would hold open houses, inviting various unions to come speak to members. These sessions invariably turned into bazaars where the different unions made promises about how they could get workers better wages and benefits.
Workers would shop around for the union that would charge them the least and promise them the most. The very idea that workers needed to struggle and fight to better themselves, and that the members are the union, was lost in the orgy of shopping and raiding.
Once the independent union affiliated with UE, we worked to convince members that raiding was not beneficial to anybody. A no-raiding agreement now exists among most of the unions in Connecticut’s public sector.
EXCEPTIONS MAY APPLY
There are a few exceptions. Gangster “unions”—those that prey on workers, especially immigrant workers—still exist. These sham unions tend to be in low-paid factories. Usually the workers never get to see the contract, and have high dues and initiation fees. They are not affiliated with any labor bodies.
Oftentimes if workers start a fuss, the “union rep” will show up and perhaps the workers will get a nickel raise. But these are not real unions and should be forced out of existence.
There are also still company unions in various forms at individual workplaces, some more openly controlled by management than others.
I once worked at an auto parts plant that had a company-controlled union, and I led the drive to join UE. To try to stop the new union, management told company union leaders to ask for a pay raise. They did, and then the workers received a raise. Fortunately, it didn’t stop the drive.
STAY AND FIGHT
Often, over the years, when workers from other unions have come to UE and asked if they could join, we have told them to stay and fight inside their own unions to take control.
Teaching workers how to run a functioning democratic union is of more use to them in their struggles. The workers often took over their locals and transformed them into decent, member-run organizations.
Today, there are troubling new trends that make it harder to give that answer. The emergence of huge mega-locals makes it extremely difficult for members to take control of their unions from anti-democratic or pro-employer forces.
The ease and frequency with which some unions trustee locals in order to remove leaders they don’t agree with is also troubling. In some cases, workers may have no other recourse than to leave and join another union.
But the main thrust of the labor movement still needs to be on the tough job of organizing new workers.
Anywhere there are unorganized workers we should be there, finding the new leaders who will carry forward the next upsurge of organizing.