Steward's Corner: What to Do When Your Union Leaders Break Your Heart

A cartoon Norma Rae holds up a sign with a broken heart, instead of the "Union" sign she holds up in the movie.

If you’re a union member, unfortunately the chances are good that you’ve had, or will have, your heart broken at least once by one of your own leaders. But don't despair—recommit to your union and to change the culture into one where leaders respect and serve their members. Cartoon by Mary Matthews, drawingdailyusa.com

If you’re a union member, unfortunately the chances are good that you’ve had, or will have, your heart broken at least once by one of your own leaders.

Maybe it happened when you first tried to get active in your union, but found that leaders didn’t welcome you into their inner circle. You wondered whether there was some special skill you lacked, and you ended up confused and self-doubting. Maybe you just gave up.

Or possibly you brought an issue to your leaders—something that was serious to you and your co-workers—but were ignored, or treated with disdain, or told “there’s nothing we can do.” Or you worked long and hard to reach apparently apathetic co-workers and finally got traction on a specific goal, only to be undercut, abandoned, or straight-up sold out by union leaders.

When this happens, it can feel pretty harsh. You’re not only disappointed with these leaders, but also wondering how it is that your union, an organization that exists to make your work life better, is in the hands of people who aren’t doing that.

I encourage you to recommit to your union and to change the culture into one where leaders respect and serve their members. And, if your current leaders can’t or won’t serve their members with more respect, then start making plans to recruit and support candidates for union office who will.

HOW WE GOT HERE

If you’re bursting with organizing ideas and union leaders shut you down, often it’s not because they hate you. More likely, your ideas make no sense to them.

People serving in union office tend to follow the rules of the system they inherit. Maybe they’re clinging to familiar old patterns because they’re overwhelmed, underprepared, or beset by pressures from different constituencies. Maybe they think the union’s power is limited to filing grievances, and they have little experience about how to do things differently.

How did things get to be this way, and how can we change it? It’s useful to zoom out for a moment to consider the effects of the 40-year corporate offensive known as neoliberalism.

During certain periods—the 1930s and ’40s, and the late ’60s and ’70s—both union power and the push for union democracy were strong. Members were typically more active and more ready to fight. They also felt they should have more of a say in their own unions.

But starting in the 1980s, unions suffered a series of defeats, growing weaker and weaker. During the same period, more and more union leaders began to discourage, or even actively suppress, members’ initiative and willingness to fight. The idea of “keeping the peace” with the boss became dominant—when exactly the opposite strategy was needed to fight the corporate onslaught.

CULTURE OF SECRECY

Sadly, plenty of union leaders believe that unions should be top-down, with a small group controlling all the important information, decisions, and actions. How many times have you heard that grievances can’t be discussed with the membership because of “confidentiality”? How often are months of contract negotiations reduced to a terse report that “progress is being made on Article 17, section 5”?

This withholding of information isn’t required by law; it’s just widespread in union culture and practice. The effect is to keep members uninformed and distant from decision-making.

These kinds of leaders likely have many explanations about why member engagement won’t work: “Members don’t come to meetings,” “They don’t read their email,” “They are complacent,” “They expect me to do everything,” “They are scared,” “They only care about their own problems.”

Rather than take responsibility to educate, consult, and engage members, they dismiss the members’ essential role.

The underlying dynamic in locals like this is disrespect. Leaders don’t trust the members, and therefore disregard them. Members feel disdained and excluded, and therefore withdraw.

Such a hollowed-out union is weak because it poses no real threat to the boss. If the only person the boss needs to contend with is a union president, because no one else ever shows up, then the boss will conclude that he just needs to satisfy the president. This can become a system of “exchanging favors” rather than “contending for power.”

A strong union needs competent leaders who invite member engagement and help to give it focus. It also needs active members who can bring their aspirations, creativity, and power to any initiative.

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If your leaders aren’t the ones you hoped for, it may be up to you to change the culture and shape the future of your union. The first step is to get past disappointment or despair. Commit to action.

As in any union situation, don’t act alone. Talk to other co-workers. Your purpose isn’t to convince anyone, but to ask questions. For example:

  • How do you think we’re doing, as a union?
  • Are you able to get information and questions answered?
  • Have you been active in the union, or tried to get active? What was that like?
  • Are there things you’d like to see the union doing?

If you get a sense that others share your heartbreak, get yourself ready to talk directly with the union leaders. It’s important that this not be an emotional confrontation. Be calm, curious, and respectful.

Be prepared with concrete examples of what you and others have experienced, and with suggestions for how things could be improved. For example, you could suggest that the union should:

  • Schedule meetings more regularly, at times and places most accessible to members
  • Seek input from members for the meeting agendas
  • Use meetings not only for officer reports, but also to promote discussion
  • Open up processes previously conducted “confidentially,” such as bargaining, grievance representation, labor-management meetings, and so on

FIGHTING ON TWO FRONTS

Your leaders may reject your suggestions. In fact, it’s wise to prepare yourself for some very tough sledding if you decide to challenge them.

They may feel you are assaulting their integrity or competence, or trying to “steal” their power. They might react defensively—or offensively. There are, sadly, endless stories of members who have been excluded from union activity or targeted, denigrated, or smeared by their own union leaders.

Sometimes union leaders even collude with management to bear down on a “troublemaker,” by which they mean someone who is trying to democratize the union and the workplace.

If so, stay steady, organize, and persevere. Be strategic rather than angry. Don’t attack the leader, or spread hostility. Instead, figure out a way to build a base and take action.

Find a cluster of other union members who are ready to do something. You could start by finding a workplace issue that co-workers care about, bringing them together to talk about it, and developing a plan for action.

You may want to keep your leaders informed, but don’t ask for their permission. If there’s inadequate information flowing in the union, start an informal channel to share and solicit ideas—but don’t let it become a gripe-fest; that is a short route to disaster. Reach out to other groups that should be allies—unions representing other workers in your workplace, or community organizations—and open up conversations about common concerns.

CONSIDER A CAUCUS

In the end, if you find that you can’t move your local in a more democratic, inclusive, and activist direction, you might consider starting a rank-and-file caucus to open up the question of what kind of union the members really prefer.

Rank-and-file caucuses have a long and proud tradition in U.S. unions. The last time caucuses were common was the 1970s, but now they’re popping up again, particularly in teacher unions.

A caucus is simply a group of members who are dedicated to improving their union. Often the motivation is a lack of transparency, or leaders’ unwillingness to fight, or too much coziness with the boss. A caucus can start by organizing around issues, and may end up challenging the existing leaders in union elections.

If you do decide to go down the caucus path, prepare yourself for a lot more heartbreak along the way. It’s likely the incumbent leaders (old guard, as they are commonly called) will accuse you of being divisive or even anti-union. Your motives will be questioned, and bogus accusations made about your methods. But efforts to democratize unions are essential to rebuilding our power, and worth every hard, uncomfortable, and heartbreaking moment. Stay steady!

Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA and a member of the Labor Notes board.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes # 491. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.