Viewpoint: To Change the World, Our Unions Must Change
Unionism has seen a resurgence in popularity the past few years. The problem is, it’s very difficult to get our members organizing in their communities when they hate the way our leadership (I use that word loosely) is operating.
Our unions shouldn’t be, and I’d argue weren’t meant to be, transactional—yet by and large that is what they have grown to be. By transactional I mean: I pay dues, you provide a service, and my duty ends with my dues.
Instead, our unions should be conduits for radically changing society and the economy as we know it. Even as conservative as my own union, the Machinists, is, the preamble to our union constitution begins, “Believing that the right of those who toil to enjoy to the full extent the wealth created by their labor is a natural right…” and goes on to say that worker organizations should use “the natural resources, means of production and distribution for the benefit of all the people.”
It’s apparent that our founding members believed we deserved every single penny we worked to generate, and that all the natural resources and means of production and distribution should be used by us to benefit our communities.
Yet somewhere along the way, we’ve allowed union staff to be elected or appointed who believe that we should concede management rights clauses and no-strike clauses, that the rank and file shouldn’t be involved in negotiating our own contracts, that in some cases they can override our vote against a contract and accept it on our behalf, and that we should bend a knee and be thankful we have a job.
These staff positions are paid by our dues; they should be answerable to us alone. Our unions have grown to function much the same way as corporate America, with a hierarchical structure where despots sit in leather chairs behind mahogany desks and dare anyone to question their authority.
In my own union, the members directly elect our entire executive board. These elections provide a minute amount of accountability to the membership—but not nearly enough. As in U.S. politics, elections rarely hold people accountable for their actions (or inactions). Plus, most union staff are unelected, and accountable only to those who appointed or hired them.
I love many of the union staff I’ve worked with—but I believe the labor movement has systemic problems that are holding us back. I’ll address three problems here.
The first problem is an implied hierarchy.
A few years ago, our stewards’ committee was dealing with a layoff and wasn’t getting the information we needed. As a committee, we voted to file charges with the National Labor Relations Board. We brought it to the members and they unanimously agreed.
Traditionally, our district business rep had been the one who had handled filing charges. But our local was getting blown off by Human Resources and we decided it was time to bring some power back to the shop floor. I was designated to file the charge.
Within a week, our business rep was on the phone to me, demanding I withdraw the charge. I refused, and he mentioned an Official Circular—a letter from our union’s international president—stating that local lodges shouldn’t file NLRB charges.
I understood the reasoning, because in some cases an unfavorable NLRB could rule against us and set precedent. But this was a simple charge over failure to provide information. Business reps should be a last resort in making demands, not the first.
Our job as unionists is to build power on the shop floor and wield that collectively. By shifting the union’s power to the business rep, we encourage H.R. to see our membership and committees as weak.
The organizational structure of locals, districts, and regions shouldn’t imply hierarchy. The union should be a participatory democracy where locals help each other out with cooperative collective action.
The second problem is personal loyalty. When staff members are appointed, they’re inevitably loyalty to the appointer. Most people want to progress in their fields, and unionists are the same.
In the Machinists, many positions higher than district level are appointed by the international president. After our local’s NLRB charge, the general vice president was quick to point out at a State Council meeting that the charge was a violation.
A violation of what? There is nothing in our union constitution or bylaws that reserves the right to file charges to any specific body. On the contrary, the constitution states that anything not covered in it is at the discretion of the membership, so the circular that we previously mentioned wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.
I assume that this statement was at the behest of the president, who appoints all the general vice presidents—making them ultimately loyal to him.
Elections are our only path to ensure that the members are allowed to make the decisions that matter. We need people who believe in transparency, a true democratic process (not a representative, transactional one), and members with true integrity who can’t be swayed by the promises of an appointment if they go along to get along.
A third problem I’ve run into is secrecy.
Serving on several negotiating committees for my local, I’ve seen firsthand how agreeing to ground rules to keep bargaining details confidential can strangle the elected committee’s ability to communicate with the membership.
Never agree to ground rules that require loyalty to the committee over loyalty to the membership. Our own representatives have attempted to ban our committee from direct communications with our membership several times over the years, and we’ve always ignored them—at least until our last negotiations that I resigned from.
Every union member should demand transparent communications from your committee… if you even have a committee of elected local membership.
There are always excuses, but ultimately it’s the members who pay for, benefit from, and have the most to lose at negotiations. They deserve nothing less than complete transparency.
We will never build power by allowing our collective demands to be transferred to a single person or a small group. Building a directly democratic union takes more work—but it pays dividends to the membership.
David Story is a third-generation unionist from right-to-work Alabama. He has served in every capacity at his local, including trustee, recording secretary, treasurer, steward, negotiator, and president, and on too many committees to count.