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From the March 2009 issue
of $100 Plus Club News #114
Can Staff Unionism Advance the Cause of Union Democracy?
Guillermo Perez is a member of
the AUD Board of Directors and is currently the chief steward for the
United Union Employees of New York (UUE-NY), a staff union that represents
120 union staffers employed by AFSCME Local 1000 based in Albany, New
York. Guillermo conducted this interview with AUD founder and Secretary-Treasurer
Herman Benson as part of an AUD-sponsored initiative to encourage union
staffers to support the work of AUD. Interested union staffers can reach
Guillermo at email@example.com.
GP: Staff unionism, as controversial as it
continues to be, has actually been a part of the U.S. labor movement for
quite some time. You write about it in your book Rebels, Reformers, and
Racketeers. In particular you recount how in 1961 your newsletter Union
Democracy in Action received a significant boost in notoriety by actively
encouraging the efforts of a group of union organizers employed by the
International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to form their own union,
the Federation of Union Representatives (FOUR). What was significant about
that organizing campaign and why did you see it as being relevant to the
advancement of union democracy?
HB: FOUR was a pure and simple labor organization.
That is, its formation was not prompted by ideology; it was unrelated
to any internal union factional divisions. The appointed staff members
were overworked, underpaid, and disrespected. That's how they felt, surely
with justification. David Dubinsky, ILGWU president, was an imperious
personality who would not tolerate any curb on his authoritarian powers.
All the staff members I knew were dedicated, socialistic unionists. Because
they were avid unionists, always urging garment workers to stand up for
their rights, they felt a moral obligation to do the same, not only to
improve their daily working conditions, but also, maybe even more important,
to safeguard their own respect.
What they and the rest of us learned was that power-sensitive
union leaders as employers, facing unionization of their own staff employees,
could be just as hostile as any vicious anti-union employer: the same
intimidation, firing of outspoken union spokespersons, retaliatory job
assignments, resistance to NLRB decisions, until the staff union forces
were demoralized and broken.
Back there in 1961, the publication Union Democracy
in Action sought to discuss an aspect of the FOUR battle that was
not uppermost in the minds of the staff unionists, the effect that staff
unionism could have on the strength of internal democracy to unions. To
use an analogy, when workers unionize, aiming to defend their own down-to-earth
working conditions, they may not realize that they are helping to create
an institution that will defend democracy in America. An effective staff
union can strengthen democracy in unions. In unions today, enormous practical
and constitutional powers are concentrated in the hands of the top leadership
- money, job patronage, full time attorneys and PR experts, directed staff,
control over access to membership, domination of election and referendum
procedures, and control over disciplinary trials - so that it is difficult
for any rival tendencies to emerge, even to survive; and leadership, even
though elective, soars out of control of the membership.
Any union leadership is entitled to hire the necessary
staff to carry on the legitimate business of the union in representing
members and organizing the unorganized. The problem is that, almost everywhere,
the leaders also use the staff to cut down possible rivals inside the
union. By affording staff members some measure of protection against arbitrary
dictation, staff unionism can safeguard, to some degree, the misuse of
the staff for the narrow political purposes of the leaders above. In any
event, staff unionism is a recognition of the principle that the vast
powers of the top leadership are legitimately subject to limitations imposed
on any employer.
GP: In Union Democracy in Action you
write that "[s]ome leaders in unions fear staff unionism with the
same hatred as wardheelers in politics detest civil service in government.
Unionism disarranges the system of pure patronage. If the official appoints
and removes at will; if he rewards favorites and punishes recalcitrants,
withdraws and issues assignments at his own caprice, he has effective
personal discipline over the staff. Job control gives power. The machine
is often mobilized even for righteous causes; but though the cause be
noble, the authoritarian nature of the machine remains. It becomes the
official's insurance policy against the uncertainties of democracy."
(When Organizers Organize, Union Democracy in Action
I believe this point you were making nearly fifty
years ago is no less true today, particularly when we witness the authoritarian
tendencies of a union like SEIU that clearly mobilizes for righteous causes
but frequently does so at the cost of basic democratic principles. And
of course, at the heart of SEIU's top-down strategy is an army of disciplined
staffers who are regularly used to displace democratically elected "recalcitrant"
leaders as we see happening in the case of Sal Rosselli and United Healthcare
Workers West (UHW-West).
It's not widely known that the staff union that represents
SEIU international staff, the Union of Union Representatives (UUR), actually
passed a resolution by unanimous vote last Spring calling on SEIU international
president Andy Stern to stop assigning UUR members work that "interferes
with the ability of SEIU local union members to express their opinions
on issues that concern them, and ... that undermines their leaders."
The resolution goes on to state that "[a]ny work done to impede the
democratic processes of a local union is a direct violation of the morals
and standards of professional organizing."
Obviously a staff union can't lead an internal struggle
for democracy among the employer-union's rank and file, but the staff
union can certainly help by objecting to the employer's authoritarian
methods, particularly where such methods involve the staffers directly.
What should be the role, if any, of staff unions in these internal struggles?
HB: Andy Stern, SEIU president, is mobilizing
the full force of the union to impose a trusteeship over the 150,000-member
UHW-West local in California and to cut down Sal Rosselli, the local's
president who has been Stern's only effective critic in the union. In
an extraordinary act of resistance, the UUR informed Stern that it will
oppose any effort to force staff to join the drive to undermine the local
and its leaders. In moving against his critics in California, Stern ignores
demonstrations by thousands of SEIU members, criticism from a hundred
pro-union academics and writers around the country, and scores of community
leaders and elected officials in California. He has not demonstrated the
temperament to shrug off this act of defiance by UUR. In time, I am convinced
the UUR will need the same kind of moral support that UHW-West needs in
its defense against repression by Stern.
The role of the staff in internal union struggles?
Ideally, I suppose, the staff should function in a kind of civil service
capacity, fulfilling its duties on everything related to the union's collective
bargaining responsibilities and remaining aloof from internal union conflicts.
That seems simple; the goal is fine, but life is complicated. The principle
is difficult to apply confidently and hard to enforce.
When it comes to contested union elections, there
should be no problem. The staff should not take sides. But staff employees
generally have a vested interest in the fate of incumbent officers. After
all, they usually got their jobs through the incumbents. With no one around
to watch all day long, who can stop staff members from doing their bit
for those in office? Because federal law provides that union resources
may not be used to support candidates for union office, staffers presumably
may not campaign for candidates while on paid union time. But the U.S.
Labor Department has made that restriction virtually unenforceable by
ruling that it is O.K. for union staff to campaign while on the payroll
if it is only "incidental" to their regular duties. With that
loophole, any clever union administration can find a way to justify any
staff employee's campaign work. A staff union cannot be expected to police
rules against campaigning. But it should protect its staff members from
being pressured, or coerced, into supporting candidates for union office
against their own inclinations.
On other internal issues, it can get complex. Suppose,
for example, there is a difference of opinion on whether to prepare the
membership for a possible strike. The administration wants to get ready,
but staff is opposed. The administration directs the staff to arouse the
membership for action, but some sympathize with the opposition's misgivings.
How does the staff union handle the problem? I am not suggesting an answer.
This is one of those questions that might be addressed at any conference
of staff unions.
GP: In my own case staff unionism has meant
much more to me than improved wages, benefits, and working conditions.
It has allowed me to be a labor activist independent of my union-employer
(or as you put it in 1961, "[to put] a crack in the smooth structure
of uniformity") and I think it has made me a better labor educator
for the union members I work with. Unfortunately, I have to agree somewhat
with those labor activists on the left who oppose staff unionism because
of its tendency to maintain the status quo at the expense of much needed
reform. But the same could be said of teachers' unions posing an obstacle
to some aspects of educational reform, yet I know of no legitimate unionist
on the left who would advocate doing away with teachers' unions.
HB: As I see it, there are two different kinds
of objections to staff unionism that come out of the "left"
- whatever that is. Sometimes they are thrown together, but let's keep
Some in the left are delighted to use union democracy
as an instrument for a militant class struggle policy against the conservative
right. But they are dismayed by the thought that democracy could be used
by the right against the left. They are outraged when the collaborationist
right deploys an obedient, militarized staff to entrench its own power
and advance its program in the interest of exploiters. But that same left
would like to have the same kind of disciplined, militarized staff available
to a leftist regime to advance a program in the interests of humanity.
And so there is no room for a staff union that might stand up even against
a leftist leadership.
But the need for union democracy transcends political
lines and broad social programs. Up to recently, that thought must have
seemed an empty abstraction. Right now a depressing lesson is enacted
under our eyes. About five or ten years ago, under its current leadership,
the SEIU and its big component Local 1199, were on the very left of the
left of our labor movement. Its top leadership and its staff were - and
are - bulging with assorted leftists of one stripe or another. And now,
still under the banner of liberating humanity, the SEIU, under Stern,
is creating an authoritarian model of unionism, sometimes militant, sometimes
corporatist, but increasingly repressive. Under these circumstances, it
seems to me, the defense of staff unionism is clearly a defense of democratic
A different questioning of staff unionism from the
left derives from the possible problems that staff unionism can pose with
respect to democratic reform. To take an extreme case, consider an ineffective,
or autocratic, or even corrupt leadership that has lost the support of
the local membership. An election is scheduled and the old gang is likely
to be ousted by a good reform opposition. Fearing defeat, and anxious
to protect the cronies they had installed in the staff over the years,
they quickly arrange the formation of a staff union, sign a long range
contract with the new union, with cushy jobs and salaries and protection
against discharge. The incoming reform administration is saddled with
what looks like a hostile dead weight.
No question, with a staff union come problems you
wouldn't have without a staff union. But how does that differ from any
other field of human endeavor? I believe that an intelligent union leadership
can handle its problems without slash and burn. In any event, they will
have to find a way, because like it or not, the National Labor Relations
Board Act protects the legal right of union staffers to organize.
At a time when the danger looms of a new unionism
moving toward authoritarianism, I believe that staff unionism can be a
modest -- a very modest -- push in the opposite direction. Let's start
with that and go on to figure out how to resolve the difficulties.
IAM Local 2339N: Nasty aftermath to a Trusteeship
major nurses unions unite in AFL-CIO
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