The Union Democracy Movement: An Analysis

Oaklandsocialist recently posted an article on the Teamsters election and the role of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Here is a more in-depth analysis of that group and the whole union democracy trend. Taking up these issues can be a lonely battle for now. We urge sisters and brothers to consider it anyway. What is riding on this is not only the future of the US labor movement. Given that the unions are the only mass working class organizations that US workers have ever known, what is riding on this is really the future of the US working class and its role in society.

Miners For Democracy
The original such democracy reform movement was even before TDU; it was the (coal) Miners for Democracy (MFD), formed in

Swearing in Arnold Miller as president of the UMW, December 22, 1977

1970. In 1972, they nominated Arnold Miller over Mike Trbovich, who was seen as more militant. Later that same year, Miller and his team won the election through a one member, one vote process. Miller’s term in office was filled with conflict from within and he was eventually voted out of office.

Teamsters & TDU
The history of TDU is not that different. In 1991, TDU-supported Ron Carey won 48% of the popular vote for the presidency of the Teamsters. However, since the Old Guard had split and had run two candidates, Carey’s 48% was enough to win the election.

The 1997 UPS strike under Ron Carey. Some gains were won as far as winning full time jobs, but not nearly what some claimed.

Carey did clean up some of the corruption. And in 1997 he led a major strike against UPS. At that time, almost all strikes ended up accepting concessions, so the fact that the UPS strike did not was considered a huge victory. While there were some advances, the extent of these advances was quite exaggerated. In that same year, Carey faced a tough reelection race against Old Guard Jimmy Hoffa, jr. Apparently he and/or his team were involved in a scheme to launder money from the union towards his reelection campaign and he was disqualified by the federal government from being reelected. In any case, it seems that Hoffa jr. had stood a very good chance of winning even without that scandal.

Meanwhile, in Seattle TDU’s Bob Hasegawa was elected to lead Teamsters Local 174. This writer was at a TDU meeting shortly after Hasegawa took office. There were major complaints about the degree to which the Hasegawa administration was failing to really fight for the members, and in a following election the TDU team was voted out of office in the local. Hasegawa is presently a liberal Democratic state senator.

As former TDU member Edgar Esquivel explained in his article, Where is TDU Going?,TDU retreated on some of its most important demands regarding union democracy at the time or after endorsing O’Brien. From the outside, we cannot say it was necessarily a mistake to endorse O’Brien, but to do so uncritically, to be all-in, that is a major mistake. It’s possible that the incoming O’Brien-Zuckerman team in the Teamsters will take some slightly stronger steps in negotiating with UPS as well as in organizing at Amazon than the Old Guard would have. However, these will be more of a reflection of the push from below than a real independent and more fighting leadership. Without a leadership that bases itself on clear vision of how to fight the employers both at work and beyond, the same old problems are bound to resurface.

A similar reform group is working in the United Auto workers. It is called “Unite All Workers for Democracy” (UAWD). Its main focus is on winning the election of International officeers through a rank and file vote (“one member, one vote”). Of course, popular election of International officers would be a good step, but it is no cure-all. In the first place, if a reform candidate cannot win enough votes to get the majority of delegate supporters, it raises the question of whether he or she can win a popular vote. But more important, all sorts of opportunists like O’Brien can take up the “democracy” banner in order to gain supporters.

Striking John Deere workers

The recent John Deere strike is an example of the problem. After having been on strike for weeks, enough members were willing to accept a new contract proposal that the strike was ended. This came after two previous proposals from the union leadership were rejected. One of the main reasons for the rejections was the complex productivity bonus program and how John Deere continually cheated in failing to pay the workers who work under that program. The final contract, while it was an improvement on other issues, did little or nothing to resolve that particular one.

This raises a whole series of other issues, including how to win strikes in this era. Oaklandsocialist has argued repeatedly that it’s necessary to return to the methods of the 1930s, including mass pickets and defiance of anti-union injunctions and laws. Also, especially in manufacturing, where a multinational like Deere is struck, it’s important to make direct links with Deere workers around the world. Successful solidarity action is only possible, of course, if the union here shows solidarity for the workers in other countries. In other words, true internationalism in deeds, not just words.

There is also the issue of organizing the unorganized. Auto production in the US used to be 100% union. No more. The UAW has tried to organize some non-union plants, such as the Nissan plant in Mississippi in 2017. Every one of those drives

“Pro Nissan & pro union” – the UAW “organizing” slogan at the Nissan plant.
Why should workers join and pay dues to a union if it’s pro company?

failed. In the case of Nissan, the UAW’s slogan was “pro Nissan, pro union”.  In that case, if one can be both, then who needs a union?

This gets to the whole policy of the union leadership. Bob King, former president of the UAW explained it clearly: “The 21st century UAW seeks and expects a partnership with employers based on mutual respect, trust and common goals… The 21st century UAW views management not as our adversaries or enemies, but as partners in innovation and quality. Our relationship with employers is built upon a foundation of respect, shared goals, and a common mission….”

Basically, what it means is that the union leadership “acts as a PR firm for the employers, as a buffer between the members and the company”, as UAW member Justin Mayhugh put it. While UAWD did publish articles on the strike, it did not deal with these questions.

Bob King was no exception, nor is the UAW overall. Every union in the US is operated along similar lines. This is the reason why the leadership keeps trying to sell cut-rate contracts to the members.

The union leadership’s links with the corporate-controlled Democratic Party also figures into the picture. Under their influence, the leadership is unwilling to mobilize its membership in the wider struggles, such as those against racism. Now, as the Republicans are preparing to further suppress voting rights and to nullify election results (through their state legislatures), the Democrats and their representatives inside the unions refuse to mobilize the working class to stop them.

These are the reasons why the leadership has to keep the members at a distance, meaning acting as a bureaucracy. Inherent in that is undemocratic maneuvers. The point is that in this era a campaign for union democracy cannot really succeed unless that campaign also ties in these wider issues. It’s why not putting them front and center can create an opening for all sorts of opportunists and out-of-power bureaucrats turned “reformers”.

Working through official channels, including union elections, is important. However, the struggle to make the unions really fight for the members and for all workers will not be won if we confine ourselves strictly to that arena. The bureaucratic roadblocks are too many and once in motion workers won’t wait long enough to overcome them. Taking matters into our own hands is vital. As Western Washington carpenters showed for a brief moment, that even includes wildcat strikes when and where possible.

Categories: labor, Uncategorized

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