Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/24/04
stereotype of why unionism has for the most part failed in this nation has to do
with outdated notions of corruption, Mafia involvement, racketeering (Teamsters
& Longshoremen), & radical politics (UMW & Wobblies). This is &
is not true. Yes, there have been instances of all the previously mentioned
excesses, but that’s not why the last 3 decades have seen union strength in
this nation decline from near 40% of all workplaces to barely hovering about
10%. Nor is the standard argument that unions are relics the answer either. All
of these notions are put out by either people hostile to the idea of unions or
eggheads with no real idea of what a good union can do for a
worker. That said, unions have clearly failed the common worker. I can say this
as a former member of 4 major unions (UFCW, Teamsters, CWA, & AFSCME), who-
unfortunately- has always been far more pro-union than most of the unions I’ve
The real reason that unionism has failed has been poor leadership & incompetence. This has mostly been brought on by a failure at the local levels, not the national levels where most pundits assign blame. In the 4 jobs that I was a union member I saw repeated instances of Local unions’ inability &/or unwillingness to protect their members when they needed it most. It is this sloth & preoccupation with keeping their modest power bases that has been the most crippling to labor in this country- not a ‘New World Economy’ [snicker], nor an increase in the intelligence of management at corporations [snicker- deux], nor old-time notions of corruption as graft. There is corruption- it’s just based on petty feuds between union reps & members &/or management, which leads to the inability of the local unions to protect their membership from management abuses. Here now are 4 examples of union idiocy from the 4 unions I worked in:
UFCW- while working at a supermarket in NYC in the late 1980s there was an election held for local leadership. The election was to be held 1 evening at a hotel room. Only the people who could attend the meeting were allowed to vote. The incumbents made sure their do-nothing slate’s backers made the meetings. All the rest of the members who could not, mostly part-timers, were not even informed of the election, much less given absentee ballots. My store’s steward asked me to draw up a letter to send to the AFL-CIO protesting the election’s results. 4 years later democracy came to the local. The election day was publicized in advance, & absentee ballots were distributed beforehand. The incumbents still won- this time by giving out gift certificates. Graft was not against the bylaws. Lesson- the desire to hold onto a fiefdom exceeds the desire to protect the rank & file.
Teamsters- in the early 1990s the magazine distributorship I worked in had a relatively small shop of about 40 people- 2/3s who were warehouseman & 1/3 who were delivery drivers. The highly profitable company wanted major givebacks & most of the cowardly drivers wanted to go along because the owner did not demand as much from them. The warehouse crew was split between the cowards & younger folk like me who wanted to make a stand. Most of the cowards felt that the local union would not muster enough Teamster support in companies that delivered to our company to help us win. They said they could not promise us we’d get the support we needed. They had a reputation of never standing up to management’s many abuses. Still, our steward & I rallied enough members to our side to force a tie. There was 1 member left whose vote would carry the day. Unfortunately, the man was retarded. The owner promised him some candy- I swear, I’m not making this up- & we lost major benefits, & got a raise less than ½ of what we needed. The steward resigned in disgust, & I left a year or so later for what I hoped was a better job- it wasn’t. Lesson- the smaller the union shop the less effort a local will extend, for the main concern is not a member’s well-being, but his or her dues.
CWA- in the late 1990s-early 2000s I worked for a Fortune 500 telecommunications company. I was a highly awarded collections agent, the top dollar producer in my office, & had a flawless record. There was a woman on my team who was similarly a top worker. There was another co-worker who was so incompetent in collections that, in true Peter Principle fashion, he was swiftly promoted to management- 1st as a manager, then an auditor, then to Human Resources. He failed miserably at all his tasks. Strangely, as an HR person he did little paperwork- filing of claims, attendance, health insurance, etc.- rather he was the office spy. In 2000 he decided he did not like my female coworker. Incredibly, 1 day when she was at lunch he came to my cubicle, asked where she was, & when I told him she was at lunch, he walked 2 cubes over & started going through her personal belongings- CD case, purse, & shopping bags. I was agog that he did this right in front of me & another coworker who stood up to see his dastard actions. When the woman returned I told her why her belongings were messed up. She filed charges with both the management & union against the HR schlub. I submitted a written statement to what I had seen less than 10 feet from me. Unbelievably, I was told that my account alone was not good enough, there needed to be corroboration. The other fellow refused to get involved. The HR person then started harassing both the female employee & me for the next year & ½. By early 2002 certain information against the woman had been faked, manifestly so, & she was fired. The union did nothing because the woman had been outspoken against their lack of will to stand up for their members. At about the same time the company was hemorrhaging money, & decided to start doing exactly what got Worldcom in trouble. I, & a few other conscientious employees, voiced our displeasure with the company’s trying to force us to do illegal things, & were threatened. We told the union. Nothing happened. Then, after years of being a model employee, I was called down to the HR jackass’s office. It seems that some of my work was ‘missing’. I was suspended. I suspected foul play & demanded the union investigate. Even though they were the Communications Workers of America I was told that they had no one who could verify or disprove management’s claims against me. I was disgusted. After suspension I started looking for a new job. Not long before I found 1 I got the proof my work had been tampered with, after consulting with a computer programmer friend of mine. The union did nothing. When I reminded them that the same HR fool who ‘investigated’ me was the 1 I had reported 2 years earlier the union professed to not know what I meant. Disgusted, & on management’s employee ‘hitlist’ (confirmed to me by a union member who was temporarily acting as a manager), I quit for a civil service job. Lesson- local unions are lazy, & filled with stupid, selfish people more concerned with personal biases than doing what is right.
AFSCME- after decades in private business I’d hoped public service employees dealt with better management & better unions. As usual, in my 8+ months at that job my work was highly praised & my immediate supervisor (who was unusually good) encouraged me to outline ways to make the office more efficient. I did not know at the time that her insecure boss was threatened by my suggestions & had me on her hitlist. Several times I followed government policies to the letter only to be reprimanded for it. Basically I was told the government policies were not for being obeyed, merely for print. There were also some office policies that were inefficient & truly dangerous to the public. I had pointed these out to my good supervisor. Unfortunately the bad boss was even more threatened. When there inevitably came a day when the dangerous policy led to a bad situation I was blamed for the outcome, even though I had warned the management of that very policy’s dangers months earlier. I also stressed that, regardless, I had followed office policies. I was then ‘denied permanency’- not ‘fired’ not ‘laid off’, as if a euphemism was a benison- less than 2 weeks before I would have qualified as a permanent- read, sinecured for life- employee. I protested to my local union & told them I had followed the management’s policy to the letter, even though I had foreseen the disastrous results. I was told there was nothing they could do since I had not been made ‘permanent’ yet. That did not stop them from taking dues from me from Day 1. Lesson- unions, these days, will do no more than the bare minimum for their members, & less if they can get away with it.
So, what is
the real reason for unionism’s failures in these United States we all love? A
lack of ethics & responsibility to their members. The reasons for this are
1) petty issues of control, 2) a greater fidelity to the dues a member pays than
to the member, 3) flat-out stupidity, & insincerity, & 4) sloth & an
unwillingness to hold management accountable. As a strong union idealist these
truths pain me as much as corrupt unions led by gangsters like Jimmy Hoffa, Sr.
or murderous thugs like Joe Hill. Yet, at least years ago no one could accuse
the Hoffas or Hills of being cowards who turned their backs on their beliefs.
Today’s union leadership is rife with pot-bellied bourgeoisie riffraff who
hypocritically claim to be for the working class, even as they do nothing to
back up their words.
As for me, I am striking out on my own. I’ve learned that an honest & outspoken man is doomed in today’s workforce- in large part due to modern unions’ failures to admit their failures & change. Anyone- on the right or left- that gives you any other reasons than these I’ve pinpointed for unionism’s failures is either willfully deceiving themselves & you, or they simply do not know whereof they speak. That’s the truth! You heard it here 1st, & unlike the many others who speak on unionism’s decline, as a strong pro-unionist, I can tell you, this is not a truth that gives pleasure, but it needs to be addressed, so at least it may still give hope!
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 1/04 Hackwriters website.]
Return to Bylines