Don't Bash Unions

John Buell wrote some wicked criticisms of the U.S. labor movement into his piece, "Unions Face Globalized Workplace" [9/98 Progressive Populist]. I don't know where John Buell is coming from, but parts of his article could have been lifted from the far right-wing reactionary press, i.e., "(U)nion leadership itself, often bureaucratic and insulated from the concerns of most shop floor workers." These kind of statements are made by antiunion corporate types, or arrogant, insulated liberals. Some leftists in this country have an infuriating tendency, which runs through most of Buell's piece, of disdain for US labor unions and their leadership combined with praise and respect for unions in other countries. US unions are dupes, company lackeys, while foreign unions are militant and progressive. I'm reminded of the support Reagan and Bush had for Solidarnosc, while firing PATCO and encouraging union busting in this country. How can Buell or anybody else blithely ignore Walter Reuther's support for civil rights, Owen Bieber's outspoken support for the struggle against apartheid, William Wimpsingers' vocal opposition to nuclear arms? It's been the US labor movement that is leading the fight against global trade agreements that drive wages down and ravage the Earth, not the Honda and brie academic-based liberals.

Buell does, on the other hand, serve accolades to "shop floor dissidents" who have responded to corporatism with "social movement unionism." Who are these dissidents? The top leadership of industrial unions have been practicing social movement unionism for years, supporting progressive politics, civil rights, the ERA, a clean environment, etc. Of course, if you accept the idea that the leadership is out of touch, then any good that comes from the labor movement must be from "dissidents." Phooey. It wasn't dissidents that took on GM in Flint, it was the entire UAW, from President Stephen Yokich and Vice President Richard Shoemaker, down to the Ford workers throughout southeast Michigan who raised thousands of dollars for the strikers. It isn't dissidents that are in Mexico, helping to organize real, independent trade unions, but main stream trade unionists. It isn't dissidents that have pledged nearly a third of their unions' resources to organizing new workers, especially minorities and women, it is the top leadership of the good old AFL-CIO.

Leave union bashing to the right wing. Lord knows they do enough of it. In fact, one would think that all progressives would find some common bonds with labor leaders, given their common enemies.

In Solidarity,

UAW Local 892
Brooklyn, Mich.
Email Jpeders3@aol.com

Buell replies:

I'd be the last person to argue that American workers would be better off without unions. Nonetheless, union density today stands at about a third of its post World War II peak and union influence even within the Democratic Party is badly diminished. If this sorry state is solely a consequence of corporate power and conservative ruthlessness, perhaps we should all just sow our own gardens and prepare for a long winter. I believe the relative powerlessness of labor and the left owes at least something to mistakes we have made.

Walter Reuther surely was not Jimmy Hoffa. Reuther's contributions to building a U.S. welfare state are justly celebrated. But even Reuther, like any political leader or political journalist, was not above reproach. His fight for civil rights nationally was never matched by equivalent efforts to diversify UAW leadership or extend more of the best auto industry jobs to African American workers.

The post-war union movement had several major inadequacies. As Daniel Cantor and Juliet Schor detail in Tunnel Vision, the AFL-CIO leadership worked with the CIA to quash left-leaning unionism abroad. In the process, labor leadership ironically laid the foundation for much of today's capital flight.

Secondly, labor leadership in the fifties largely jettisoned earlier labor activism in such causes as shortening the work day and giving workers more direct control over the pace and nature of their jobs. Thomas Sugrue award winning book, The Origins of the Urban Crisis, gives an interesting perspective on this. In the early fifties, workers at UAW local 600, Ford's giant River Rouge facility, recognized that deindustrialization was a threat to all workers. And they knew that shortening hours through curbs on overtime would create more jobs and improve the quality of life for all. But Walter Reuther and the UAW leadership had systematically purged left elements in the union. Reuther insisted the union focus on organizing workers in the new rural locations and seek continual wage growth rather than hours reduction. With tacit support from company and government, his case carried the day, especially in a climate poisoned by McCarthyism.

Throughout the eighties and early nineties, much of the leadership of industrial unions has been resistant to rank and file concerns regarding overly long working hours. Readers interested in this story should consult the excellent monthly publication, Labor Notes. Failure to address these concerns has limited the appeal of unionism, especially to many women and environmentalists. The splits between labor and the new social movements--from which the left suffers today--have complex causes and are surely not the fault solely of labor. Nonetheless, labor leadership plays some role in opening these schisms.

Thirdly, the lack of full democratic accountability within many unions contributes both to their unresponsiveness to many qualitative concerns and their inability to broaden their base. The UAW still elects its officers at its conventions rather than by direct membership vote. The lack of internal union democracy and procedural protections for union dissidents within many unions-- also detailed by Labor Notes-- is more than a moral scandal. It often saps unions of vital idealism and of an energized rank and file needed if the union base is to grow. Treating all who criticize current union leadership as though they are tools of Reagan, Bush, and the corporate establishment hardly contributes to informed debate and is only likely to further diminish unions.

Check Out
Proportional Voting

That was an excellent article in the [11/98 Progressive Populist] on Winner Take All. It was the clearest explanation of all the speculation of why so many voters say "my vote doesn't count". They seem to have understood all along that they were living in a neighborhood that was heavily "other party".

A more interesting statistic, if you could get it, would be on how many of those House elections that were "up for grabs" had an element of a third party candidate as part of the election. My reading of third party groups is that nearly all of them are to the left of the Democratic party. Where the Democratic party used to be, or could more easily be--so to speak. Making suggestions of proportional representation would only exacerbate that problem, and at best would achieve tokenism as a result of victories. It probably wouldn't even achieve a compromised coalition government such as happened in Germany.

The Ballot Access News in March indicated that New Mexico almost got their "instant run off" bill out of committee but for the absence of one favorable senator. The "instant run off" type of election would permit all supporters of third party candidates to cast their vote for their preference and not lose their opportunity to vote against the party that they want to make sure doesn't win.

This system worked so well in Northern Ireland last Spring, it's hard to believe that not all newspapers are picking up on it and doing a story on it. I sure hope you take the opportunity to follow the progress of this next evolution of our democratic process in future articles.

Thank you,

Eugene, OR 97403

Bad Choices in Washington

Jim Cullen writes [in "Monopoly Hard to Beat in Politics," 11/98 Progressive Populist]:

"Patty Murray, 'the mom in tennis shoes,' as it turns out, treads a reliably progressive path through the halls of the Senate. Her key issues are education, the environment, and a woman's right to choose. Murray has written legislation which would reduce class size, increase training for teachers, and give parents time to attend activities at their childrenís schools. While Murray's pollsters show her with a lead, the right wing is lined solidly behind opponent Republican Rep. Linda Smith."

Look a little deeper and you will see that Patty Murray is a corporate stooge, and she's as dumb as a mud fence. Consequently, she is rolling in corporate campaign contributions and establishment endorsements. She does look faintly progressive on a few issues which do not seriously challenge corporate power. And she will probably win. But she will not get my vote. I am tired of the Democrats' game.

Her opponent, Linda Smith, is actually more of a populist. She is the only member of the Washington congressional delegation to vote against NAFTA, one of only two who voted against MFN for China. She has been an outspoken advocate of campaign finance reform, and has pissed off the GOP leadership as a result.

However, she is a right-wing populist, with a large following of bible- thumpers, liberal-bashers, privateers & buccaneers and rednecks. And she has a special talent for grossing out the urban sophisticates in the Seattle area. The latter are doing well economically and are in a deep political sleep. Under these very transient conditions, the shallow economics-avoiding progressivism of Patty Murray will be enough for her to win.

I am not going to vote for either candidate. And I'm sorry to read that Jim Cullen has endorsed one of them.

Seattle, Wash.
Email econorth@aol.com

Looking for Progressives

I have recently been re-elected, after an 8 year hiatus, to the Arkansas General Assembly. I am seeking other "progressive" or "liberal" activists in office as well as examples of progressive state legislation that might be passed on to other states.

Ark. State Representative
10625 Legion Hut Rd.
Mabelvale, AR 72103
Email jlendall@cei.net

Fledgling Parties
Should Unite

Perhaps this publication can address a problem that has vexed me for years. Why do we have such a myriad of consumer-oriented fledgling parties--Labor Party, New Party, Working Families Party, Green Party, etc etc.?

We have one basic objective, to protect ourselves from the predator corporate conglomerates; "we" being labor, farmers, environmentalists--consumers all. Better-paid workers will buy more organic foods; farmers who get a fair share of the price for their product, rather than disproportionate shares to the processors and distributors--which will lower the price we pay--will buy more manufactured goods. Make the corporate structure pay when they despoil our environment.

These basic objectives are attainable if we unite as one. Nothing is attainable if we pursue individual parochial goals.

United we stand, divided we fall.

Spring Valley, N.Y. 10977

Look Out For Nursing Care

I hope the Labor Party's platform plank demanding "comprehensive, universal, single-payer health care" ["'Party Time' for Labor," 11/98 Progressive Populist], which I heartily endorse, includes long-term nursing care for the elderly or disabled. Millions of American families are faced with the spectre of being emotionally and financially wiped out when a loved one must be cared for in this way.

Irvine, Calif.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1998 The Progressive Populist