Monday, July 25, 2005

Why do unions need to unite?

The NYT reported on the new "major schism" today in the A.F.L-C.I.O confederation. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Teamsters are "quitting the federation . . ." I read this article with great interest, in part, because I knew it was on the horizon. My mother, (who is also a reformed republican) is a leader in the SEIU. She organizes nurses.

Anyway, moving to a union has been a big change for my mom. Part of the reason, of course, is that she sees a lot of shady stuff and icky politics. I asked her several months ago about the corruption in unions and she said: "yep, it exists." She also told me that her union was thinking of breaking with SEIU to get away from it. I thought this sounded promising.


The reason my mom believes in the union is because most of the people she is around and organizes have integrity. And, my mom, like many of us these days, is outraged by how labor is mistreated: lower wages, no health care, no pensions, longer hours, less security, etc. So, she gets out there and tries to make the world better. But, as anyone who has been involved with ANY organization knows (political or otherwise), you will find eventually find problems: corruption and people more interested in power than progress.

When mom told me that SEIU, under its new leadership, was thinking of breaking with A.F.L-C.I.O, I thought it would be good for improving morale and the reputation of SEIU. (This, of course, was based on what she was telling me--I don't pretend to have any inside info). Because unions, in my view, are so important, they need to purge themselves of all the elements that republican politicians and policy folks beat them up with.

Steven Greenhouse reports:

A rift could hurt the labor movement badly by redirecting its focus and energies to internal battles instead of bedrock issues like fighting for wage increases and extending health care to more workers. Democrats, a traditional ally of organized labor, are especially worried that a schism might hurt their party's chances by making labor a less potent political force.

I find this quite irritating. Its symptomatic of a general trend among Democrats and liberal groups these days: to stay united for more power. It bugs me because it turns these groups exactly into what they are criticized as. Moreover, what we need in unions, in the Democratic party, etc. is new leadership. We need people willing to take bold stands and attract new energy and commitment. I am just not convinced that these schisms are ultimately bad; they might be the sign of something good coming.

One last note: my mom keeps telling me how frustrated she is with the management of her local. In general, people are afraid of using words like "manager." This is not good. If they want to be effective, to save working people, they need to get OVER semantics and philosophical debates about organizational structures that do not mimic the hierarchies of corporate America.