Sunday, September 2, 2012

Business Unionism: A Smedley Butler "Racket?"

Brian Walsh served as vice president of VT-NEA.  He is a graduate student at the Labor Center of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and is currently teaching high school and interning at the Vermont Workers Center.   These are his workshop remarks at The People's Convention in Burlington VT today.

I was asked to provide a little historical analysis, and I started thinking about Smedley Butler.  He was a marine, I guess a good one - he killed some people, got a bunch of medals and became a general.  But after he retired he wrote a little book called War Is A Racket.  According to Butler, a “racket” is “something that is not what it seems to be, … conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the very many.”  By that definition, I think a pretty good argument can be made that most unions today, including public sector unions, are “rackets” too.  
That’s harsh, but Butler’s definition begins by saying a “racket” is something that is “not what it seems ….”  Unions were created to protect workers’ rights, including the right to a decent living, at their workplace and beyond.  Unfortunately, most unions today, are doing a poor job at protecting anyone’s rights, except perhaps the “right” of employers, be they public or private sector, to squeeze and oppress their employees.  There’s a war on against labor, and labor is losing.
Although the NLRA, better known as the “Wagner Act,” guaranteed unions legal recognition, it’s purpose was to maintain “labor peace.”  In other words, the law made labor part of the system in order to ensure that that system kept working.  Although some unions, mostly CIO, remained militant into World War II and beyond, laws such as 1947’s Taft-Hartley Act, and agreements like UAW’s 1950 GM contract, the infamous “Treaty of Detroit,” insured labor would not regain the offensive.  Thus in retreat, the business-union model, where union members are “serviced” by staff, was created.  In return for concessionary contracts, unions, and their officials were granted relative autonomy. 
That’s where the second part of Butler’s definition - “[benefiting] the very few at the expense of the very many” - applies.  In case you haven’t noticed, working for a union can be profitable - salaries are often 50 to 100 percent higher than those of members paying those salaries.  I’m not saying that union staff don’t deserve their pay, but I do think they have the duty to help members fight for their human rights, not encourage them to accept ruling class paradigms about everyone needing to “tighten their belts;” but then, unions would have to change the ways they do business.  They would have to abandon their stale business unionism, and empower, encourage and equip their members to fight and win. 
I know there are some union leaders and staff willing to help their members do what is necessary.  Unfortunately, those people are in the minority; the system demands “labor peace,” and it is difficult to convince people bringing home six-figure paychecks and Cadillac benefits to jeopardize their jobs by helping members fight the war they need to win.  And there, as Hamlet famously stated, lies “the rub.” 
Since too many union officials prioritize the status quo - which benefits their individual interests over workers’ collective rights - it is up to members to change union priorities.  However, too often members are unequipped or unready to take the actions needed to move their unions forward.  Therefore, as scholar and social activist Staughton Lynd explained in his concise work Solidarity Unionism: Rebuilding the Labor Movement from Below, small, informal groups of workers, and their supporters, whom he called “parallel unionism,” are needed to push those unions. 
That’s what  happened in Chicago, as the “parallel union” - CORE - became the driving force behind the transformation of the Chicago Teacher’s Union - formerly a status quo-loving AFT local - into an organization willing to fight the neoliberal takeover of the Chicago Public Schools.  Obviously, it will not be an easy fight; Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the corporations seeking to privatize public schools are well-financed and powerful. 
CORE’s vision - protecting education as a human right and a public good - will need to be broad enough to attract sufficient class and community support needed for success.  Although odds are against Chicago’s teachers, the path they’ve chosen is the only one that can win; “business as usual” unionism is clearly destined to lose in our life-and-death struggle against the neoliberal takeover of our public good.

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