Union Presidents Shouldn’t Make More Than Their Members

I can’t decide if the Stern Burger with Fries blog is an anti-union front or legitimate rank-and-file criticism, though I lean towards the latter. In either case, it seems to be run by a (former?) member who holds a personal grudge and is willing to stretch the truth to make a valid point. For instance, this post wrongly calls reserves “profits” and says SEIU-UHW practices “for-profit unionism” and has a higher profit margin “than Fortune 500 companies like Coca-Cola,” but at the same time it deserves credit for calling out the union’s over-paid officials. (It’s hard to call them “labor leaders” when it seems most of the elected positions at SEIU are filled by former staffers, like its president Mary Kay Henry who started off as a researcher for the union in 1980.) Also, it is interesting to hear that the constitution of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (which split from SEIU) apparently “blocks the union’s president and staff from earning more than the union’s members.” This is something that every union should do.

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Technology, Electoral Politics, and the Rank and File

This article by Kati Sipp at New Labor Forum argues that organized labor, to its great detriment, has been “a late adopter” of things like social media, clever subject lines, database management, and “digital organizing” in general – “if they have adopted them at all.” Sure, unions could probably be better at these types of things, but it seems to me that that the author places way too much hope in the power of technology. In many ways, this article is very much like a report by the Century Foundation that acted like “a virtual labor organizing platform” was basically the best thing since sliced bread. Waging Nonviolence had the appropriate response: “It’s not as if, however, more workers aren’t unionized because they simply don’t have the right apps.”

Sipp notes that she “spent a good chunk of my work life straddling the intersection of the labor movement and the electoral world” and this is definitely reflected in her opinions. She basically wants unions to be run like political campaigns, even though she acknowledges that the two exist in different environments and have different needs. Nonetheless, she thinks unions are behind the times because if she wants to “use my member data for routine political organizing,” it’s “clunky” to go from a regular old database to something like VAN, where it would be easy to find each member’s legislative district. I find great irony in this. If you’re concerned about how to best organize workers, maybe that’s what you should be spending your time doing? Organizing is not rocket science, but a lot of effort does have to go into it. Technology can help, but that’s all it can do. Despite what Sipp thinks, finding workers is really not that hard and putting a list of workers together is actually a good exercise for organizing committees. On the other hand, if you’re sending out your staff and members to knock on doors for politicians during election season or doing turnout for their events or putting on a show just for them – you’re not doing the work of organized labor, you’re just shilling for a political party. Any time that unions spend on promoting or lobbying politicians is time that isn’t being spent to organize workers, and an organized workforce – not a mildly friendly politician – is where unions’ strength lies.

There’s one other thing about this article I’d be remiss not to mention: no one should be advocating for less rank-and-file control of unions. According to Sipp, “In addition to seniority, some unions are devoted to hiring from within their own rank and file—a noble practice, when it comes to ensuring that business agents and organizers are deeply in touch with the concerns of the members—but a potentially limiting one, where expertise in use of technology is required. It should not surprise us that a person who has spent her life learning to be the best kindergarten teacher possible, for example, is not also an expert in programming SQL databases.” This is the lamest excuse for taking even further control out of the hands of workers I think I have ever seen.

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Steve Greenhouse Asks the Wrong Question

His article on unions and their get-out-the-vote power is decent, though the question shouldn’t be “Can labor still turn out the vote?”, it should be, “Should labor still turn out the vote?” And the answer should be a resounding NO. Unions need to stop wasting their resources on politicians and instead organize workers. Otherwise, their long decline will continue.

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U.S. Labor: Still Throwing Good Money after Bad

It’s amazing how little the leaders of the U.S. labor movement have learned after more than eighty years of wasting members’ money trying to get politicians elected. So far this election cycle, at least $6.3 million has been sent to “Clinton-aligned organizations” as well as nearly another million to two other groups. And that doesn’t count the staff time that should have been spent on organizing and building real worker class power – you know, what unions are supposed to do – instead of working for political parties. And now the AFL-CIO is apparently “conceiving of a new super PAC that could cost unions $1 million apiece for a seat at the table.” The funny thing is how effective the labor bureaucracy thinks this is – and how important it thinks it is to get noticed in the media. Funny, if it weren’t so damn sad and frustrating. Last I looked, union density is still on a long-term decline:

union membership and share of income going to the top 10 percent

There’s no reason to believe that the same old strategy of throwing money at politicians is going to change this. If we are to ever build an effective labor movement in this country, we need to toss the army of well-paid hustlers out on their asses and tell them to go work on the Democrats’ dime.

I don’t think unions should be giving money or diverting scarce resources to any politician, but hell at least they could be supporting Bernie Sanders, who actually has policy positions consistent with what most labor unions claim to want. To their credit, some decent unions are, though they are in the minority. Meanwhile, the rest are supporting Clinton, and doing some ethical gymnastics along the way. For instance, SEIU went as far as to lie to its members, distributing flyers that suggested that Clinton supports a $15 minimum wage, even though she doesn’t. But don’t worry. If Clinton gets elected, perhaps Mary Kay Henry and the other middle-class executives can get a well-paid seat at the table and catch Clinton between meetings with the executives she really cares about – those on Wall Street and in the boardrooms of corporations across the world.

UPDATE, April 7, 2016: Politico reports WSJ reporting that “A fight among labor unions over who would control a proposed $50 million super PAC has slowed the creation of a unified effort to boost the chances of labor-friendly Democrats winning the White House and control of Congress in the November election. […] A senior political strategist for unions first laid out the plan in February before dozens of union presidents and other labor leaders at the winter meeting in San Diego of the executive council of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union federation. But the efforts have been delayed since then, in part over disputes about who would receive credit for the work done, according to people familiar with the talks.” Good.

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I’m Old, But Not as Old as Proudhon Would Have Been

When I saw that Proudhon was born this day in 1809, I remembered how he was one of the first anarchists I read when I was first becoming interested in anarchism, and how exciting his ideas were. A whole new world opened up, and I dove right in. What is Property? (theft!) was dense and bland at points, but I still read the whole thing and then worked my way through other anarchist writings. Fast forward half a lifetime, and even though Proudhon is the one who claimed the word “anarchist” as a positive label, I now think of him as more of a proto-anarchist, probably in large part due to the influence of Black Flame. I think Bakunin and others like him are a better representation of the maturation of what anarchism is as a social movement, political philosophy, whatever you want to call it. But nonetheless, they built off Proudhon, and anarchists today owe him many thanks. So, cheers Proudhon! Go read some of his work.

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Sheri Berman Meet Student Power

Few things make me as happy as when some pompous liberal attacks anarchism and then gets their ass handed to them.

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Lists of U.S. Imperialist Actions

William Blum took a bit of a break, between May and November of this year, from writing his monthly “Anti-Empire Reports,” citing his frustration of feeling like he was always saying the same things about the same U.S. imperial actions and nothing ever changing. At least that’s my paraphrase of what I remember his reasons were – it doesn’t appear to be on the site and I guess I deleted the email. But anyway, he is again writing them and all anti-imperialists and people who don’t desire endless war should thank him because his voice is immeasurably important on this issue. In November, based on “about 30 years compiling the details of the criminal record of US foreign policy”, he provided readers with these lists of things the U.S. has done since World War II (as well as lots of great commentary about other things):

  • Attempted to overthrow more than 50 foreign governments, most of which were democratically-elected.
  • Dropped bombs on the people of more than 30 countries.
  • Attempted to assassinate more than 50 foreign leaders.
  • Attempted to suppress a populist or nationalist movement in 20 countries.
  • Grossly interfered in democratic elections in at least 30 countries. [citing Chapter 18 of his book Rogue State]
  • Plus … although not easily quantified … more involved in the practice of torture than any other country in the world … for over a century … not just performing the actual torture, but teaching it, providing the manuals, and furnishing the equipment.
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