On 'Left Anti-Unionism' and the Reason We Lost Wisconsin

By shrinking away from direct action and organizing, labor lost the ability to harness the people power that occupied the state capitol

As a labor reporter, I was dismayed to see Gordon Lafer's "Left Anti-Unionism?". In his first post, Lafer attacked pro-union writers for critiquing labor leaders in the wake of the Wisconsin recall election. He went on to write, "The only serious choices we have are to keep fighting even though times are hard, or to give up, or to enjoy the momentary rush of being on the same side as power and join in the anti-union attack."

While Lafer has apologized for the remarks and said he made them in a "moment of anger," variations of the term "left anti-union" are often thrown around to silence critics of union leaders. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted how AFSCME's outgoing President Gerald McEntee spent $325,000 on charter jet flights since 2010, instead of flying coach the way most of the workers he represents do. AFSCME's response was to blast the report for being published by "the mouthpiece of right-wing, corporate America." Incoming AFSCME President Lee Saunders went on to say that those within the union who leaked the information "knowingly gave ammunition to the union's enemies at a time when the right-wing media want nothing more than to destroy the labor movement."

In the wake of the Wisconsin defeat, there has been far too little concrete criticism of why organized labor lost. The analysis pushed by unions has relied on claiming that Walker outspent his opponent by a margin of 8-to-1. However, the great champion of labor, Paul Wellstone, was outspent 7-to-1 in his first election for Senate right next door in Minnesota, and he still managed to beat an incumbent senator. Strong, organized labor candidates have always been outspent, but they are able to win by harnessing people power the way Wellstone did.

At the height of the occupation, when 100,000 protesters were occupying the capitol, polls showed Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett beating Governor Scott Walker 52-45. The key question is how did the movement in Wisconsin lose this people power?

Quite simply, union leaders have just not invested their members with that much people power--before or after the Wisconsin recall. In February 2011, two union leaders--Marty Beil, one of AFSCME Wisconsin's Executive Directors, and Mary Bell of the Wisconsin Education Association Council--agreed to across the board wage cuts averaging $4,400 a year for their members. They did so without even taking a vote from their members. You can argue that agreeing to the concessions was a smart strategic move to win public support for collective bargaining rights, but shouldn't unions let their own members make that decision? How do unions distinguish themselves from corporate America if they don't allow their own members to even vote on whether or not to accept a $4,400 wage cut?

Once Walker's bill passed and the drastic wage cuts went into effect, the avenues of protest for union supporters were limited. And by failing to show that they would fight for workers in their day-to-day struggles through direct action, unions lost not just public support, but support from their own membership. After Walker's anti-union bill went into effect outlawing automatic collection of dues, the majority of AFSCME's members in Wisconsin chose to leave their union. Membership in AFSCME declined from 62,818 in March 2011 to less than half of that --just 28,745 in February of 2012. A majority of AFSCME members decided not to renew their membership in AFSCME--not exactly a vote of confidence for the union.

In right-to-work states where members can opt out of unions anytime, like public employees can do now in Wisconsin, unions have to maintain their organizational and financial strength through strong, non-stop internal organizing drives, encouragement of collective action on the job and the development of rank-and-file leadership that's very sensitive to the concerns of members. Had AFSCME engaged in a strategy of direct action in the workplace, similar in spirit to the capitol occupation, things might have gone differently.

The momentum of such a movement could have forced candidates like Tom Barrett to be more adamantly pro-union, like the fourteen Democratic state Senators who fled the state and became much stauncher union supporters. That would most likely have attracted more Wisconsin voters. Instead of engaging in direct action in the workplace, revitalizing their unions and changing the political terrain in Wisconsin, the state's labor leadership backed two Democrats, one in the primary and another in the general election, both of whom bragged in their public appearances about forcing concessions from public workers in the past.

Lafer dismisses the possibility of a direct workplace action, arguing that it's too difficult for "normal, apolitical, nonconfrontational" people to engage in workplace actions against their employers. He ignores, however, the fact that in response to Walker's bill, thousands of "normal, apolitical, non-confrontational" people working in public-sector jobs did go out on mass strikes. Thousands of teachers in numerous school districts across Wisconsin, including in Milwaukee and Madison, went on illegal, three-day sick-out strikes to protest Walker's bill. The illegal sick-out strikes swelled the size of the crowd then occupying the capitol to nearly 100,000.

Anyone who has ever been around a strike or union organizing drive knows that often in the course of being engaged in a labor struggle, people get inspired out of a sense of solidarity to do things that they never would have thought possible. Sure, these kinds of actions are tough to initiate, but Wisconsin labor leaders could have at least tried to motivate workers in their workplace. Instead, Wisconsin Executive Council 48 Director Rich Abelson came out saying, "there has been no talk of a general strike, there has been no talk of targeted strikes, or job actions or anything else. Our dispute is not with our employers. Our dispute is with the Republicans in the Wisconsin Senate, the Republicans in the Wisconsin Assembly and Governor Walker."

Lafer then dismisses claims that unions were unable to fight in Wisconsin because they were saddled with "overpaid union bureaucrats" and were unwilling to take on the Democrats. In a factually inaccurate statement, he claims that a union like "United Electrical workers--unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics--should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it's the coercive power of employers."

But the United Electrical Workers (UE), which caps its leaders salaries at $56,000 and does not typically endorse Democrats, is indeed growing in states where collective bargaining for public employees is outlawed-- states with Democratic governors like West Virginia and North Carolina. On the other hand, AFSCME, who reportedly pledged to spend $100 million to re-elect Obama and whose outgoing president Gerry McEntee made a salary of $387,000 (nearly seven times that of UE's president), has lost union members in those same states, according to UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend.

As AFSCME has seen its ranks dwindle in West Virginia, UE has become the biggest public-sector union in the state. Despite lacking collective bargaining rights in West Virginia, UE has been able to win small wage increases and grievances for its members by providing very intensive education to a network of shop stewards who then train their own union members in how to be militants.

Instead of building a rank-and-file system of strong shop stewards who could mobilize their members, AFSCME chose to continue giving money to the Democrats in West Virginia in the hope that these Democrats will come to their rescue. AFSCME continues to give to them despite the fact that the Democrats have controlled both the governor's house and the state legislature for the last twelve years, but refuse to grant collective bargaining rights to public employees in West Virginia. In the past, AFSCME has also given money to Democratic Governors in Virginia and North Carolina who also refused to grant collective bargaining rights. AFSCME saw their union ranks dwindle while the shop-floor-oriented UE surpassed AFSCME's membership in those states, according to Townsend.

Is UE successful because they cap their union organizers salaries at $56,000? I would say yes. People often ignore the importance of capping union leaders' salaries in their conversations about union reform. In the 1930s, UE Organizing Director James Matles said that maintaining salaries for union leaders similar to the workers they represent is important because "union leaders should feel like their members, not for their members." Union organizers feel like their members when they make comparable salaries and live in the same neighborhoods; they have a greater sense of urgency about fighting for their members as a result. (Full disclosure: my father has worked as a union organizer for UE for thirty-five years and makes $50,000 a year).

It also makes sense from a practical financial standpoint. Why pay one union leader a $387,000 salary when you can employ seven full-time union organizers for the same cost? A study of Department of Labor Records done by Labor Notes in 2010 showed that if you capped the salaries of nearly 10,000 union leaders or staffers making above $100,000 to that amount, you would save $294 million dollars a year that could be spent on organizing. Post-Citizens United, when corporations can spend all the money in the world to attack workers, the labor movement simply cannot afford to be paying union leaders more than $100,000 a year.

Instead of trimming executive salaries, perks and maybe scaling back on AFSCME's pledge to spend $100 million on the re-election of President Obama, AFSCME laid off half of its organizers in Wisconsin, according to AFSCME Wisconsin Council 40 organizer Edward A. Sadlowski, at a time when they should have been hiring more organizers in order to stop their membership losses and fight back against concessions.

Organized labor's current approach is not working, and we need all the critiques of labor leaders and organizing approaches in order to save the labor movement. As a labor movement, would we rather have a few union leaders embarrassed by how much they make, or do we want a serious discussions about how we revive the movement. Accusing pro-union people, who raise serious questions about the strategy, finances and political orientation of unions in effort to save unions of giving ammunition to union's enemies or being "left anti-union" is more than just absurd. It could kill the labor movement.

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