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Hopeful for Labor - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Jul. 25th, 2005

10:10 pm - Hopeful for Labor

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AFL-CIO Splinters, Spooking Some Democrats

Maybe I'm being blindly optimistic but I honestly see this as very good news for the moribund US labor movement. It might make sense to pour millions of dollars into the Democratic Party's pockets while the party is doing good things for labor, but when that party isn't doing a damned bit of good for labor (maybe not their fault...I think it is...but it's just objectively true that the money is not well spent at this time) that money is MUCH better spent elsewhere.

I'm constantly amazed at how little money the big unions spend on recruiting and organizing. They could do so much more and it would have SO MUCH more impact on the political climate to double the size of the labor movement than any donations to the Democrats could make.

This is so much more promising than the Carpenter's Union's split from the AFL/CIO. When the Carpenters split it was mainly so they could compete with other tradespeople for jobs, which is lame. This split seems to really be about fundamentally changing how the labor movement does business. Anyone who says this is going to weaken the movement is silly because it isn't like these unions are going to disolve, the same number of people will be unionized both before and after this split, the same amount of dues will be raised, the dues money will simply be spent differently. The labor movement was built without the help of Politicians, it can be rebuilt without their help (and once it is rebuilt, the politicians will follow).

I'm cautiously hopeful. SEIU are progressive rockstars but I'm still wary of Hoffa Jr's claims to be a "reformer".

I wonder how this will affect my dad's (Letter Carriers) union.

Comments:

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From:wendywoowho
Date:July 26th, 2005 11:53 am (UTC)
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I see it as good news, too. If nothing else, it gets people TALKING about labor again.
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From:fellow_traveler
Date:July 26th, 2005 12:33 pm (UTC)
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I've heard people frame this as whether to prioritize politics or organizing, with SEIU and company favoring the latter, and the remnants of AFL-CIO favoring the former. Sounded like a tough choice.

But, if "politics" really just means "giving money to the Democratic Party," then I'm on board, too. I thought it might mean things like "directly propagandizing the working class to start voting in their own interest," but just funding the Democrats is throwing good money after bad.
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From:flutastic
Date:July 26th, 2005 02:32 pm (UTC)

Teamster time.

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As a Teamster (Local 743) who just watched her local bargain MOST ineffectively for a new contract, I'm pissed off. My union did shit for me in this new contract. My wage is poor for my training and qualifications; I didn't get hired anywhere near even the MIDDLE of the hiring wage range; there is no opportunity for a merit-based increase in my hourly wage; my health, life, and dental (if I chose to have it, which I don't) premiums went up about 75% on average, and the new contract has very little in the way of guaranteeing pension protection and job security. Oh, and for my second-time-around union orientation, the local officer DIDN'T EVEN SHOW UP.

As a part-timer, I still pay the same dues as a full-timer who makes my wage, around $38/month. I make around $850/month take-home, tops, so that is a real blow for me. The Chicago local of the American Federation of Musicians does have a steep initiation fee and pretty high dues, but it averages out to much less per month than the Teamsters, and the AFM does far, far more for its people than the Teamsters does. That union still has some teeth.

I could go on about how crooked the Teamster leadership is, and how pissed my dad is too (he was a Graphic Communications Int'l local officer before the Teamsters absorbed them this spring). Hoffa's full of it. I think I trashed my little union rag-mag with his anti-AFL/CIO editorial, otherwise I'd post the text.

I hope to hell that this new coalition does what it says it will. More labor membership is always a good thing, and reaching internationally would be fantastic. As members of these unions, we just have to make sure that they are accountable for their promises. I think there are many more reasons for the split than the simple ones they are giving on TV (I watched News Hour last night and almost lost it). I think there's a big ol' power grab going on, and I'm not sure I like it.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:July 26th, 2005 03:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Teamster time.

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Yah, that's why my optimism is cautious. This definitely smells like power politics among the leadership rather than real grassroots change of the unions. But it might work out a bit better anyway.

Have you ever considered running for a leadship position within your union? Is your union sufficiently democratic that you can work to change it so that it doesn't screw you over so badly?

I'm well aware of how crooked and worthless the Teamsters are. On the other hand SEIU does a lot of good stuff. So it's tricky to figure out whether the teamsters are calling the shots or just glomming on to what they know is going to be the next big thing.
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From:flutastic
Date:July 26th, 2005 03:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Teamster time.

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My division within the union has a steward, which I would consider doing if the position were open. As for running for a leadership position, the top dogs have had it sewn up for many years. Chicago is a really difficult city in so many ways, and breaking into union politics with a reform platform is definitely a challenge that I haven't had the energy to do. I have voted against Walston Etc. in every election for which I've been eligible, but so many people just settle for the damned status quo in my local. I'm frustrated by how little the leadership listens to its members. I will be writing letters to the editors of the papers here, and not just the big dailies either.

I wish that SEIU had organized the library rather than the Teamsters doing it as an afterthought while they put together a group at the hospitals at this university. *sigh* Maybe we'd have more help in the clerical areas here.
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From:mfeltes83
Date:July 27th, 2005 01:48 am (UTC)

Re: Teamster time.

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Tom Geoghegan's account of OTR drivers trying to maintain their status in the Teamsters was pretty horrifying. He wrote "Which Side Are You On?" 25 years ago. Doesn't sound like they've changed much.
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From:penngwyn
Date:July 27th, 2005 12:02 am (UTC)
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How long can the Dems go on trying to woo back those who defected to Reagan while their base erodes from neglect?

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From:herbivorous
Date:July 27th, 2005 05:42 am (UTC)
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*sigh* sometimes watching labor union stuff is a lot like having a root canal...

...painful, and there's not a whole lot you can do about it while it's going on.

That being said, I'm with you, Zach. I hope this makes for change.
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From:treoeng
Date:July 29th, 2005 01:47 am (UTC)

RIP

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In the past decade unions have been doing more harm than good. Between driving airlines into bankruptcy (or worse, liquidation), protecting awful teachers (http://www.joannejacobs.com/mtarchives/015393.html for just one example), fighting the ability of employers to evaluate employees and/or pay based on merit, not experience (on the grounds that everyone doing the same job should get the same pay, regardless of how well they do their job), I think its best for unions to slowly die away. Unions fight excellence and defend mediocrity; I prefer meritocracy. Good people will always do better in non-union shops.
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From:treoeng
Date:July 29th, 2005 01:50 am (UTC)

Re: RIP

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I should add that, looking back, I'm glad that IMSA's teachers voted down unionization while I was there. I wasn't sure about it at the time, but since then having seen the problems that teachers' unions create, I think they made the right decision.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:July 29th, 2005 02:22 am (UTC)

Re: RIP

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Ehn. I think historical evidence shows us quite clearly that Unions are quite neccessary, especially for less skilled positions. Meritocracy doesn't mean anything in the world of unskilled labor or labor with skills that most workers can master. In a world where the employer has all the power, individual workers can not possibly negotiate a fair wage. When workers get together they can muster as much power as the employer has an work on an even playing ground.

Without unions we would not have minimum wage, unemployment pay, the 8 hour day, paid vacation, paid holiday leave, health care benefits, etc. Without unions we would not have ended child labor. Without their union the tomato pickers in Imokalee Florida would have gone another few decades before they saw any kind of raise. Without unions we would not have made advances towards equal pay for women and minorities. Without unions, factories would still be deathtraps.

The idea that workers should work together to bargain on an even playing field with their employers is a very good one.

My father is a unionized letter carrier working for the US Postal Service. He is an excellent worker. If the post office were a meritocracy he would probably have the highest salary. But he loves the union because he knows the post office would never be a meritocracy. The management is CONSTANTLY trying to screw over the workers and the union is always there to stop them. Not all unions are as good as his.

Now business unions as they are implemented today have a TON of problems. The rank and file workers have almost no democratic control over the procedures of their unions. The leadership of the unions have almost no relationship to the workers. The leadership is largely interested only in maintaining their own power and salaries much like CEOs of many corporations. When workers feel disempowered from their own unions it isn't much better than when they have to face employers on their own.

There are 2 different teachers unions. The NEA and the AFT. The AFT is associated with the AFL/CIO and is pretty much your typical business union without much rank and file democracy (though there are exceptions from local to local). The NEA on the other hand is EXTREMELY democratic. Every union member has the right to attend the annual meeting and vote on policy matters, the NEA's annual meeting is one of the largest functioning democratic assemblies in the world, and that kind of democracy goes from the top all the way down to the locals. I was very pleased to be an NEA member.

Not all unions are created alike. This is why I've been focusing in this thread on how much cooler the SEIU unions are than the Teamsters unions. SEIU is extremely progressive. The Teamsters are extremely corrupt. It is a mistake to look at the bad stories you hear about this union or that union and extend that to the very concept of unions.

That is why I am so excited about this change. This isn't the end of unions. This is the beginning of a movement to make unions better, it is (hopefully) an end to corrupt anti-democratic business unions.

And scapegoating unions for the bankruptcy of airlines is silly. Air travel is a completely unsustainable business. It is heavily subsidized by the federal government because passengers are unwilling to pay the real market costs of air travel. It should not be up to the workers to bear the brunt of the narrow profit margins of the airline industry. The industry needs to solve it's profit margin problems without forcing the workers into poverty.

When it comes to conflicts between workers and employers, think of unions like lawyers. Even the most vile criminal has a right to a defense attorney. We would not expect justice to prevail if we allowed the State to have a prosecutor but did not allow the defendant to have a defense attorney. A unions JOB is to defend all the workers in conflicts, but if a worker has done an indefensibly bad thing it is unlikely the union will succeed. There are more people involved in conflict resolution than just the union. PLENTY of unionized people get fired, even teachers.

Let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Unions are useful. The AFL/CIO is not. It is easy to confuse the two.

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From:erikforperson
Date:July 29th, 2005 05:19 pm (UTC)

Re: RIP

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Well said Zach - it boggles my mind that some would say teacher unions defend mediocre teachers. If there is any profession out there (and there are more than a few) that derive incredible benefits from Unions, teachers do.

Between the AFL-CIO split and labor's relationship with the Democrats and the movement of moderate Republicans on the stem cell issue (Frist today), I honestly think we're in the midst of a major realignment.
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From:treoeng
Date:July 30th, 2005 07:02 am (UTC)

Re: RIP

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Teacher's unions help all teachers? That's a good one.

NEA annual meeting new business items (http://www.nea.org/annualmeeting/raaction/nbi.html)
* Walmart??
* Withdrawl from Iraq?
* Free trade agreements?
* Debt cancellation for underdeveloped countries?

This isn't an organization for helping teachers. This is a political action committee that has the right to force all teachers in certain school districts to contribute. (http://educationwonk.blogspot.com/2005/03/union-unaccountability-cta-edition.html)

Let's see some of the other things teachers unions have done recently:

* Sue to force students back into failing schools (http://www.techcentralstation.com/060105F.html) (AFT *and* NEA)

* Opposed increasing pay for teachers with harder jobs: http://www.eduwonk.com/archives/2005_05_22_archive.html#111710908185115896

* Opposed tutors for students: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-05-22-india-tutor_x.htm?POE=click-refer

* Canceling classes so that teachers can go to a political rally: http://www.cta.org/Press/PressReleases/2005/20050519_3.htm

* Opposed paying teachers based on their effectiveness instead of years of experience: http://www.sanluisobispo.com/mld/sanluisobispo/news/local/11666920.htm and http://www.joannejacobs.com/mtarchives/015087.html

* Opposed Schwarzenegger's horrific cut in education, from $42.2B all the way down to $44.7B next year: http://www.dailynews.com/Stories/0,1413,200~24781~2871019,00.html

* Prevented teachers from working extra to help students: http://thetrenches.blogspot.com/2005/04/best-interests.html

As Zach said, unions may be good things for fields where everyone is interchangable. The number of jobs in those fields is rapidly shrinking (these days, even many assembly-line worker jobs require a diploma), and in any case teachers obviously do not fall in this category.

Zach's post implies that workers need to band together against a common enemy (their employer). This is exactly the kind of us-vs-them thinking that unions promote to get and maintain power. While sometimes an employer is really the problem, more often the union invents problems to justify its own existance. Yes, some employers are unfair, but unions can't create fairness -- they can only create equality. Most of the time, equality is not fair. Is it fair that Zach's dad, the best letter carrier, is paid on the same scale as the worst letter carrier?

Monopolies are evil. If all the grocery stores got together and set the price of food, you'd denounce that. Why should all the workers at a company get the right to form a workers' monopoly? Once a majority of workers vote for a union, everyone is forced to play by their rules. Is it a surprise that they get corrupt, like all monopolies do?

Unions are driving the airlines into liquidation by preventing them from cutting costs to match revenue. To survive, business must rapidly adapt to changing conditions. Unions, and union contracts, make that impossible.

By creating monopolies, by creating incentives to create problems, by creating us-vs-them scenerios, by forcing unwilling employees to give them money, and by forcing employers to treat everyone equally by their very structure, unions are inherently bad.

There have been problems in the past, and unions have done great things in the past, but in today's economy unions are a relic, doomed to a slow death. Good riddance.
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From:indigokare
Date:August 2nd, 2005 05:28 am (UTC)
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this has nothing to do with your post (sorry), but i think our paths have crossed. i was in graduate school very briefly at UIUC. i can't remember where i know you from, but i am convinced that i do!
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From:zarfmouse
Date:August 2nd, 2005 05:40 am (UTC)
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What years were you at UIUC? What department? What's your name (you can email me at the address in my userinfo if you don't want to reveal your name in LJ).

Were you ever involved in: Campus Honors Program, Linguistics, Computer Science, Indymedia, Green Party, WEFT, Girlzone, Americorps, Critical Mass, German, Tea Ceremony, Physics, anti-war stuff, Men Against Sexual Violence, open stages. Hang out at Cafe Paradiso much? What kind of concerts did you go to?

Is that you in the picture with Amy Ray? You do look slightly familiar but not like someone I regularly interacted with...like you said our paths must have just crossed somewhat briefly...I'm eager to figure it out...tell me more. Narrowing it down to a year would be helpful since I've lived in this town for 10 years now and have been involved in MANY things with MANY people in that period of time.
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