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What can rank and file union members do when our union betrays us? How do we fight the boss when our union won’t either because it signs sweetheart deals, collaborates with the boss, derails grievances or refuses to organize and strike?
These questions have been on my mind a lot after many years of having my heart broken by several of my unions. I now take great hope in suddenly being joined by a huge upselling of members organizing to turn one of them around.
The recent UAW strike and UPS Teamsters strike threat were decades in the making. Earlier caucuses and federal interventions over the past four decades aided in bringing about the dramatic turn of events. The organizing, strike and strike threat that followed were made possible by members who turned these two unions around after being betrayed one too many times.
One key to their success was organizing a reform caucus. Creating a successful caucus is not a short-term project. The UAW caucus, Unite All Workers for Democracy (UAWD), was formed in 2019, the most successful of several previous caucuses since the 1970s. Teamsters for a Democratic Union was formed in 1976. Building a caucus and slowly moving it into leadership, sometimes in partnership with those who jumped ship from leadership, to transform the union into a militant fighting force is not possible for everyone. We also should certainly never expect the federal government to do our reform work for us.
If you find yourself pummeled by betrayal or disappointment by your union, you are likely not the only one who feels the same way. The first and most important step is to reach out to other like-minded folks inside and outside your union. Have coffee and talk about what is wrong with your union and how to make it better. If they aren’t in the union, ask them to join so you can work together as voting members. Set up an email list to stay in touch, share ideas and get to know one another.
A starting point for these informal networks is to bring members together to learn how other workers have organized in the past to transform their union into a fighting force. Ask the labor history buffs in your union, staff and local labor historians for suggestions to read. Set up reading groups with pastries and beer to read and discuss them. If there have been recent successful strikes or you have articles or books about your union, you can also start there.
Once you are inspired by the rank and file victories of the past, turn your attention to other ideas for democratizing your union and transforming it into one that organizes the members to also fight the boss and win. Study the organization of your union. Read the local, national and international bylaws to identify undemocratic features and look for ways to bring resolutions for reform to a vote.
For example, if your officers are not directly elected, start by campaigning for one member one vote as they successfully did in UAW leading to the election of Shawn Fain’s caucus. Look for a way to bring that vote directly to the members rather than allowing it to be killed by an internal committee. Consider other issues such as votes to strike and end a strike, ratify a temporary Agreement or memorandum of understanding , establish a strike fund, issue regular financial reports, and whether to make political endorsements.
An excellent source of knowledge and experience can be found at Labor Note’s various workshops on how to organize a caucus and "What to Do When Your Union Leaders Break Your Heart” workshops offered at the bi-annual national conference in Chicago, regional conferences and locally available workshops. The last two I attended featured rank and file leaders of reform caucuses in the railroad unions, UAW and the Oakland Education Association that went onto success soon afterwards. Not only are you likely to be inspired but you can ask them questions about how they did it.
Once you are ready, go public as an informal caucus. Come up with a name that will have broad appeal, set up social media pages, a simple website with a sign-up form, and even an old style printed or email newsletter to discuss your vision and ideas for a more effective union. Stay focused on what you want to do. Explain why past CBAs were inadequate and share your ideas to democratize the union while avoiding personalized attacks.
Use these communications tools regularly. Follow up with people that follow your feeds, email you or stop you in the shop to ask how things are going. Talk with them to find out what they are concerned about, invite them to a meeting, and make a first simple ask to help in some meaningful way. Treat every new follow, email or conversation as leading to a new potential organizer.
Once you start building momentum consider becoming a formal caucus. Once you do, run a slate, a contract no vote or a reform initiative that you can campaign on. Even if you do not win a majority of the board, you can use the new seats to contain or steer the union in a new militant direction from the inside. Be vigilant that your newly elected members stay accountable to your caucus’s ideas and vision. Even if your reform initiative fails, a large minority “yes” vote will speak loudly about your growing influence.
If you find the ruling caucus is corrupting the vote, look into filing a complaint with the NLRB or state labor board. This will certainly get their attention. Even if it doesn’t win, as Tony Soprano famously quotes Sun Tzu in “The Sopranos,” “If your opponent is of choleric temper, irritate him.” An aggravated adversary is likely to strike out, make mistakes and bring people to your defense. They are likely to make mistakes by underestimating your growing influence.
If your members work in the public sector, research how to file public records act requests to obtain communications between officers and local government administrators and elected officials. These might provide some juicy evidence of class collaboration that can be used to show how the leadership is playing what Jane McAlevey calls “class snuggle” instead of “class struggle” with the boss.
Find issues you can win and turn them into campaigns. Hold “know your contract” trainings to teach members how to defend the contract and listen to issues that come up in the discussions you can organize around. A widely shared grievance being ignored by the leadership can be turned into a march on the boss that can extract a concession. This will show you know how to win and more workers will turn to your caucus for leadership when it matters most. Start with small issues you can win and escalate as you build support, influence and power in the workplace.
When you have begun organizing despite the leadership, you will have begun transforming your union to fight the boss rather than the members.
Robert Ovetz is editor of "Workers' Inquiry and Global Class Struggle," co-editor of the forthcoming "Real World Labor (Vol. 4)" and the author of "When Workers Shot Back" and "We the Elites: Why the US Constitution Serves the Few." Follow him at @OvetzRobert
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