Organized Labor Speaking Without One Voice

UnionButton_180_182New Orleans        It is one thing when we all know the king has no clothes on, but it’s a whole different problem when Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and its op-ed pages broadcasts it far and wide. While we watch the Koch Brothers drive an ideological machinery pushing businesses to hew the line politically hard right with the Republican Party panting happily with them, we have our noses pushed into the mess of division when labor’s “jobs first” bread-and-butter unionism trumps public and longer term interests of our own members. A recent piece by Steven Malanga, who is also a senior editor at City Journal, detailed a listing of locations and political races where the building trades went one way and public employee unions went the other. 

He wasn’t completely correct, because despite his argument about an “emerging political divide,” unfortunately this is divide of long standing. Vexingly, he could have cited many more examples in many other locations where this division has long been standard operating procedure.

He mentions New Jersey where the Building and Construction Trades Council has endorsed a bunch of Republican Congressional candidates, but he could have easily cited many other examples, like the one several years ago when almost every union in Jersey banded together to stop Walmart superstore expansion in the state, but the trades signed an agreement with Walmart to construct the stores union on project labor agreements and trumpeted the company’s expansion until a compromise was reached. Ironically, New Jersey is one of the only states where labor actually admits that the building trades’ interest is diametrically opposed to most other unions and maintains a separate Industrial Unions Council to offset the construction trades and lessen the political confusion.

Of course, where the Journal glosses over labor’s reality is that in the shrinking ranks of labor, the building trades, long the smallest membership sector of organized labor, are as often now simply the mouse that is roaring. Public, service, and private sector unions overwhelmingly have the numbers in the organization we have left, but that only counts when votes are counted. Meanwhile small local unions, unashamed, will do things like stand behind Wisconsin’s union busting Governor Scott Walker with a couple of their members and a state flag, ignoring the tens of thousands of members he is pushing out of other unions and his crippling of labor’s power in the state.

No small part of the problem lies in the toothless federated structure of the AFL-CIO and its imitators. Despite oaths and promises long enshrined in labor’s ritual pledges to stand together and unite, especially around political endorsements, there are really no effective penalties for unions breaking away and pulling such stunts. In New Orleans, the tragedy of Mayor C. Ray Nagin, now serving the public in a jail cell, was abetted by the Firefighters, Operating Engineers, and its ilk, breaking away from the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO endorsement of police chief Pennington, in a similar subversion. In every community there are too many examples, too often led by one building trade or another breaking away from the vast majority for the thin-lipped kiss from a politician promising a few jobs or benefits.

It’s understandable at one level since the hiring hall structure puts constant pressure on the elected business manager’s producing new jobs for the members sitting on the bench, but recognizing the reality of the problem and having a better way to speak with one voice, despite the internal disagreements and conflicting self-interests, has to be a higher leadership and membership priority if labor is going to project even the semblance of unity in these days of continued decline.

The Journal cites a recent campaign where the New York building trades council wanted to endorse Governor Andrew Cuomo in the primary but public-union opposition kept the state AFL-CIO from making any endorsement because of the governor’s position on capping property taxes. The Journal may not like it, but having the majority rule is a good thing, and it allowed each union to act in its own self-interest without pretending to speak for the whole of labor. It’s not the best alternative, but it’s better than putting our divisions on the evening news and undercutting our own internal governance structures for the sake of some politician’s interest, rather than our own. The happy ending to that story is that the building and trades council respected the majority rather than going all New Jersey and jumping off their own way. We need more of that and less of the other, if our own survival and the welfare of all of our members is going to be our highest priority.

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