Union Democracy for Essential Workers

Organizing Unions Workers

            New Orleans      I noticed that In These Times had a blurb on a dustup at the convention of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) from some rank and filers who were trying to make a case for more input and democracy in the workings of this big US union.  I recognized the name Steve Williamson who was with an organization supporting the workers seeking to be heard.  I knew Steve from back in the day when he headed the King County Labor Council in Seattle and later when he was with the AFL-CIO’s western regional staff.  With some help, I tracked him down so that we could find out more about what was going on.

Taking to Steve and a UFCW shop steward, Ian Kelly from western Massachusetts on Wade’s World, I got a better handle on the whole situation.  Steve is part of an organization called Essential Workers for Democracy.  Ian works for a food cooperative in Northampton and was an alternate delegate from his local union to the convention, so was party to the whole affair and spoke at the press conference outside when they were not allowed to really speak and voted down heartily by the delegates.  They had four points where they wanted to see action.  Organizing was certainly one of them as was health and safety, but key was changing the election procedure to one member, one vote, rather than by delegates, and another was getting “first day strike pay,” rather than waiting two or more weeks.  The voting system graded on them, because more than half of the convention participants were staff, and not elected workers from the locals.

They didn’t get far with this, but are still pushing.  This is a hard road to travel.  I noted that many unions, including SEIU, the largest and many others, didn’t have direct membership democracy, and others like the Teamsters and, more recently, the UAW, when that way after government intervention.  Steve said they had found twenty-five unions with such procedures.  He was careful to point out that their organization was committed to reform in unions across the board, and not just at UFCW, even though that was where they had gotten attention.

It’s a good thing, because UFCW will be a hard nut to crack.  They have frequently been the target of internal and external scrutiny for the top officers pay packages at the international and local level, as well as their rough handling of locals, most notoriously the Hormel strike in the mid-late 80s.  I mentioned a quixotic effort waged by Bob Comeaux from San Antonio, who earlier had been the head organizer of the AFL-CIO’s multi-union organizing Texas Organizing Project in Houston back in the day.

Even with the higher polling of public support for unions now, all of this is a good reminder that we need to keep our house in order, if we are going to reestablish the role of unions in workplaces around the country with support from workers and the public.