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The Anti-Democratic Nature Of Big Unions

By Burkely Herrman - Industrial Worker, November 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and fallen and bruised itself, and risen again; been seized by the throat and choked and clubbed into insensibility; enjoined by courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, shot down by regulars, traduced by the press,  frowned upon by public opinion, deceived by politicians, threatened by priests, repudiated by renegades, preyed upon by grafters, infested by spies, deserted by cowards, betrayed by traitors, bled by leeches, and sold out by leaders, but notwithstanding all this, and all these, it is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known.”  – American union leader and socialist Eugene Debs, 1904

In the age of Obama, unions have had an even more diminished role than before. Despite this, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has shown that a slim majority, or 51 percent, approves of “organized labor…up a full 10 percentage points from two  years ago” and also “labor unions had the highest approval ratings among women, people of color, and young people between the ages of 18 and 29 [but not] whites and retirees.” The right-wing has launched a massive attack on unions as can be seen in the “right-to-work” bills in recent  years and other measures. As a result, the  big unions, part of the labor aristocracy, like the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Federation have backed the Democratic Party, the second-most capitalistic party in American politics. In electoral battles  with the Republicans, the unions fund ads to help out their favored candidates: big business Democrats. Along with the agents of oligarchy, these unions applauded when the Wall Street marketing creation named Barack Obama was elected as U.S. President in 2008, and continued to support him throughout his presidency. Some of the only sticking points have been the protectionist multinational-empowering investor-rights agreements that promote “trade” like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States-Dominican Republic-Central  America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the United States–Republic of Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), the Panama–United States Trade Promotion Agreement (TLC), the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA), among many others. At the same time, these unions have not tried very hard to reverse trends that have caused unionization in the American economy to be on the decline. From here, it is important to discuss what the subservience of the labor aristocracy means to working-class and middle-class Americans.

Recall the Wisconsin uprising of 2011.  According to his website, Governor Scott  Walker wanted to “create an atmosphere  where business can thrive and success  will follow” and the unions were in his  way. One of the state’s biggest unions decided to back some of the cuts sought  by anti-union stalwart Governor Walker, in the infamous 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, at first, only opposing a provision limiting collective bargaining of public employees. Later, they changed their position after Walker rejected their compromise, as reported in the Milwalkee Journal Sentinel. Numerous protesters demonstrated a different view by calling for the defeat of the whole bill, not just one provision. Once Act 10 had passed, the unions pushed the next step: recalling Governor Walker. Almost a million signed a petition to recall him. However in the primaries, big labor’s favorite candidate Kathleen Falk was defeated by Tom Barrett. Barrett was a Democratic machine politician who Walker had defeated in 2010, but the unions backed him anyway along with corporatists like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. The website reported that Barrett was “sticking  by a plan that could mean up to $14,000 in compensation cuts for state workers…[and] ‘rightsize’…state government and put public-worker pay and benefits more in line with private-sector compensation.” This follows what Barrett planned to do in 2010, as outlined in his report, “Tom Barrett’s Plan to Create Wisconsin Jobs”: “simplify[ing] regulations and streamline the regulatory process to lighten the burden on business.” Additionally, the report “Tom Barrett’s Plan to Put Madison on a Diet” was slated to “introduc[e]…technologies and revising processes to lessen the need for replacement employees…[and] keep…compensation and sick/leave accrual for state employees in line  with the private sector, including wages, health care, pension, retirement age, job security, and overtime pay.” Due to this, he only gave lip service to the unions, making protesters disenchanted along  with conducting a horrible campaign that didn’t mention Act 10. As a result, the propaganda machine, in part funded by the Koch Brothers, propelled Scott Walker to victory. The concentration of capital had sadly won against people power.

Examples like what happened in  Wisconsin are further proof that there is something wrong with the unions. As was said by J. Lindley in 1896, “the moment that trade unions become tyrants in their turn, they are engines for evil.” Those at the top of these groups are paid high salaries which are not as high as CEOs, but there is still enough of a disparity between the wages of average workers. Back in the  beginning of the 20th century, as Howard Zinn wrote in “A People’s History of the United States,” “AFL officials drew large salaries, hobnobbed with employers, even moved in high society…The well-paid leaders of the AFL were protected from criticism by tightly controlled meetings and by ‘goon’ squads-hired toughs originally used against strikebreakers but after a while used to intimidate and beat up opponents inside the union.” Today it is a bit similar, as the average total pay of the top three officers of the AFL-CIO is over $275,000, or over five-and-a-half times the average wage of a worker. If you average the numbers of top leadership officers of the  American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and United  Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW), they receive seven times the wage of the average American workers or over $314,473 each year. Still, don’t fall for the myth perpetuated by the right-wing that unions are overpaid. Let’s not forget that for years, the IBEW has been considered one of the most corrupt unions, seeking bribes and embezzling money, among other factors. While not corrupt, AFL-CIO’s top executive Richard Trumka lives in a house that has at total property value of over $740,000, according to,  which also has four baths according to Additionally, as noted in my  blog post about the corrupted nature of the  AFL-CIO, the top three executives received  between 5.9 and 6.6 times the average  wage, and the union’s Investment Trust Corporation (ITC) has “key leadership [which included]…former employee[s] of Price Waterhouse LLP…Lockheed Martin…Deloitte and Touche or Deloitte…and a former advisor to corporatist Nancy Pe-losi” while its “Building Investment Fund that has one the biggest banks in America, PNC Bank, as a trustee and investment advisor.” This is why some say they are part of a broader labor aristocracy since they make no effort to oppose the capitalist system.

There is something even more pressing that must be noted as well. This is what Noam Chomsky and numerous others call the “climate catastrophe” which comes from man-made climate change. It  was widely re-ported, starting  with the New York Times: “the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest federation of unions, has issued an apparent en-dorsement of the Keystone XL oil pipe-line—apparent because it enthusiastically called for expanding the nation’s pipeline system, without specifically mentioning Keystone…Richard Trumka…voiced support for building the Keystone pipeline…Leo W. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, said he would back the pipeline…[and] Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers, also backed it.” Then, there was a recent article on the website of the IWW’s Environmental Unionist Caucus, that after the announcement by Richard Trumka to partner with “Big Green” non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the Sierra Club, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and others, the “more conservative elements  within the federation, namely the building trades” opposed such an alliance. The author continues writing that it should be questioned how much “the building trades themselves  represent workers, because the evidence suggest that for the most part, they represent the capitalist class more than anything else” and notes that “what Trumka is proposing is hardly anything close to a meaningful Blue-Green alliance and is…[about] building coalitions to keep the labor movement [and the progressive NGOs] firmly tied to capitalism and the Democratic Party…Clearly, the way forward doesn’t involve reforming capitalism or top-down ‘coalitions’ between the class collaborationist business unionism of the AFL-CIO or the corporate environmentalism of the Big (gang) Green NGOs. We need a different model entirely.” Journalist and activist Naomi Klein, tied to a big NGO ( herself, made a speech  before a new Canadian union, Unifor, telling them that “the most important message to come out of that process is that our coalitions cannot just be about top-down agreements between leaders; the change has to come from the bottom up,  with full engagement from members…our current economic model is not only waging war on workers, on communities, on public services and social safety nets. It’s  waging war on the life support systems of the planet itself. The conditions for life on earth…climate change…is the most powerful weapon progressives have ever had in the fight for equality and social justice…Environmentalists can’t lead that kind of revolution on their own. No political party is rising to the challenge. We need you to lead… not only is corporate globalization largely responsible for soaring emissions,  but now the logic of free trade is directly  blocking us from making the specific changes needed to reduce climate chaos in response.” Clearly, the big unions are not stepping up the plate, so unionists,  workers and those outside of labor need to stand up and demand: system change, not climate change!

There has been a growing trend to build unions outside of the control of the big unions. Michelle Kern wrote in People’s World that there is a “rapidly growing trend in innovative organizing among non-unionized and low-wage workers…[in] new groups called ‘alt-labor,’ [like]…OUR Walmart, Restaurant Opportunities Centers, Dancers’ Alliance and elements of the fast food organizing movement…taking on workplaces that were once considered totally impossible to organize…[since] the current AFL-CIO leadership does not reflect today’s workforce, which is becoming younger, with a rising number of people of color.”

There is also a political alternative to  backing the Democrats. A recent article by a staff writer of Labor Notes noted that after “President Obama…the labor movement…[realized their]…relative powerlessness in the political arena,” renewing calls for “a labor-based political alternative—a labor party…a party unequivocally for working people…[which was spawned  by] a Democratic Party that took our work, votes, and money, and gave us nothing in return…Then as now, the Democratic Party was busy lowering expectations.” Once it was established, people talked  with “co-workers and the public about the Labor Party’s program: a guaranteed job for everyone at a living wage, the right to organize and strike without fear of losing  your job, a shorter work week, free higher education, paid family leave, guaranteed pensions, a paid year off for every seven  years worked, an end to the ‘corporate abuse of trade,’ and more,” telling people additionally that the “Democratic Party doesn’t advocate for them…[and] limits the debate and lowers expectations in the labor movement and in the country.”  An article by the original founders of the Labor Party published in December 2012 noted that “after the Obama administration didn’t follow through on campaign promises to labor on job-creation and labor law reform…[it] should have marked the date when labor finally disowned the Democratic Party and declared its support for the establishment of a political party  with a working-class agenda,” but instead many of these unions endorsed Obama for another term while an independent worker movement never emerged.

There is much change needed in the structure of unions. Using the processes available, workers can instigate a revolution from below to change the unions to do their bidding. However, this may not alone produce a powerful labor movement. Joining and strengthening radical anti-capitalist unions like the member-run Industrial Workers of the World which organizes to “win better conditions today and build a world with economic democracy tomorrow…[where] workplaces [are] run for the benefit of workers and communities rather than for a handful of bosses and executives” is another important step. Then, you wouldn’t be part of an organization that supports dirty energy like the Keystone XL pipeline as in the AFL-CIO.  Workers must work to bring radicalism to the big unions or join radical unions that challenge the capitalist system.  As the great Joe Hill said: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”

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