Friday, February 27, 2015

Labor Notes' Brenner doesn't inspire.

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired.

The speaker above, Mark Brenner, is the Director of Labor Notes, an organization that has annual conferences, quite often well attended by rank and file union members. It publishes some good material for activists.  When I was part of the leadership of Afscme Local 444 in the 1990’s we made Labor Notes’ material readily available to our members although some leading activists in LN were extremely sectarian toward other union militants. It was at a Labor Notes conference in the late 1980’s where two of us as delegates from Afscme Local 444 met Anthony Mazzochi* and asked him if our local organized a meeting for him to speak at in Oakland would he come. He did and we had a very successful meeting on the need for a Labor Party in the US.

I would argue that Brenner and the leadership at Labor Notes tend to tailor their views and general approach toward the left wing of the bureaucracy that sits atop organized labor rather than openly challenging and leading an organizing campaign against the disastrous pro business policies of this entrenched group.  It is these policies which flow from the bureaucracy’s adherence to the Team Concept----the view that workers and employers have the same interests---that are at the root of the disastrous decline in union membership and the accompanying decline in our living standards over the past period.

Brenner’s speech above is more of the same.  He talks of the need for the unions to meet the members “where they’re at” meaning the workplace.  He says correctly that we “Can’t expect workers to take risks if the union can’t show power on the job” and he makes it clear that this means the power to “disrupt” economic activity “hurting companies in the pocketbook.”

I agree with Brenner when he says that union needs to “organize the already organized.” and that we “ignore” this every day. His main focus is on democracy though and how democracy is power and that the role of the multitudes of staff should be to help workers learn the skills they need and so on.

He says, “It’s about more than paying dues and voting. Unions have to create the space for rank and filers to strategize and plan. Democracy can be a hot mess—but there’s no shortcut around building leaders who know what they’re fighting for.”

Of course we have to fight for democracy in our unions, but
--> Brenner talks about union democracy as he is sitting with people who strangle it and says nothing about this.  The AFT has total slate voting from what I understand and you cannot get on the union’s executive board without being in the leadership’s caucus.  Incidentally, the CTU leadership joined this caucus in order to get a seat on the board.
There is a reason for this obsession with democracy from Labor Notes and some other reform groups in the unions; it will not likely bring them in to a direct confrontation with the right wing, pro-management bureaucracy that is at the helm of our national organizations. Almost all of the present leadership will agree that we need democracy. The AFL-CIO executive committee that had only one election for President in 100 years would also agree democracy is important. So, incidentally, do Barack Obama and Rahm Emmanuel. And that raises another point that Brenner completely ignores.  The union hierarchy practices the Team Concept with the bosses on the job and practice it in the political sphere through an alliance with the Democratic Party.  Brenner consciously leaves this issue alone as that too would bring him and Labor Notes in to direct conflict with the AFT leadership and their co-thinkers at the AFL-CIO.  It is clear that it is not to the average dues payer that Brenner is orienting to but a section of the labor hierarchy, this imaginary left wing.

Brenner says, “The best leaders trust the members. They have faith that their co-workers, when presented with the same information and analysis they have, will reach the same conclusions. Their job is to get the ball rolling and get out of the way.”

For Brenner it’s all about “teaching” workers and “creating space” a very egalitarian term used by all sorts of liberal types. And it is important for workers to be able to understand organizational details. But his reference to “leaders” in the above quote is one of the few times perhaps the only time in his 13- minute contribution that he uses the word.

Brenner continually refers to “the union” or “unions” as if the folks that pay the dues and the stifling bureaucracy that receives them are the same and play the same role. In fact, a prominent leader of organized labor, an AFL-CIO executive board member is present and Brenner refers to him.

Brenner also talks of raising expectations.  The present leadership of organized labor supported by an army of staff, many of them highly educated as well as former members of left or socialist groups, steer very clear of raising expectations.  We see it in every dispute. The general strategy of the leadership is damage control, trying to convince the bosses to demand fewer concessions and if they have to eliminate benefits and other treasures won over decades, deny them to the new hires instead, they can't vote on a contract that will strip benefits for them.

So these two subjects, the leadership and demands, or what we should fight for, are absent in Brenner’s contribution.  Instead Brenner and Labor Notes says we need to teach workers the skills and then like good teachers, step out of the way.  Armed with the demand for democracy in the union and how to talk to each other, workers will bring organized power to the table.  Then we can return to the direct action tactics of the past..

But it is not because they don’t understand how to file a grievance that keeps workers heads down, it’s the fear of the bosses on the one hand and the lack of confidence in the present leadership doing anything about it on the other. In fact, time after time when rank and file members move in the direction of confrontation, of actually fighting back, the weight of the bureaucracy and its army of staff comes out on the side of the employer.  We have to be “reasonable”.  “Now’s not the time”. The present union leadership will do whatever it can to suppress any movement from below that threatens the relationship they have built with the bosses on the basis of labor peace.

There are too many examples of these betrayals to list them. Concessionary contracts forced down members' throats through all sorts of manipulative measures (Boeing is a good example of a recent one).   Check out the UAW local and its leaders known as the Cleveland Five that struck a Freightliner plant in North Carolina and the role of the UAW leadership there.  The SEIU contracts here in the Bay Area a couple of years ago that were voted down only to be forced through by a leadership that claimed the members were “confused”. 

Check out some of the commentaries on this blog with regard to recent disputes, like the Waste Management strike in San Leandro CA where the Teamster leadership told their members to scab on strikers at this facility. Or the Bay Area rail transit strike in 2013 where transit workers that operate the buses were told to pick up the slack due to the absence of trains despite being legally allowed to strike with their brothers and sisters on light rail. They are even in the same unions but different locals.  These disastrous polices are not a product of the “union” which includes the membership; they are the product of the leadership, a consciously designed failure.

Yes, we need to “teach” workers.

We are where we are not simply because, as Brenner says the “union” is at fault.  We are at this point because of the role played by the trade union leadership from the top down. Present at the forum above was AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre. Brenner says of him,  “AFL-CIO Vice-President Tefere Gebre, for example, made a point of saying we can’t do anything without rank-and-file members at the center.”

But the entire leadership of the AFL-CIO has used the resources and power at their command to ensure that the members are not “at the center”.  What sort of campaign has Tefere Gebre waged inside organized labor against that policy? Tefere Gebre and the leadership he is a part of is a major part of the problem and that must be made clear by any labor activist bent on transforming our organizations because we have to have a strategy for dealing with their role., Brenner says there needs to be an “…overhaul of the relationship between members and the officers and staff down at the union hall”.  Well that’s a nice way of putting it. The leadership and the staff that carries out their policies will not take such an overhaul lightly. They will not sit idly by as we develop fighting caucuses and opposition groups within organized labor that can bring this overhaul to fruition.

The leadership’s role has to be brought in to the open and they have to be held accountable. Brenner covers this role up with his talk of the “union”.  And part of building an alternative from the ground up is having a program that meets the needs of the members and all workers. The disgusting silence of organized labor’s leadership with 12 million members  in the face of the events in Ferguson and throughout the country is criminal.

A small group of dedicated rank and file members can begin the process of changing the unions from employment agencies providing labor power to the bosses at profitable prices to genuine fighting organizations but they have to stand for something other than democracy in the abstract. In the public sector in particular, where there is somewhat more job security, opposition groups can be built in this way and challenge the present leadership for power.  But they have to openly state what they are going to do differently and what their program is, what they will fight for. By that I mean demands that speak to our needs, wages, jobs, more leisure time through a shorter workweek with no loss in pay, in many workplaces on-site childcare should be provided and other important demands that would improve the quality of life and give us more control in the workplace.

This strategy combined with democratic rights is what will draw the ranks in to activity. I’m sorry but the contribution above wouldn’t inspire anyone to take the steps needed to change the concessionary course of the present union movement.

* Anthony Mazzochi was a leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) who was calling for a Labor Party in the 1980’s and 90’s. Afscme Local 444, organized a meeting for him to speak at in 1989, it was successful and Mazzochi himself said that it led him to form Labor Party Advocates.

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