The business union shortcut

Issue 

By Kim Moody

US Teamsters' leader Ron Carey became a threat to big business. He not only presided over a profound transformation of a major union situated at the heart of the economy, he took on the United Parcel Service, won, and set an aggressive new pattern for labour as a whole. So, corporate America, their Republican buddies and the courts did him in.

No doubt about it, they went after Carey like hound dogs after a bleeding fox. Rest assured they're not done yet. Some of labour's best will go down, while many of the worst will walk away unscathed and grinning. Corporate America won this one.

There's another culprit here, however. The tragedy at the Teamsters is, in part, an inside job. They problems now faced by Carey and the Teamster reform movement were born in the actions and political culture of top-level labour leaders and their Democratic Party "friends".

This culprit's name is business unionism. It comes clean or dirty, and in many political shades. Call it what you like, its basic characteristics are top-down organisation, closed-door negotiations, dependence on the Democratic Party, a fetish about the union's material property and accumulated wealth, a softness on employer "competitiveness" and a general distrust of the rank and file.

Everything in the top-down world of business unionism is,"Let's make a deal". Shuffling money around to win elections, legally or not, in the unions or the nation, is second nature.

Junior Hoffa offered a particularly crude version of it when he said during the 1996 Teamster election campaign, "What you want is a union with a big bank account and a strong leader".

Today's AFL-CIO leaders certainly aren't a bunch of Hoffas. But they are still basically business unionists. They promise change and bring new energy to organising and speaking out on issues. But they have taken on more high-priced consultants, more multimillion-dollar media campaigns, more bureaucratic institutes, more talk of "partnerships" with business.

They've spent millions on the federation's headquarters and, despite talk of a new way of doing politics, have forked over more money to don't-deliver Democrats than ever. Union democracy is not on their agenda. They have not transcended business unionism so much as given it an information-age make-over.

Carey, too, must share some of the responsibility. In choosing old style money-driven electioneering in 1996, he, in effect, chose business union methods over the rank-and-file campaign advocated and conducted by Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU).

The consultants Carey hired introduced the old back-room political culture into a Teamsters Union that was fighting to get past all that. Carey was, in turn, drawn further into this swamp.

The federation officers, consultants and politicians are so rooted in that old culture, they probably didn't even know they were corrupting something. And that points to the problem.

Business unionism and its culture of bureaucratic functioning and top-down dealing are so familiar and so ingrained that both its high-placed practitioners and rank and file victims often don't even notice it at work.

But it wasn't always like that, and nothing was proving the old business unionism wrong more than the reforming, fighting rank and file Teamsters — above all the TDU and the leader of the reform coalition, Ron Carey.

They had wiped out layers of bureaucrats, lowered staff and officer salaries, trusteed dozens of mob-run locals and trained members to run them, launched new forums of accountability, and, yes, taken on corporate America like no business union has in decades.

But Carey made a mistake. It's not just that he hired some self-serving consultants. When he let in these impeccably "pro-labour" fundraising and marketing professionals, he took a step away from the rank and file approach that won the election in 1991 and made the reform movement one of the most powerful and thorough ever.

TDU organiser Ken Paff, speaking to the reformers' convention in November, said: "If you're going to take on corporate America, you better make sure you're not vulnerable ... Bringing the consultants into the campaign was a monumental blunder. We have to make sure that kind of thing never happens again."

The lesson here is too easily lost in the details of guilt or innocence. Revitalising the labour movement isn't just about cleaning up a few worse-than-average unions, much less hiring a bigger horde of money-guzzling media and PR experts. Hoffa is wrong: it's not about big bank accounts. It's about rank and file power and accountable leadership.

[Abridged from Labor Notes.]