Prop 226/Another View from John August

Michael Eisenscher meisenscher at
Sat Jun 6 13:14:26 PDT 1998

Sisters & Brothers,

The following observations on the defeat of Prop 226 may be of interest. I requested John's permission to post them to the list. He is an LP member.


Gary Olson (Brennan Chapter, Lehigh Valley, PA) [LABOR PARTY] ------------------------------------------------------------------------------ FORWARDED FROM: Olson, Gary L Dear Gary and friends,

Prop 226 was a threat to the flow and use of cash for political activity for unions. The AFL-CIO and many affiliates went all out to defeat the proposition in California this past week. Congratulations to all who worked so hard!

But what did we win?

The status quo!

Defense of the status quo is not unimportant. But such activity must be kept in perspective. It reminds me a little bit of the old adage on the shop floor "obey now, grieve later", a favorite business union chant. Again, not unlike an effort to stop Prop 226, "obey and grieve" sounds reasonable.

When will we stop being so reasonable?

The typical response to my attitude here is :"Shocking, irresponsible...and what's your idea?"

A member of my staff asked me many years ago, "How do you judge the performance of a union". My answer was and remains: There are three criteria: 1. Are we growing? 2. Are we protecting and enhancing standards and conditions for the members? 3. Are we promoting social consciousness?

If these criteria are applied to the labor movement today, I would suggest an analysis of the defeat of Prop 226 finds some perspective.

Being reasonable today, after a 30 year assault on the very fabric of government services, after military spending in this period far outpacing social spending, after the largest redistribution of wealth in any society in history from less well off to more well off, after the destruction of literally millions of good jobs here, and the establishment of these jobs among poorer peoples, who often live in militarized zones, and after an assault on workers' rights to organize and be represnted by the union of their choice unknown since before the passage of the NLRA, is like digging a three foot trench to lay down in while a 20 megaton nuke is about to go off ("well, it's all I could do).

The fact is, no one told the labor movement to stop striking. No one told the labor movement to spend 97% of its revenue on representation of its existing membership and 3% on organizing. No one told the labor movement it had to be an active participant in the Cold War on the side of anti-popluar forces everywhere in the world. No one told the labor movement it had to oppose single-payer national health care, when it easily could have lead the charge a few years ago when the debate was raging in the U.S. No one told the labor movement that internal union democracy was a bad idea, and that big salaries and career-saving mechanisms were "normal". No one told the labor movement that it had to be an active ouster of Reds.

No, the labor movement chose these paths and many like them over the past 40 years.


One way of looking at Prop 226 is to ask a hard question: Why were so many union households in favor of it at the beginning of the campaign? Or why do so few members come to union meetings? Or why is organizing so hard? Or why are there so few strikes? These questions are all intertwined.

The labor movement is reasonable, because it has developed into a big business. It has many more union officials than most people can imagine, most at very good salaries, most with less than 40 hour a week jobs. It has a lot of mechanisms to keep the peace between bosses and workers. It still is slavish to the Democratic Party, at a time when most working-class and middle class people don't even bother to vote.

So why were so many union households in favor of Prop 226 before they got the "word" on TV and radio to the tune of $20 million. It's the same reason they don't come to union meetings, the same reason they don't vote. They feel powerless, unwanted, and uninspired!

Union structures today do not promote ideas and activism. 40 years of "obey and grieve later" has done quite a job on the minds of U.S. union members.

What if...

Serious grievances were settled by strikes. Organizing was not seen as something that someone should do, but success in organizing a requirement for holding union office. Strikes were community events, undertaken as part of continuing internal and external education and commitment that involved social issues that impacted everyone in the community. No union official should make more money than the members. Political activity was consistent with ideology:health care for all; free, quality education for all; safe jobs for all, and an economic policy that required certain wages, benefits, and conditions for all.

What I'm describing is not a dream. In fact, the labor movement used to be exactly what I'm describing. It's time to shake off these dark 40 years by teaching our children about class, about human rights, and about struggle. Every day.

Prop what?

John August


COMMENT: For those who don't know, John August has been Organizing Coordinator in the Teamsters national headquarters.

The defeat of Prop 226 was a dramatic and exciting accomplishment, and full credit should go to all those in the leadership of the CA State Federation of Labor, Central Labor Councils, Building Trades Councils, and locals unions, plus the 10,000 or more member volunteers who helped turn what was predicted to be a resounding defeat for labor into a stunning victory. Everyone can be proud of the contribution they made.

But John's comments bring into stark relief the larger reality of this accomplishment. The fact is that the labor movement would never have had to face Prop 226 if it were not for its weakened condition and the perception of it was vulnerable. In that sense Prop 226 is like part of a wild fire raging at the gates to labor's city. In response the labor movement rallies a fire brigade to keep the fires from wreaking even greater damage than has already been done. Through their heroic efforts, a fire line is cut and labor's insitutions are spared -- for the moment -- ravages of the inferno. But the fire has not been put out; it has only been staved off. The fire is not an act of nature. It has been set by arsonists -- reactionaries, corporate interests, the politicians who serve them, and consultants, think tanks, media specialists, law firms, and others who do their dirty work.

This fire brigade approach keeps the labor movement constantly on the defensive, responding to the other side's agenda. Capital decides when and where to light the fires, how many to set, and how large they will be. Then labor mobilizes its fire brigades to run about trying to put them out. The bosses can always set more fires than we have volunteer firefighters to send out. We never get to do any fire prevention, not to mention build anything that is fire proof. We will know we've made a turn when they have to respond to our initiatives, based on our priorities and agenda.

The victory over 226 could actually reinforce the idea that all we have to do is a better job of motivating and mobilizing our members, and now business can continue as usual. Everyone can breath a sigh of relief, take a short rest, and then gear up for November. Another call for volunteers will be issued with the hope that those who have been newly activated will once again respond. But reversing labor's decline in membership and influence can only happen if a qualitatively larger proportion of union members perceive the union as their vehicle for power in the world and an expression of who they are in society. This is not achieved by better "educating" or "training" our members, though both are valuable and necessary. This can not be achieved by better mobilization techniques or by advertising our way out of the crisis labor confronts, even though there are times when mobilizations are necessary and communications are important.

Labor leaders and union activists must come to see the imperative of developing new ways to work that reflect their understanding of the urgency created by a crisis of power (the loss of it) that has resulted from dramatically different conditions labor now faces compared to twenty, thirty or forty years ago. The economy has changed; the labor market has changed; demographics of the labor force have changed; technology has changed; the structure of corporations has changed; the mobility of capital has changed; geo-political realities have changed. Yet, too a great extent, unions remained unchanged, responding to declining membership with a "merger & acquisition" strategy and emergency mobilizations. If the problem is declining union power, there is only one reliable source for greater power -- an informed, involved, and committed membership who perceive the union a their vehicle for power rather than as a fee-for-service provider or insurance plan.

What we need now is a fundamental shift in how unions function. The culture of business unionism and "servicing" members is very deeply engrained. It permeates the practices and perspectives of every union, including some of the most democratic and socially active. It affects union leaders, union staff, and union members in both overt and subtle ways -- including those who claim radical politics and talk a lot about "union democracy." Changing the culture, as well as the practices and strategies of unions is the great challenge we must meet. We should be greatful to John August for helping focuse our attention on that bigger picture.

(For a fuller discussion of the views expressed here, see the article I wrote for the March/April issue of WorkingUSA.)

In solidarity, Michael E.

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list