Union Leaders and the Left (RE: Laying Bets: W Will Win

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at yale.edu
Tue Aug 15 14:12:22 PDT 2000

On Tue, 15 Aug 2000, Doug Henwood wrote:

> >I just have never understood how leftists can speak so often in the name
> >of the working class while ignoring and belittling the opinions of leaders
> >elected by those same people?
> 1) Unions are hardly models of democracy. How many union leaders are
> elected by the rank & file?

A much higher percentage than any other organization in the United States. Unions are seen as undemocratic partly because they are democratic enough that authoritarian union leaders have to use visible means to suppress opposition. Most institutions are so structurally undemocratic that there is never even a worry that the self-selecting leadership will be disturbed in their power.

2) It's kind of hard to argue that U.S.
> unions are thriving, so maybe these leaders are making less-than-wise
> choices.

So let's see, when unions were at 35% of the population in the mid-50s and allied with rightwing anticommunism, that success made them more worth supporting?

The point is not that union leaders are right; if you are a rightwinger, you can be free to treat them as stupid dinosaurs not worth listening to. But if you are a socialist who believes in worker-run democracy, you are being rather blind if you think you can belittle the only existing models of largescale worker-run organizations while hyping its abstract success in some imaginary future.

3) Are we unfit to criticize union leaders, or any other
> elected politicians, unless we stand for election ourselves?

Or participate in the efforts to reform them, yes. A basic rule of civics is that the peanut gallery is rarely worth listening to, since the fact that they have little at stake means their opinions are shaped more by emotion or easthetics than by real strategic and political choices arising out of the material reality of the political landscape. I can recommend a good pamphlet discussing Utopian Socialism by a fellow from Germany who touched on these issues. I think he also mentioned that real communists have no program separate from working class organizations, but merely push their ideas within such groups - not separately.

-- Nathan newman

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