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

Nathan Newman nathan.newman at yale.edu
Wed Aug 16 13:32:46 PDT 2000

On Tue, 15 Aug 2000, Dennis Breslin wrote:

> Nathan Newman 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?
> Nathan, I generally like your take on things, but you got a fatal flaw.
> You go two-thirds the way delving into the complexity and ambiguity of
> things, and, then stop dead in your tracks and do sloganeering in
> support of the party line. Hoffa Jr. is, no doubt,
> a political force to be reckoned with, and so needs paying attention to.
> But I have little more than a clue who he represents. Somehow leader of
> the proletariat and Hoffa don't make it in the same sentence. Hoffa is
> a voice of working people about the same way Clinton is a poster boy for
> safe sex. There's just too much going down here...

Hoffa is a working class leader just as Ron Carey and Tom Leedham (supported in the next election against Hoffa by Teamsters for a Democratic Union) are working class leaders. They both have real active support among rank-and-file unionists and anyone who thinks otherwise about Hoffa Junior is deluding themselves. I prefer the TDU backed leaders for their progressive approach to unionism, but merely declaring everyone we don't like who wins an election (however tainted) as a "non-leader" is a very dangerous mystification.

I am not arguing that gaining 50% of the votes or 50% of the delegates to become an elected officer automatically makes a leader more right than the leaders who only got 45% or even just 10% of the vote. But unless the election was clearly stolen (and it was not in the case of Hoffa Junior even if his campaign funds may be a bit suspect), then the millions of working class votes embodied in various elected union leaders have to be taken seriously. Union democracy is violated when that same leadership does not respect the millions of working class votes embodied in the leaders who lost union elections but still represent concerns that the unions should address.

I am a passionate supporter of rank-and-file union democracy efforts and have written for LABORNOTES in the past. But that passion exists because I think union leadership matters and represents our only real examples of working class leadership and worker self-government in our society. If folks write union leadership off as hopeless and illegitimate, they are little different from libertarians who argue against socialism on the basis that government never embodies the will of the people, so any of its actions are inherently not to be respected.

There is sometimes a conceit among leftists that union members are raging revolutionaries being held back by conservative undemocratic union leadership. There are cases where that is true, but in many cases, cautious often conservative union leadership reflect cautious often conservative union members. And in a world of harsh employer repression, that caution is often not unwarranted, at least not in the short-term in many situations. It is the role of the left in unions to argue to BOTH members and leadership that such caution is ultimately suicidal in the long-term, where solidarity and radical action may be high-risk but has a better chance of success in the long view.

But those choices are not simple and involvement in the day-to-day concerns motivating both union members votes and union leaders decisions is required to have real legitimacy in assessing them. Those uninvolved in such practical conflicts of strategy, whether in direct leadership or in support of rank-and-file opposition, usually miss that complexity. And so their comments usually reflect a utopian and aesthetic view of what "should be" rather than what is the reality of choices.

To say that union leaders should be respected is not to say that their opinions should be treated as untouchable writ. But it does mean that if you take the need for concerted working class power seriously, respecting the consensus strategy of such leaders is a way to magnify that power over the long-term. You don't cross picket lines not because every strike makes sense, but because a union culture that avoids scabbing makes sure that the strikes that do make sense are more likely to succeed.

This is classic (good) democratic centralism where you argue over strategy continually, fighting to improve policy, but when decisions are made, the minority takes action to support the agreed upon strategy in order to magnify working class power as a whole. That minority opinion may struggle to have its views win out by the next time a decision in made again, but in the meantime, their actions follow that leadership because that leadership is the best (if imperfect) embodiment of overall working class sentiment and strategic belief.

The comments on this list about individual voting not mattering is the antithesis of this approach. Of course, one vote does not matter, but when each vote is in line with agreed upon strategy, this reinforces the idea of collective voting and thereby magnifies the power of the group, both to elect political leaders they want and demand political acts in exchange for their collective support.

I don't think voting for Nader makes much sense this year, but if the AFL-CIO decided to endorse him, I would readily vote for him just to deliver the message to the Dems of the cost of losing that endorsement. The problem I have with voting for Nader this year is the only message it delivers is the cost of losing the endorsement of the NATION editorial board. Some folks on this list may prefer to strengthen the hand of unelected progressive columnists, but I prefer to strengthen the power of working class leadership, however imperfect that leadership may be on occasion.

-- Nathan Newman

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