Monday, August 2, 2010

Thoughts on Settling: A Union Armistice

I find it difficult to explain my job to people. There are two levels of confusion. The higher level of confusion is that of people who don't really know what North American unions do, either because they didn't grow up around them or they are from another country. The lower level of confusion is that of people who understand unions but don't understand my job, either from an union-hating perspective or an ally perspective. I admit it is not a job that a lot of people, even union staff, have. I'd say 500 people in the entire country, tops, have this kind of job.

I would describe myself as a strategic campaigner. I design and implement campaigns, develop strategy, do research, build industrial and political relationships, and even (most exciting of all) put data into spreadsheets. I don't negotiate contracts, or process dues, or organize workers myself. ("Huh?" Never mind, I'm a computer programmer. How about this weather we're having?)

But more confusing than my job has been the context in which I have been doing it for the past few years. Before 2008, I had never been part of a merger/acquistion, or a hostile takeover, or an open internecine battle of any kind. But one opened up right before my eyes, a harsh and emotional and difficult struggle. And, after much consideration, I took a side, risking personal and professional relationships that meant a lot to me. I took a side because I believed it was the right thing to do. I would do it again.

Still, it's hard to explain to people what actually happened. The short story is, the elected leader of our organization wanted to continue to run it, but he didn't have the votes to do it, so he took his staff and merged with another, bigger organization, asserting jurisdiction over the same industries that we had organized for years (as well as moving funds and other assets).

If we were talking about a company, these actions might have been seen as a betrayal, but entirely legitimate. It's sort of like (spoiler alert, slowpokes) the last season of Mad Men - people who consider themselves visionaries feel like they are losing control of their world, and they are losing it to people they do not like very much. Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce split off to compete for clients and market share. It felt exciting, adventurous, pioneering.

I think that is what some people who decided to leave might have felt. That this was a new energy, a manifest destiny of some sort.

The problems with this line of thinking are (perhaps among others):

1) We're talking about an organization that is accountable to people who serve food and clean toilets for a living, people who would rather see their dues money go towards servicing and organizing, not towards fighting over the right to represent them. These are people whose livelihoods - health insurance, wages, pensions - are directly affected by union decisions. They are not wealthy Lucky Strikes shareholders who have an extensive portfolio that can easily weather an advertising flub.

2) The sense of "competition" in trade unionism is not what it is in business. The movement is stronger when there is real organizing by jurisdiction - an "economy" of scale, an expertise in the industries, strength in numbers. Unlike in business, competition in the union world actually creates stagnation.

3) It was not really a pioneering move. An analogy would read as follows: the American colonies mustered an army to fight for independence from England, only to be colonized by Spain three days later and try to take over the colonies under the Spanish flag. There is no independence, just an opportunity to get away from and even do battle with England, and affiliate with a larger organization that has a history of brutally swallowing up its affiliates.

So I am mostly glad that there is now a settlement that, by and large, restores what's right. But I hope some lessons were learned all around. I know what I've learned.

1) Nothing beats fantastic organizing.
2) Some compromise is almost always inevitable, even when you know you are in the right.
3) Even after an armistice, there are things to be worked out. No settlement settles everything.
4) Take pride in your beliefs. You don't have to be an evangelist, but defend your convictions when called upon to do so.
5) It's worth saying again - nothing beats fantastic organizing. Ever. For anything.


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