Workers Are Taking Back Control of Their Unions from Stale Leadership
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The sight of tens of thousands of striking teachers and their allies marching through the streets of Chicago last fall had a back-story, a little-discussed trend in organized labor—reform movements.
Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union had come to power as part of a vibrant internal movement, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. Dozens of reform groups like CORE have sprouted up across the country in the last five years—to challenge unresponsive leaders, resist concessions, build ties with the community, and promote internal democracy and member control.
SECOND TIME’S THE CHARM
What explains this resurgence? First, today’s reformers are often the latest manifestations of longtime currents.
Ron Carey, who won the first direct election for Teamsters president in 1991, campaigned from his position as president of New York’s Local 804. Sixteen years later a new crop of reformers emerged there, calling on the Carey legacy and making its name by stopping local pension cuts at UPS. The Members United slate is now in its second term.
In Chicago, CORE’s 2010 election run drew veterans of an earlier caucus that came to office in 2001. That caucus lost after one term, but the experience proved invaluable to CORE’s election bid—and to keeping on track once in office.
Some new reformers are pushing to correct earlier efforts that went off track, as in the case of New York’s subway and bus union, where the New Directions caucus elected Roger Toussaint president in 2000.
Though the product of a rank-and-file-oriented movement, Toussaint veered toward a top-down leadership style. Pushback and fallout from the union’s poorly prepared 2005 strike drove New Directions veterans to challenge Toussaint’s hand-picked successor. The Take Back Our Union caucus swept into office in 2010 and was recently re-elected.
The same dynamic was at play in 2011 when AFSCME 3299 board members and worksite leaders formed the Members First slate in the service workers union at the University of California. They contended that incumbents, who had been part of revitalizing a moribund local a decade earlier, had lost touch with the rank and file and were making too many concessions. Members First won five of the local’s six top offices.
While some reform efforts are spearheaded by longtime activists, principal officers in their forties and even younger are common among today’s reformers.
A second factor is fallout from the management push for givebacks. Unions’ inability to counter short-staffing and wage cuts has bolstered the appeal of reform candidates who promise to stand up to the offensive.
One example is Rebuild 1101, which swept elections in New York’s largest telecom local, at Verizon, in 2011. Ten of the previous administration’s 13 top officers were retired and had lost touch with what the rank and file were facing, particularly speedup.
The election was also colored by that summer’s two-week strike, where the national union made the controversial decision—supported by the local’s old leaders—to return to work without an agreement and with Verizon still pushing concessions.
A similar example comes from the Public Employees Federation of New York, where members angry over concessions and a new tier in state pensions ousted incumbents in favor of the NY Union Proud slate.
A third factor is member disgust at blatantly authoritarian or corrupt leaders.
For example, the New Leadership slate in Chicago’s Teamsters Local 743 made rooting out corruption and organized crime a pillar of its successful 2008 campaign.
The same challenges faced the New York District Council of Carpenters, under federal monitorship since the 1990s for corruption and mob involvement. In 2011, after the previous head of the local pled guilty to accepting kickbacks and bribes and a stronger oversight program was imposed, longtime reformer Mike Bilello was elected secretary-treasurer.