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September 06, 2004

Big Is Beautiful

In November, after the election's over, our next big fight begins -- the WWF Smackdown/Jell-O wrestling match over the future of the AFL-CIO, aka the Coalition of the Dwindling. In one corner: the New Unity Partnership (NUP) tag team of HERE-UNITE, SEIU, the Laborers, and the Carpenters, who say unions have to radically change if we're going to survive.

Of all of NUP's proposals, the one that's most ticked off unionists is its focus on "union density" -- creating bigger locals and unions that can influence entire industries. While some of this angry reaction is just petty turf fights masquerading as concern over members, there are plenty of progressives who think NUP's focus is a recipie for disaster . But too many of these attacks have used a legitimate issue -- whether NUP takes union democracy seriously enough -- to dodge an important question: should building larger, stronger locals and unions be a priority? I'm a strong believer in union democracy, and I also think Big is Beautiful. Here's why.

I used to think small was beautiful. Then I had the experience of belonging to small unions.

The first union was Exhibit A that a small union can be just as undemocratic and out of touch with its members as any large union.

The second was a great example of union democracy at work. I loved being involved so much that eventually I overcame my severe allergy to spending lots of time in meetings and joined our local's executive board.

But in the end, I stopped being active. It just got too hard to convince members that our local could make real difference if they got involved. Even if all of our members were ready to storm the barricades, we would still get our asses kicked on almost any issue we really cared about. We just didn't have the numbers.

What finally swung me into the Big column was getting a job at a large union. It wasn't that I couldn't see the problems of Big -- take me out for a beer and I'll tell you stories that'll make your skin crawl. But I also got to see up close what you can do when you have tons of members working together.

The first advantage is obvious: lots of active members + lots of money from dues + a decent strategy = big wins. With this kind of resources, you can take on large corporations who would otherwise stomp you into the ground or simply wait you out. You can organize tens of thousands of new members. As the NUP argues, this also means can organize entire industries -- and with that, you can have the leverage to make real gains in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. And speaking for myself, I'm much, much more likely to get active in my union if I know we've got the numbers to really win.

OK, you say, there's strength in numbers. But why not just have lots of smaller unions work together? What's so great about a bigger union with larger locals?

My answer: fewer Penis Wars.

One thing we progressives don't like to talk about is that one of the reasons people -- wonderful, amazing people who have made a real difference -- become leaders is because they want to be the Big Dog. Small locals and union have at best a handful of power positions, which gives people with ego a lot less room to play nice. As a result, you find yourself in the position that UFCW faced in their California Safeway strike, where 13 local presidents had to work together. What are the odds that 13 leaders, each with their own independent power base, will put aside their ego enough to come up with a coherent strategy and message?

With larger locals, there's a whole lot more constructive room for ego. Sure, you may not get to be the local president or treasurer, but you can be the organizing director or political director or one of their deputies -- someone who's got as much influence on the world as the president of a small local. And speaking from experience, it is much, much easier to get people to work together when there's more room for people to have power without creating lots of tiny, wholly independent fiefdoms.

Are there dangers with bigger unions? Absolutely. And the easiest way to ensure a big union stays accountable is to build it on a model of mobilizing members.

As unions learned the hard way in the 80s, it doesn't matter how big your piggy bank is if members aren't willing to hit the streets. And no matter how big a union is, if member don't feel a real sense of ownership, if they don't feel like the union is speaking for them, they aren't going to knock on doors or turn out to rallies or phone bank or do job actions. With the enemies we're facing today, that means that if a large union wants to grow, its members have to feel that the union belongs to them.

And unlike small unions, large unions don't have any excuses. In a small local, you can be undemocratic and unaccountable but pretend everything's ok -- at the end of the day, you can't be expected to win much. That's the game the leadership of my first union played. But if a large local it isn't able to mobilize a lot of its members and win real victories, its leadership has nowhere to hide.

If you disagree, if you think small is beautiful, here's what I'd like to know. Where has small really worked? I'm not talking about a handful of courageous folks in one factory who temporarily staved off the boss. I'm talking about hundreds of thousands of new people joining our ranks. I'm talking about winning real increases in wages and benefits for tens of thousands of people.

Maybe there are plenty of examples where small has won major victories. But until I see the evidence, I'll stick with Big.

Posted by RT at September 6, 2004 10:44 AM