As Union Officials Collaborate with Corporate Politicians…

Is a $1.8 Billion Raise Good for New York Workers?

by Charles Walker

[This article is from the web site Labor Tuesday for January 29, 2002. It has been edited for Labor Standard.]

New York hospital workers in Local 1199 are slated to receive $700 million in salary increases over three years, reported the New York Times on January 16 and 19. Their increases are part of a larger $1.8 billion legislative agreement providing higher wages for thousands of New York State hospital workers. No doubt the workers deserve every promised penny and much more. The money is being appropriated by the New York legislature at the urging of New York’s Republican governor, George Pataki.

But the workers are not necessarily getting the raises because they deserve them; there are strings attached to the pledged wages — political strings. For example, observers say the price exacted from Local 1199 members for the $700 million is the union’s neutrality when the governor seeks election this year to a third term. “The bill is widely seen among politicians here as a prelude to a political deal,” the Times commented.

Local 1199 is known in and out of New York state for important organizing victories, for relatively good contracts, for mobilizing its membership in street actions, and for political campaigns. It’s not unusual for Local 1199, an SEIU affiliate of 210,000 members, to be called a “progressive” union. The union’s principal officer is Dennis Rivera, reputed to be a “progressive” leader, well regarded by many leftist intellectuals and labor partisans. The Times reports that Rivera is “one of the most influential figures in New York Democratic Party circles” and Local 1199 operates a “formidable get-out-the-vote operation” based on rank-and-file volunteers.

It’s not clear how other “progressives” will react to the union’s neutrality, since they’ll be attempting to supplant Pataki with a yet to be nominated Democrat. Some critics may attack Rivera as a turncoat, as lacking principles. Others may keep their own counsel, calculating that to anger Rivera now is likely to jeopardize support from Rivera’s union later on.

Maybe some “progressives” will merely shrug their shoulders and write it off as an understandable tradeoff that aids Rivera’s efforts to provide for the members’ welfare. They may conclude that Rivera is merely doing what union leaderships in the private sector often do; that is, collaborate with the bosses to keep business in business, reasoning that if the golden goose dies, there go the jobs. It’s that acceptance of workers’ dependence on business for their jobs that forms at least part of the union officialdom’s rationalization for “business unionism.”

Business Unionism and the Arctic Refuge

A fresh example of union officials’ shortsighted acceptance of dependency on corporate bosses and their political accomplices for their members’ welfare is found in a Teamsters press statement dated January 17. “ANWR [Artic National Wildlife Refuge] exploration will not only reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil, it will also create thousands upon thousands of U.S. jobs. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the ANWR could contain as many as 16 billion barrels of oil. The technology exists to do this exploration safely. Alaskan oil fields currently use the cleanest, most efficient, most environmentally sensitive technology in the world.” Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said,  “Clearly, we can explore ANWR without harming the environment. The Teamsters know that job creation and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive.”

Despite Hoffa’s lightweight reputation, Hoffa also was speaking for Ed Sullivan, president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, Douglas McCarron, president of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, and Mike Sacco, president of the Seafarers International Union. These union officials gathered that day at the Teamsters Washington, D.C., headquarters (the “Marble Palace”) to meet with president George W. Bush and make visible their support for what they might call Bush’s Alaskan “jobs program.”

Other recent examples of business unionism include mineworkers and steelworkers union reps virtually arm in arm with their corporate opposites seeking legislation and money for “their” industries.

A Worldwide Trend

Union officials’ collaboration with the political representatives of the bosses is nothing new. Long ago it was noted that there was a worldwide trend in which union officialdoms were seeking the support and cooperation of governments. In return the governments would get union political support for major and minor concessions exacted from workers.

For example, in 1971, unionists joined president Nixon’s wage board to help contain the falsely named “wage-push inflation.” During WWII organized labor joined tripartite boards (government-industry-unions) set up to hold down wages and regulate working conditions (especially the right to strike).

To increase the dependency of union leaderships on corporate politicians, harsh anti-worker laws like the Taft-Hartley Act were passed to limit unions’ independence to act in the broad interests of their members and all workers. Still, in the post-WWII era labor officials seemingly weighed the risks of fighting what they called the “slave labor act” against the likelihood of future favors from politicians.  They have chosen not to fight.

One commentator has written that the Taft-Hartley Act “ended for good the massive organizing drives that characterized the 1930’s.”[1]  In 1949, John L. Lewis called on the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to refuse to comply with the Taft-Hartley Act, which the entire labor movement rightly called a “slave labor law,” but the “leaders” of the federation turned him down, and Lewis left the AFL. The CIO also timidly accepted the new restrictions on labor’s hard-won rights to boycott struck goods, to honor the picket lines of sister unions, and to strike without facing court-ordered injunctions. To make bad matters worse, they also supported and enforced the Taft-Hartley requirement that union officials swear to not being and never having been members of a “Communist” organization. That requirement was just one weapon the bureaucrats used to throttle the ranks’ postwar militancy.

Union Bureaucrats and Republicans

Rivera should be criticized for cutting his deal with Pataki. And he will be criticized, but most often for the wrong reasons. He’ll be criticized for helping Republicans against Democrats. But union leaders’ support for Republican politicians is nothing new. For example, John L. Lewis backed Wendell Wilkie’s run in 1940 to unseat President Franklin Roosevelt. The Teamsters union backed Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush the elder, and may back President George W. Bush in 2005. AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney advocates union support at least for “labor-friendly” Republicans. At the state and local level union endorsements of Republican politicians is so common as not to be remarkable.

What most of Rivera’s critics will probably not criticize is his dependency on a politician ultimately answerable to corporate interests. That’s simply because labor officials with few exceptions are no less dependent on favors from similar politicians, Republican or Democrat. Sad to say, in the U.S. labor movement the concept, the strategy, the principle of political independence of workers’ organizations is all but forgotten in theory as well as practice. The numerous labor and farmer parties that came and went for nearly one hundred years prior to the Great Depression (1929–39) are mostly unknown to the tens of thousands of U.S. union officials — and to most union members. Today’s labor officialdom has grown up dependent on big party politicians and the politicians’ governmental power. The Labor Party founded in 1996 has yet to attract the support, or even the casual interest of the greater part of the labor officialdom.

There’s a vital connection between organized labor’s business unionism, its collaboration with bosses (to the degree that the bosses consent), its dependence on government politicians, and its decline as a force that makes a difference in the daily lives of its members, and also in the lives of other workers. As night follows day, organized labor’s decline mirrors its organizational and political dependence on the corporate politicians and parties.

U.S. labor unions and their militant rise to power during the 1930s aroused the respect and emulation of millions of workers around the world. That’s no longer the case and hasn’t been the case for decades. To understand why, one simply has to look to Argentina, where a profoundly collaborationist labor bureaucracy is being left behind as Argentine workers seek a way out of the mess they never made.

[1] R. Emmett Murray, Lexicon of Labor, New York: New Press, 1998.