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
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
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.”
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.
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.
commentator has written that the Taft-Hartley Act “ended for good the massive organizing drives that characterized the
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.
Emmett Murray, Lexicon
of Labor, New York: New Press, 1998.