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Business Unionism: An Anomaly In Action

Written by Bill Pearson Saturday, 04 March 2006

Several months ago in an email I received from a blogger friend, I was chastised for using the term biz unionism too often on a Website we both visited. His contention was the phrase was trite and overused. He claimed to simply apply a tag like this wasn't helpful to rebuilding or defining what was wrong with organized labor.

He made a compelling argument the term had been coined years ago and while it was descriptive enough, it did nothing to change how unions functioned. I rebutted: No single label better defines what we have become, hence the constant reference.

Given what is going on with my friends trying to reform UFCW local 588, I may have to rethink his comments. I have repeatedly stated their union was one of the worst offenders when it came to democracy. In fact, so much so, if the term Biz-Unionism ever made it to the vaunted Webster's Dictionary, there should simply be a picture of the leadership of local 588 and a historical study of what they were.

This was a local where a huge number of family members had wonderful paying jobs. This was a local who had turned their backs on the rest of the UFCW unions in California virtually every time negotiations began. This was the local where the just retired president made the largest salary and had some of the best perks in all of the UFCW (and that speaks volumes given the proverbial pig-out going on around North America). This was the local where the by-laws were written to discourage democracy and allow anyone wanting to run to be put in harms way. This was the local that prided itself in shameless self-promotion and spin doctoring at the highest level.

I could go on, suffice to say, you should get the picture. Just calling this local biz unionists wasn't enough. The substance of their actions couldn't be captured in a single phrase. It would take a near book like review to expose their inadequacies and sins. Hopefully, as more of their foolish and self-serving reactions to the reformers are presented, someone will put them under a microscope and ferret out the dirt that is just waiting to find the light of day.

It is an absolute anomaly. The entire purpose of a Union is embedded in one solitary concept: They should exist to make the work lives of their members better. Duh, how easy is that? Unfortunately, as unions evolved to become Institutionalized, they lost sight of what and why they existed. They put the survival of the organization first and in cases where the leadership thought they were the union, the survival of the leadership displaced the organization as to who and what was number one and two. Members slipped to a distant third as the structure and the leadership became the primary purpose of their existence.

Here's where it gets so distressing: Virtually anyone with an honest bone in their body will admit times have become horseshit for workers. Doesn't matter if you are union or non, employers are just having their way. The gangbang by the bastards is happening and the unions that are around haven't a clue how to stop it. We saw firsthand the devastation during the strike in Southern California and the subsequent collapse of any effort to try and hold off employers, as they demanded concessions in every subsequent set of contract talks.

Even with those givebacks and efforts by UFCW locals (spearheaded by the international) to get along, we find even worse horrors awaiting UFCW members. Seems the boys didn't get enough at the bargaining table, now they want to finish the humiliation. Albertson's is selling their stores to three parties. Ralph's (Kroger's) is closing stores in Northern CA and Steve Bird (Safeway's own bad guy) is still Steve Bird and in charge.

Facing these trials and tribulations will be a challenge for members and locals alike. You would think it would be a time when the Unions facing these battles would be bracing for the fight of their lives. You'd think there would be a massive effort to rally members and help get them ready to do whatever it takes to insure they have a chance to win this war. You'd think the primary/sole objective of a Local like 588 would be centered on educating, motivating and empowering their members.

So, where's the anomaly? Simple, under the biz union formula, the objective has shifted and the precedence is centered on stopping a handful of reformers. First, the candidate for president, Doug Slaydon gets fired for some trumped up charges and the union is unable to get him back to work. Not only have they been slow in handling his case, they haven't even selected arbitrators. Clearly an effort to way-lay his bid for office.

It gets even more blatant: This past week, at least one union rep back-tracked to stores Doug visited and picked up copies of the newsletter Doug passed out. Worse yet, the big goof saw the need to try to harass and intimidate members who wanted to keep their copies. This is isn't the first time he has done this; charges had been submitted to the NLRB for his stealing a petition from a meat cutters desk, and the Union had to claim innocence of a sort because it was addressed to them.

Let's be clear: the reformers present a threat to the existing leadership. They are demanding accountability; they are demanding transparency; they are demanding the union work with other UFCW locals in California; they are requesting meetings so members have answers, and they are forcing the local to act differently.

The tragedy is, some of the reps are more interested in protecting what they have. The leadership should have/could have become pro-active and aggressively fought for Doug and gotten him reinstated, or certainly put his case on a fast track for adjudication. Instead they are wasting time chasing down what the reformers are doing and intentionally stalling Doug's case.

It does beg the question: What is the leadership interested in at 588? Is it about democracy, fairness, and protection of all the members? Or is about preserving their positions with some of the best pay and perks of all the unions in the country? Members of local 588 should en masse be demanding their leadership answer which priority they have.

This is a difficult time for workers everywhere. No one can afford to sit back and watch, wait and hope. That is truer in local 588 than anywhere; at least there you have a number of folks who have stuck their neck out and challenged the leadership to put up or shut up. Sadly, at first blush it looks like they have decided it's safer and more in their interest to fight their own members than to take on the employers who are bludgeoning them. That is unfortunately part and parcel of the biz union model.

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