• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Mar 13, 2004

One of Us

April 1985:I am in a suite at a posh hotel with Doug Dority. At that time Dority is the second in command at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. On this day in April, he is meeting with the Vice President of Labor Relations of a large service industry corporation. I am the Vice President's assistant and protege. He takes me to his secret meetings so that I can witness the events, record them and learn dimensions of labor relations that are not taught in educational institutions.

The Corporate Vice President has come to Washington to persuade the UFCW to agree to a concessionary contract in negotiations that were to begin in a few weeks time. For a number of years the company had paid a large group of workers higher wages than were standard in its industry in an effort to keep unions out. But earlier that year, the company did a voluntary recognition deal with the UFCW and no longer needed to worry about being unionized. This being the case, the higher-than-market-pay-rates no longer made any business sense. That was the logic behind the demand for concessions that the Corporate Veep was about to make.

The discussion between them was brief. The company needed a break, the Corporate Vice President stated. Increased competition from non-union operators was decreasing its market share. The high wages it had been paying were a luxury that it could no longer afford. A wage rollback - a big one - was needed or the future looked bleak. How big? Twenty per cent, the Corporate Vice President said, cooly lying.

The union could not agree to a rollback of that magnitude Dority replied. His union had acquired these members in a voluntary rec exchange and was about to negotiate its first contract for them. Concessions would be a hard sell for a first contract. On top of that it would be politically awkward. It wouldn't sit well with other locals whose leaders might find themselves squeezed for similar concessions. But... Dority stated, without missing a beat or drawing another breath, how about a two-tier contract where new hires would be paid according to a lower wage scale? His union had done these kinds of deals with employers who needed a break, he said, and they seemed to work well.

Within a matter of a few minutes the deal was done. In the forthcoming negotiations, the company would grant existing workers a modest increase. A lower wage scale would be bargained for new hires. The UFCW negotiators would be brought into the loop in advance of bargaining and would ensure that they ended up at this point.

The Corporate Vice President could hardly believe his good fortune. He thought that it might be possible, but he was not expecting it to be that easy. He asked for 20% hoping that he might come away with 10% - if he was lucky. With the two tier set-up, he could drop rates down to minimum wage levels and, with the rate of staff turnover in the company's operations, it would be a matter of time before the vast majority of workers were paid from the new lower scale.

I sat there quietly taking it all in. I had to remember as much as I could of the exchange so that I could make notes of it later (note-taking at secret high level meetings tended to inhibit the discussions). Over a couple of years of following the Veep around, I'd heard a lot of strange shit. This shit blew me away however. It wouldn't be hard to remember. I was incredulous. Here was a Vice President of this enormous international union getting tapped for a major giveaway and he just rolled right over. He didn't even ask any questions. He just swallowed the company guy's lies and burped up a pile of concessions as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to do.

If he had bothered to inquire, he would have found that the company seeking the concessions was hugely profitable. A well-established leader in its segment of its market, it had a reputation for making big bucks even in tough economic times. It had sailed through the recent economic recession and was delivering double-digit returns on equity. Every single one of its operating divisions was profitable, sales were through the roof and a major expansion was underway. Its unionized operations had managed to hold their own against non-union competitors for years. Its phenomenal success was frequently discussed in the national business media.

None of this mattered to Doug Dority it seemed. If he knew, he didn't care. If he didn't know, he didn't care enough to find out. Sleazy sonofabitch, I thought. He doesn't give a shit about those people. Not even on a superficial level. They're just things to him.

Looking at this insipid man, I could not help but think how much he was like the managers back at the corporate office. The deference he showed to our Vice President and the lengths to which he went to build rapport with him. The earnestness in his voice as he told the Veep of his union's desire for good relations and its respect for the company's right to make money, the speed with which he rolled over.

"He's a good guy," the Veep said as we departed the meeting for a celebratory brunch. "He's one of us!"

Within a few weeks of our meeting, negotiations began. The UFCW business agents who led the union's bargaining committee did an admirable job at the bargaining table. They put forward a respectable package of demands and made compelling - sometimes even impassioned - arguments in favor of their proposals. As the bargaining dance continued, they gradually conceded most of their demands or agreed to watered down, largely meaningless, versions - digging in their heals here and there on issues that they told us in advance would be particularly important. In secret discussions with us, they would ensure that we knew they were only playing their parts and clarifying for us what exactly they would need to pacify the more stubborn elements on their committee.

Within a few weeks, the deal that had already been done, was done again - this time for the benefit of the members. It was hailed as a good deal. One that set a solid foundation for the future. Yes, the union had to give a little but that was just one of those realities - one of those things. It's a tough industry and with so many non-union competitors, we don't want to put the company out of business, the members were told. They ratified the deal. What else could they do? Their negotiators had done all they could or so they said. The company just wouldn't give them any more. They didn't want to bankrupt the company, did they? Of course, the member didn't know that the company was in no danger of going under, or that all that the concessions were going to do was to make the company and its shareholders more wealthy. And they didn't know that the most significant aspects of the deal had been hammered out long before in a posh hotel, in a far off city, in secret, without any discussion of their interests. But that was OK because they didn't really matter. They weren't "one of us".

In the couple of years that I spent in the corporate labor relations department of this successful service industry business, I learned a lot about the sleazy subterranean world of labor relations and did not have many illusions about the magnanimity of employers or the good intentions of union leaders. I'd never had any faith in the high-mindedness of the corporation captains. Dority succeeded in peeling away what little faith I had in their mainstream labor counterparts.

If the back room deal that I'd witnessed on that day in 1985 was an anomaly, it could perhaps be excused or even forgiven. But it was not a "one of". Similar deals would be done over and over again in the years that followed - with this company and with many others, on both sides of the border.

Within a decade Dority would take over the Presidency of the UFCW. His performance in that role would exceed even my expectations. For the next ten years he would preside over a union that squandered the power and resources of its members and missed one opportunity after another to improve their working lives. All the while its leaders hung out in hotel suites, enriching themselves and selling out the members.

The members themselves became nothing more than a commodity. Officially they were the union but in reality they were things - revenue producing units - that could be bought or traded and that needed to be managed so that they didn't get out of line and start messing up the leaders' self-serving plans. While the members were asked to swallow one concessionary deal after another, the leaders partied hearty on their dime and crapped litigation on those who didn't like it - also on their dime.

Legions of aspiring "one's of us" - opportunists who saw a cushy gig in the union-repping trade - were drawn to positions of power in the locals and the international where they were rewarded for their loyalty to Doug and his crew and groomed to follow them to the bigger trough when the time came.

November 1999: I am in yet another hotel meeting with a prominent UFCW Local President - one of the up and comers who came up the ladder on Dority's watch. I have long since left the sleazy subterranean world of labor relations. He's up to his ass in it. I'm writing about union democracy. He's puzzled by that but dismissive of it the glib way of people who don't think they have much to worry about. I ask him about union democracy in the UFCW. He offers up a defense of union autocracy.

The UFCW is a corrupt union, yes that's true he tells me matter-of-factly. There's corruption - and lots of it - on both sides of the border and up and down the chains of command, corruption as bad as HERE used to have. That's just the way it is when you're big. What can you do? There is no democracy. There can't be. The union is too big for that. The union can't be trusted to the members. There's no point in having democracy in the union. The union has to get along with the employers rather than fight the employers. The days when fighting was worthwhile are long gone. The union can't take the employers on any more - it's too reliant on them for voluntary recognition agreements and pension and other contributions. Besides, the management guys are nice guys. We have a lot in common.

I leave the meeting with that same incredulous feeling that I had years in earlier in Washington, only now it's mixed with a profound sense of loathing. The backroom bastards are ruling the earth now. F**k them.

October 2003: The biggest strike in contemporary labor history begins in Southern California. Seventy thousand working people walk off the job at three large food retailers. The key issues: Demands for concessions on wages and health and welfare benefit payments. The magnitude of the strike, the resolve of the workers, the solidarity shown by members of their communities and of other unions stood to make this one of those the big consciousness-shifting, existing-order-shaking events. One of those happenings that changes the way we think about ourselves and our relationships with others, including our institutions.

Throughout the strike the resolve of the workers seems unshakeable. Their leaders bob and weave, sending out mixed signals and making strategic blunder after strategic blunder. The world is watching. Media coverage is constant. The workers are speaking and being heard. They're not quitting even though what their union's intentions are not as clear. Opportunities to expand the strike to a nationwide scale are rejected. Pickets are removed from strategic locations in efforts to elicit similar "good faith" from the employers. Proposals giving ground on key issues are made to get the employers back to the table. Dority hangs out with celebrities and takes advantage of photo ops but is conspicuous by his absence on the picket lines. One of the most disturbing moments comes when workers, determined to continue picketing a distribution center, chase away union officials who wanted them to disband.

Five months later it's all over. Sixteen days of secret negotiations culminate in a settlement - a concessionary deal that follows the long established pattern of two-tier wage schemes and compromises on key issues - in this case, health care funding. While the ink is still drying, Doug Dority buggers off, retiring from his ten-year stint as the head of North America's largest service industry union.

With an annual salary in excess of $300,000, he represented (at least in theory) some of North America's lowest paid workers. With his crowing achievement (the "most successful strike in history" he called it - yes, in all of history!) behind him, he hit the road packing a hefty pension plus, if the word on the street is correct, a substantial bonus. In his wake, he leaves an organization led by men (and they're mostly men) who think and act like corporate managers and a successor who was appointed by a group of 40 or so executive board members on behalf of 1.4 million members.

Since the greatest deal in history became public knowledge, criticism of Dority and his crew has been relentless. It's hard to find a commentary about the outcome of the spectacular show of workers' power in the alternative or mainstream media that does not contain the words "sell out", "surrender", "betrayal" or "defeat" or that does not slam the UFCW's leaders for their abject failure to lead.

Michael Hiltzik of the LA Times likens the UFCW's sorry performance to watching a decrepit building implode:

UFCW Sacrifices Workers While Declaring Victory:

Just as those videos of old hotels and tenements imploding never fail to enthrall when they appear on the evening news, the spectacle of a great institution crumbling away exercises a ghastly fascination: One moment an edifice stands solid and proud; a few seconds pass, and nothing remains but a cloud of dust.

But there's a difference between the controlled demolition of a decrepit housing project and the collapse of, say, the United Food and Commercial Workers, which resolved its long-running battle with three Southern California grocery companies last week. In the former case, the authorities take pains to keep innocent bystanders safely out of danger. In the latter, the livelihoods of thousands of people could wind up buried in the wreckage.

Union officials are insisting that the contract ratified last weekend represents a great victory. UFCW International President Douglas Dority, who hustled himself into retirement Tuesday, issued a statement over the weekend calling the Southern California job action "one of the most successful strikes in history."

Stirring words indeed. But as an accurate description of events, they rank right up there with "Dewey Defeats Truman."

The World Socialist Web Site hit a nail on its head:

The overriding concern of the UFCW throughout the contract dispute has been to restructure its relationship with the owners-under the new market conditions created by the growing presence of non-union, low-wage competitors such as Wal-Mart-at the expense of the union rank-and-file. - Union surrenders benefits, wages in sellout of California grocery strike

Another report from the LA Times offered a discomforting insight into How the supermarket strike was settled:

Moments before they shook hands on a deal, Stemerman had noticed that two of the supermarket reps were sitting on the bed, and he couldn't resist joking about "the union getting into bed with the employers."

Many of the tens of thousands of grocery store workers returning to their jobs would probably see more than a grain of truth in that teasing remark.

A UCLA professor offered up the good along with the bad in an LA Weekly report titled Surrender at the supermarket:

"I don't think it can be read any other way than a defeat for the union," said labor expert Sanford Jacoby, a professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management. "I suppose it could have been worse. The stores are still unionized."

More good reading:

Joe Hill Dispatch.
Labor's Militant Voice.

I'm not sure that it can be any worse. Having the union-that-wouldn't isn't necessarily better than having no union at all. At least with no union, the workers would be free to organize themselves or choose a different union. As dues paying units of the UFCW they would have to organize a massive decertification effort just to get to that point. Is the UFCW "better than having no union" or a rag in drain? Depends on how much you know about what goes on in the back room.

Secret discussions with corporate officials are often painted as necessary or even beneficial for the members by the union leaders who engage in them. In my years of hanging out in the labor relations back rooms, I never saw anything that was beneficial to the members. Most of what I saw resembled the exchange I described earlier in this piece. The length of the discussions and the variety of posturing that took place were the only major differences.

From his predecessor Bill Wynn, Doug Dority inherited an already corrupt business union bloated with disempowered members and self-serving pork choppers. As the years passed, more disempowered members would be added to the ranks, many of those through disempowering voluntary recognition deals. Under Dority's watch, the UFCW would morph from a business union into a business partner.

Whether he saw it that way or not doesn't really matter. That's what happened. Over the years, the UFCW would - despite its considerable bargaining power - roll over for the corporate gentlemen, again and again, in ways that would make our 1985 encounter seem tame by comparison. Two tier wages deals, buy-outs for long service higher paid workers, greater flexibility for management, became common outcomes of UFCW bargaining in the service industry. The bosses had Doug's number (and in Canada, Cliff's number). They knew his weakness which, ironically, was the values they shared in common, and they did predictable things. His ridiculous strategies played into their hands because they were business strategies.

The backroom meeting that I attended in April 1985 resulted in a colossal missed opportunity to for the UFCW organization to make inroads into a corner of the service industry where workers were desperate for good representation. Dority blew it. The SoCal strike was an opportunity for a bigger, better-resourced, more seasoned UFCW organization (one that has all the advantages that "big unionism" is supposed to bring) to turn back the corporate assault on North American workers. Again, Doug blew it. Whether the SoCal debacle was choreographed from the outset or whether it just happened, doesn't matter. It's the end result that counts. The end result is pitiful. Its ramifications are ominous.

What does it - this latest, greatest sellout/surrender/defeat/betrayal - tell us? What does it tell us about the long-touted advantages of big unionism? What does it tell us about the value of the labor federations and the well-heeled leaders? What does it tell us about the value of autocratic unionism? The only bright light that I can see is what it teaches us about the power of the people.

The 70,000 dedicated workplace activists who hit the street in October 2003 had the power to win this strike. They could have won. They should have won. Their leaders, however, didn't have a clue. My guess is that they were afraid of the workers' power and as interested in keeping their awesome might under wraps as the employers.

The outcome of the SoCal strike was as predictable as it is disappointing. It's time the leaders of the mainstream labor movement acknowledge that sad reality. The sellout began long ago and continued through two decades during which the leaders sat on their hands and pretended it wasn't happening. Even now, a lot of high falutin' heads are in the sand, hoping the whole unpleasant thing blows over and that Doug's disappearing act will somehow cure the working public of any residual nausea about it. It's not going to. The strike was too big, the sellout to stark. People have become more knowledgable about "labor relations" and knowledge is power. Maybe it's time the heads stepped down off their clouds and handed the labor movement back to the people who have worker's interests uppermost in their minds and their hearts: The community of workers.

"Change or get out of the way." That's something Doug Dority said at the UFCW International convention in 2001. Although I was never quite sure exactly what kind of change he was advocating, it seemed that he was acknowledging a disconnect between his union and its members. Why he said he when and where he did has always fascinated me. It seems as though Doug had a sense that the end of an era might well be upon him and that change was needed. That's a plausible theory, I think. Even the most disconnected of despots have been known to get that niggling feeling that the end is near. It was a good piece of advice which, unfortunately, neither Dority nor his audience ever took much to heart. That's not a surprise. The scale of change that would be needed to connect the UFCW's leaders to its members would mean that a lot of the leaders would need to get out of the way.

In the wake of SoCal the leaders of the mainstream labor movement may want to take Dority's prescient advice themselves. For a long time now, these disconnected leaders have tried their damnedest to get the workers to change - to cajole them into joining their unions, and persuading their friends and family members to join their unions and cheering for the leaders when the leaders need to be cheered. It's not working. It's time for the leaders to change - or get out of the way.

In over two decades of sellouts, few (if any) North American labor leaders ever spoke out against the coziness that had developed between the UFCW and its employer-partners. None publicly questioned the foolish theory that the union's leaders advanced in defence of their concessionary romps: That concessions would help the unionized employers compete with non-union competitors. Once the unionized employers were competitive, they would share their wealth with the workers. (An even dumber variant of this theory went: The union would give unionized employers concessions to help them be more competitive. The union would then organize all the workers at their non-union competitors. With dominance across the entire industry, the union would be able to drive a hard bargain at negotiations and win back the ground it had conceded.)

Some even helped rationalize the labor-management bedmates' behavior: The UFCW's sad track record of backward bargaining wasn't the fault of its leaders. It was the employers, it was the government, it was the members themselves who were responsible for the problems in the industry.

All along, the corporate veep's had their bedmates' number and pressed their buttons whenever the urge hit them. In the labor movement, union leaders shook their heads, held their noses and looked the other way - just like they're supposed to under the Code of Union Officialdom:

"... the chiseled-in-stone commandments that govern relations among union officials, (are) a code seldom broken that mandates loyalty, mutual support, and a live-and-let-live attitude. In a smooth transition, the old head of the pack retires or steps down gracefully, is always replaced in a celebratory spirit of amiable consensus, is honored by accolades for past services to humanity, and is rewarded with a golden parachute. In its most extreme and debased form, the code prescribes that you may run your union as you see fit, even honestly, as long as I am permitted to run mine as I see fit, without public criticism." (The Rising Tide of Union Democracy, Herman Benson, 1995)

Fortunately, it's not all over for working people. Apart from the stinging criticism of Dority and his crew, there is another thread - not so apparent but perceptible nevertheless - in the public reaction to the end of the SoCal strike: The workers were heroic. They were not perceived as greedy or unreasonable but rather as resolute, unified, selfless people. Members of communities taking a courageous and necessary stand against insatiable greed of entities that need serious behavior modification. This perception of working people is, in my view, a significant departure from what has been the norm over the past several decades. It's a very good sign - one of those glimmers that suggests a shift in how we perceive things - a shift in our consciousness.

The SoCal workers' efforts have the potential to be the consciousness shifting event of our working lives - the direction of the shift - for better or worse - depends on what those workers and all of the rest of us, do from here on. A new movement can happen. It's happening already. Focusing our energy in the direction of our collective goals can give it momentum. Cleaning out the back rooms and getting rid of the rags in the drain would be a good start.

Remote Viewer is a regular contributor at Members for Democracy who has worked extensively in the field of labor relations. Over the years she has worked as a representative of labor, management and government.

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