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  • authored by Members for Democracy

The Tools of Disempowerment - Unplugged

A key strategic piece for union reformers is generating enough member support to cause the union bureaucracy to stand up and take notice of reformers' demands for democracy. Since there are no laws that require unions to operate as democracies, the only avenue open to reformers is to pressure the union bureaucracy for change. Pressure for change can be applied in a number of ways but whatever avenues are chosen by reformers, a significant proportion of the memberhsip will need to get involved and stay involved in the reform movement if it is to succeed.

Getting the membership involved has been a source of frustration for reformers. In the case of the large North American service industry unions like the UFCW, the sheer size of the membership presents a significant challenge. The larger the membership, the more people will need to become involved if the reform movement is to get the bureaucracy's attention. With hundreds of thousands of members dispersed across the continent among a dozens of different industries, busienesses and occupations, communicating, organizing and mobilizing members is difficult. The casualized nature of members' jobs means that many come and go, making it difficult to maintain consistent levels of support. There is a sense among some reformers that members (at least some proportion of them) are apathetic. That they don't really care enough to get involved. Still others speak of members' "divided loyalty" - a sense of obligation to their employers that blunts the desire to become involved in potentially controversial activities.

Many of these reasons are valid. Certainly, the size and geographic location of the membership present certain challenges as does the rate of turnover. No doubt, some members may not care enough to get involved, however, I do not believe that widespread apathy is the reason for member non-involvement in union reform . There is in my view, a very fundamental barrier in the way of member participation in union reform. This barrier - a kind of layer of mud that keeps out the sun - is the unhealthy (sick) organizational culture within the unions themselves and the disempowering effect that this has on a very large portion of the membership.

When we think about "organizational culture" we are thinking about things like: What kind of organization is this? What kind of place is it to work for/participate in/be a member of...? What is its character or personality? How does this organization behave? Is it inclusive, elitist, open, secretive, forward-thinking, stuck in the past, what? Gauging organizational culture (whatever the organization) is not an exact science. Org culture is the product of a wide range of factors and influences, internal and external. The values and beliefs of its leaders are probably the most significant, the values of the society in which it is situated are another. In a highly democratic organization, the values of its members would play a defining role. On top of that, org culture is not static or carved-in-a-rock. It's fluid, something that's always changing if only in small barely perceptible ways as the influences on it change - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Despite it's somewhat fuzzy nature, however, it is possible to get a fairly good sense of an organization's culture in by examining things like its practices, policies, activities and the outcomes of those activities.

Org cultures can be healthy or sick. Sick cultures exist where the culture appears to undermine or run contrary to the organizaton's stated goals and objectives or (in the case of organizations that are supposed to be member-driven, like unions) is out of sync with the interests of the members. Unhealthy cultures can exist in any organization and unions are, in my view, not immune from them. Unions are probably more succeptable to developing unhealthy org cultures because they are subject to little external control.

Unhealthy organizational cultures can be home to sexism, racism, classism or any other harmful belief systems that hold one group of people superior to another. These provide the rulers or dominant groups within the organization (and most do have 'em) with the tools for disempowering the "ruled". These tools can be really effective. Thousands of intelligent people can be sidelined by a handful of thugs, tyrants or petty bureaucrats who have learned how to win at what is essentially a headgame.

A really good example of this phenomenon is sexism. For women workers, working in a sexist culture is profoundly disempowering. I can vouch for that from experience. I started my career in an organization with a sexist culture. I didn't think about it in those terms at the time. It was just a place where women were not really equal in any way that mattered. I recall feeling angry about this but mostly I just felt not-good-enough. The really odd thing was that I did well for myself all things considered. I was one of the first women in the place to ever get promoted and eventually made it up to middle management. But no matter how well I did I could never shake off the feeling that I was not good enough/smart enough/ambitious enough/worthy enough to play in the big leagues...you name it. It wasn't until recently that I made the connection between this and the sick org culture and when I did, a whole lot of things fell into place. That's why I'm convinced that whatever your job or rank within an organization, an org culture that treats you like somebody else's doormat is inherently disempowering. It makes you feel like a bug. It makes you think that you're small, insignificant, not very smart, not deserving of respect, not destined ever to amount to much. Worse still, you tend blame yourself for all of this. You doubt your ability. If you do something right, it's just luck. If you do something wrong, it's because you're stupid. This is what working in a sexist organizational culture does to your head. Now, as if that's not bad enough, consider the effect when, in addition to the orgnaization that you work for, the organization that is supposed to represent your interests is home to a sexist culture. The effect is magnified. You get a double-whammy of disempowerment. And you're going to take on the world feeling this way?

Union reformers - especially those in service industry unions which tend to have a high proportion of disempowered members - need to be aware of this. When members feel powerless, confused, when their self-worth is minimized day after day by two large institutions, they are not likely to rise up and fight. At the end of another day at the headgames, they're more likely to go home and try to forget it all or wonder why they feel so rotten.

For reformers inside the service industry unions, a different starting point for reform is needed: You need to shut off the tools of disempowerment that are keeping a large segment of the membership on the sidelines. You can't win a battle if the majority of your members feel they can't make it happen anyway. You can't achieve democracy first and empowerment second. Empowerment needs to come first. That will generate the groundswell of source support that will be necessary to democratize the union.

How do we achieve this? How do we empower the disempowered? I believe that the first step is to raise awareness about what's really going on- what's happening in the workplace and in the union that is robbing workers of the ability to make their own choices, shape their own desitiny, assess their options and choose courses of action that will take them there. We need to understand what is causing the despair and hopelessness. We need to talk about the sick organizational cultures and how they work to control, manipulate and disempower. Once we understand how the equipment works, we can disengage it.

Over the next few weeks, we would like to shine some light on the tools and methods of disempowerment and on what can be done to flip the switch.

When you understand your environment, you can control it, even change it. Knowledge is power.

part 2

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