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  • authored by Members for Democracy

Bigger is Better? For Who?

The standard rationale advanced by bureaucratic unions for merging locals is that it will create bigger locals and bigger, the theory goes, is better. Just like mergers between unions, advocates of local mergers believe that a larger local will be stronger, better able to take on management, more financially secure and more efficient in its use of resources. All of this presumably will make the local more effective on behalf of the members.

Whatever may be possible in theory, the evidence within the UFCW that bigger locals are more effective for the members is... well, we can't find any evidence. If bigger really is better, then large locals like 1000a, 1977, 1518, 206 et al should be bringing in first rate contract settlements instead of the multi-year 1% solutions that we've been seeing. The reality is that as much of the leaders of large unions continue to sing the "bigger is better" anthem, there is little in the way of evidence to support their claim. If anything, the evidence points the opposite direction. So if bigger is better becomes a theme in the forthcoming vote, the question we should be asking is "Bigger is better? For who?" For the members or for the union bureaucracy?

Based on everything that we know about the proposed merger of locals 777 and 2000, the idea for this merger is not one that came up from the membership. It came down from the UFCW leadership. That should be our first clue.

How do great big merged locals benefit a controlling union bureaucracy? It all comes down to control. They give the bureaucracy greater control over locals and their affairs. A smaller number of locals means fewer local executives to control. It's that simple.

1) Winning an election for executive office in a large local is difficult for members who have limited resources. Having to win the support of thousands of members, dispersed among dozens of workplaces in a big geographic area requires money, time and a well-organized campaign team. Incumbents (those already in office) have a huge advantage. Those who receive a little help from the bureaucracy, have an even bigger one. For the same reasons, once elected, local exec's who are the bureaucracy's favoured sons will be much more difficult to remove from office.

2) Current favoured-son exec's can dodge an election entirely by virtue of the merger, thus depriving members of an opportunity to vote in an executive of their choosing right after the merger and giving themselves another four years to get established and get comfortable. It will be much more difficult for an opposition candidate to unseat them once they've been in power for a few years.

3) Mergers reduce the number of locals and the number of executive positions all around. There are fewer opportunities for members to run for office, to develop as union leaders and to influence and input into decisions that affect the membership.

4) The merging of administrative functions makes it easier to hide financial irregularities where these exist.

5) The significant treasuries of large locals attract self-serving individuals. Bloated salaries and outrageous perks seem to be common among the UFCW's larger locals.

6) Mergers sometimes serve as ways to bury locals with unusual histories which, the bureaucracy fears may be about to become public knowledge.

7) A larger local means more staff positions and more administration. Bigger locals can be a favoured dumping ground for other favoured-sons who are owed favours or who just want a few more pensionable years of service.

8) Given that the newly merged local will inevitably be governed by an executive made up of favoured-sons, the culture of the new local will change to mirror the to the "business unionist" culture of the International. With that will come all the goodness that business unionism brings.

9) The leaders of big locals become remote from their members. They are no longer a presence in the workplace and members are less inclined to seek them out. Alliances with members dissipate. Alliances with the union bureaucracy and with their management strengthen. Local leaders become easier for management and union brass to manipulate and control.

As we consider who is better served by bigger is better it's helpful to reflect upon the reason why locals were established in the first place. As the term implies, it was all about being "local". The early unionists believed there was something important about leaders being close to those they represented. They seemed to believe that having leaders close to where the action is gave the union an advantage. Having many leaders in many locals strengthened the relationship between leaders and members, made leaders an ongoing presence within the businesses where the members worked, gave them the inside track about local management and the business itself. Most importantly, it enhanced local democracy. A leader who had to answer to the members every day was more likely to understand and act in their interests and less likely to serve his own. The early unionists accomplished a lot with their small tightly knit locals. Our modern business unionists have yet to show us any evidence that bigger is better benefits anyone but themselves.

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