• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Sep 14, 2002

Sidelined by Secrecy - No More

A couple of nights ago, we posted an audio stream recording of a UFCW Local 1518 General Membership Meeting held on the evening of September 10th. We understand that there was much jumping up and down about this at the union office where some officials saw the posting as an invasion of privacy. Reaction from the members who attended the meeting has, for the most part, been favorable. A couple, however, felt uncomfortable about the public airing of their meeting and, in deference to their wishes, we removed the link to the recording. Why did we post the recording? As always: To share information and promote discussion about an important issue.

In this case the issue is institutional secrecy that is a problem in many mainstream labour organizations (they just won't admit it - it's another secret). The extent to which unions engage in institutional secrecy varies. Some engage in activities that are intended to be kept secret from the Power Source. Others simply maintain structures, policies and regulations that have the effect of keeping the Power Source in the dark. Meetings that are inaccessible to the majority of members are an example of this kind of systemic secrecy.

Let's look at Local 1518. It's an enormous union local by anyone's reckoning. Local 1518 represents some 26,500 members working in food processing, retail food and drug stores, health care, and other workplaces scattered across a large geographic area. The Province of British Columbia, Local 1518's jurisdiction, covers an area of almost 1 million square kilometers (1 kilometer = 0.62 miles for those not on the metric system). General membership meetings (GMM's) are held once every three months and always in the Vancouver area. The meetings last about one hour.

Considering the size of the membership, attendance at GGM's is negligible. A typical turnout we are told is about 20 members plus the local's 35 member executive board. The GMM held on September 10th had a significantly better turnout; about 150 members, 100 of them were workers from Loman Distribution's warehouse facility in Langley BC. For these workers, about whom much information has been presented on this site, the September 10th GMM could well be their last. They will be laid off at the end of the month but are fighting hard to keep their jobs. Many came to the meeting looking for answers about their union's commitment to them as the doomsday clock continues to tick.

The recording was made by a member who wanted to record the meeting for posterity and later decided to share it with the vast majority of Local 1518's members (who were not at the meeting) and with the community of workers. The recording was made with equipment that is available to anyone willing to spring $34.95 at the local electronics stores plus $5.00 for 3 hours worth of tape.

The posting of the audio stream shouldn't be controversial. There is nothing confidential about GMM's. Many unions publish minutes or summaries of their GMM's in hard copy or on the Internet. Workers are free to discuss the proceedings with whomever they like and there is now considerable discussion on Internet bulletin boards about these events. The kind of financial information often presented at these meetings is no big secret. Some unions publish their financial statements on-line. In many jurisdictions, union members are entitled to copies of their union's financial statements and are not restricted in what they can do with these. Anyone who knows the number of members and the amount of dues assessed each member can get a fair picture of a union's financial situation.

We believe that one day - soon - many GMM's will be recorded and available on the Internet much as we made Local 1518's recent GMM available. Some unions will do this for the benefit of members who are unable to attend or for workers who are considering joining a union and want a better understanding of how unions share information and dialogue with members. Some unions will even hold their GMM's online or conference-in members - making the meetings more readily accessible to a much larger number of members.

Public broadcasts of GMM's could be very helpful in attracting new members to a union. What better way of introducing prospective members to union life than to let them into an event that is an important aspect of union life? How better to demonstrate the transparency, inclusiveness, wide-ranging discussion and respect shown union members by their leaders, than to let them see it for themselves? What better way to encourage current union members to speak out than to let them speak to and be heard by the world? The Internet has a lot of potential.

"Secrecy is power, and their power just got a big kick in the pants." - (An MFD contributor)

Knowledge is power. For those who seek to make a meal off of us, secrecy is power because it robs us of the ability to acquire knowledge. What we don't know can hurt us but we can't stop what we don't know is happening. Institutional secrecy is a tool used by the powerful to hang on to power. It's used to exclude the rest of us from decisions we might not like. It's used by governments, businesses, religious orders, cults, the WTO and yes, even labour organizations. Secrecy, we are told by that who need our blind allegiance, is necessary for our protection and security. Without it, all kinds of awful things will happen to us. If we think we've got it bad right now, well, we can't even imagine... This is the standard operating practice for organizations and leaders who want to maintain an existing order. Whether they are the WTO, the CIA or UFCW Canada, the methodology is the same as are the expected results.

Institutional secrecy is achieved through various means:

  • Limiting the ability of people to communicate.
  • Setting boundaries for what is and is not appropriate subject matter for discussion.
  • Restricting access to the means of communication.
  • Discouraging open discussion and sharing of information.
  • Restricting access to venues where important discussions take place and where key decisions are made.
  • Accepting the authority of organizations that - without any legal authority - make decisions that affect the lives of many.

A critical component of institutional secrecy is enlisting those who are to be sidelined by secrecy as helpers in keeping things hush-hush. This is accomplished by:

  • Defining controversial or difficult issues as private matters, inappropriate for public discussion.
  • Accusing those who break the code of secrecy of disloyalty, questioning their motives and even their sanity.
  • Blaming and shaming those who raise issues that are off limits. Accusing them of being the cause of the problem, chastising them for not having done anything to fix it in the first place or calling them wimps for making a big deal out of it.
  • Accusing those who raise controversial issues of being in league - wittingly or unwittingly - with the institution's various enemies.

Do these expressions have a familiar ring? Think of the different situations where they are used:

  • "Keep it in the family."
  • "It's a private/internal/family matter."
  • "You're going to hurt us all by talking about this."
  • "Our fearless leader is a good man who means well. You're going to destroy his reputation."
  • "You're being selfish by dwelling on this."
  • "It's your own fault that this has happened. You brought it on yourself. Maybe you enjoy it. You're probably nuts."

Here's an organization that made institutional secrecy a way of life. See if you can spot the tools they used.

It is a fact that many mainstream labour organizations practice institutional secrecy as a means to maintain power over an increasingly restless membership. All have good intentions (to protect us from ourselves), all are wrong to do it. An organization of workers (which is what a union is) can't operate like a cult or despotism or even, like a corporation. If it does, it's not an organization of workers.

The posting of the Local 1518 GMM is controversial only in that it runs contrary to the established norms of institutional secrecy. There is nothing that was discussed at the meeting that any member could not have discussed with friends, family or fellow members. There is nothing that was said at the meeting, including the financial information, that is a secret or that, if it became widely known, would harm any of the members. If anything, the segment of the meeting that dealt with the issues of the members from Loman Distribution may have helped to raise awareness of their circumstances among other union members and the public at large.

Be that as it may, we suspect that most mainstream union leaders would cringe at the thought of an on-line GMM. Why? Because knowledge is power and not all of those leaders are prepared to share their power or do disperse power throughout their organizations. It's time they began to wrestle with this issue of the dispersal of power and set aside the mostly irrelevant considerations about secrecy. The question they must address is not "Are GMM's secret meetings?" but rather, "On balance, is it better to have a poorly informed membership or a well-informed membership?"

Without knowledge we cannot take an active part in the organizations that represent us and the decisions they make on our behalf. Without knowing what's going on we cannot discuss and come to consensus on what is best for us. We cannot debate the ethical implications of business or union behaviour. We cannot dismantle the secret societies that have excluded us from any meaningful role in deciding our future.

"What are you doing for us? Get on board man. You're doing nothing. I've been paying dues for [a lot of] years. Don't disrespect me. Please understand, I'm asking for help."
(A member, Local 1518 GMM, September 10, 2002)

MFD will continue to help you acquire knowledge.

What our contributors had to say about sharing information this week in MFD forum:

Loman Life
The posting of the audio track of the GMM was met with varying reactions at the warehouse. It's hard to say how many actually listened to it as those who cared about the issues were there at the meeting. When the news spread most people I talked to thought it was a good idea. People should know what we are up against and audio has a way of imparting the emotion that was present in a way that the written word cannot.

However, some were clearly upset by the posting of what they felt was private business. Their voices were on that audio. They felt there might be a possibility that the scum at OFG and/or Loman management could use this information to their advantage. They felt that any strategic information should remain quiet as long as possible.

It raises some ethical questions for those given to that line of thought. I personally was surprised by the few objections I heard. As I said most reactions were quite positive. I have given the issue some thought and offer up the following for discussion.

Firstly, I have spent many hours at this site as the issues are very important to me and this seems to be the only place one can get them discussed and out in the open. In that time I have come to the conclusion that MFD is not by any means a newcomer to ethical or moral considerations. I believe MFD has conducted itself accordingly and responsibly. I could only conclude and trust that this was given sufficient thought and a decision was made to post the audio.

Secondly, I do not believe for a second that what information that is shared at any UFCW meeting stays private for long and that the employer has ready access to it. This certainly seems to be true of the Loman UFCW meetings.

Thirdly, I find it difficult to object on any ethical grounds when the UFCW executive has failed so miserably in this regard. Clearly ethical issues are not a priority for them and "leadership by example" a concept they appear unaware of.

Lastly, the audio concerns a union that is bent on doing very little as opposed to sharing strategic information about all that it is doing or plans to do.

Seen in this light I applaud the use of the audio as a valid means for sharing the frustration, anguish, stress and anger that Loman members now feel towards an indifferent and undemocratic union.

I truly believe the procurement of knowledge through the internet is going to be critical in the salvation of the power source. Never in history has information been so readily available and at such an unfathomable speed. Keeping the White House at bay during these negotiations is critical and the transference of information through MFD and other sites will hopefully make a difference! Thanks!

Scott McPherson
Why couldn't members leaflet Loblaws informing consumers that it's an employer that engages and participates in unethical behaviour that runs contrary to the Canadian business code of ethics, and further that it's owned by a publicly traded corporation information could be sent out to potential investors that might impact it's trade and stock value in the market place.

It's just a though, I'm tired of talking about union reform, I'd like to think there are other alternatives to help working people besides existing leadership structures and corrupt, unchangeable unions who's leaders prefer the authoritarian backroom wheeling and dealing to the bottom up transparent collaborative approach to unionism.

Loman Life
You are a warehouse worker the last 30 years and then you are called upon to provide important evidence in a hearing that has some serious consequences for you and over 200 other guys you know very well. There is a lot on the line and you know it.

You are in a very formal setting with an air of seriousness and authority. The documents are stacked high in very nice binders, hundreds and hundreds of pages, all neatly tabbed. There are about 60 people in the room most of whom are strangers. There are a lot of "suits" in the room. The corporate lawyers tell the odd joke to each other with the appropriate smug grins just to show everyone how confident and relaxed they are in this setting. You, on the other hand, have not slept all that well just thinking about all of this. There are more than a few butterflies floating around in your stomach.

Then you are called to the stand. The grin is gone from the corporate lawyer's face as he fixes his gaze on you and begins a grilling that will last for hours. He is openly not your friend and is clearly trying to trip you up as best he can. He will ask you the same question 3 times in 3 different ways over the course of his questioning in the hopes that there will be some discrepancy. This will allow him to question your expertise in the matter, your truthfulness and therefore taint your testimony. He has had his junior lawyers go over every page of that mountain of documents and look for places this might occur. "Please go to tab 175 and tell me what that paragraph means". You are under the spotlight and everyone is watching.

This is what the members from the warehouse went through and the corporate suits got something of a surprise. (Hey, I thought these were just union bonehead boxmovers)

These guys were not intimidated. They were knowledgeable and well spoken. They had a great deal of detail. They knew what they were talking about. Their testimony was not torn apart. In fact there were some embarrassing moments for the high priced corporate suits. The truth has a nasty way of empowering people.

We all owe them thanks and appreciation for going through this ordeal and coming out with heads held high. Next week it's our turn.

The bosses courts...not ours...

Judge Rules Against Grain Pickets

Billy Box Mover
Ya got to understand that there are brothers and then there are other brothers.

You have the King bro: Brookie
You have the queen bro: Ivan.
You have the royal court bros: e-board

One large step down are the wannabe e-board bros: business agents and shop stewards. Best be kind to the royal family if you ever hope to get there. A talent for ass kissing and asking few questions about any royal decrees are essential to even being considered.

Way down at the very bottom are the large number of serf bros who pay for everything. Questioning what the bros in the upper class are doing is not your place.

The Harrison conference was not open to the serf bros. Only the very finest bros got into this one. So it is only fair and fitting for the royal bros to have a conference that reflects their station- the deluxe royal conference. Or was it super deluxe. I forget.

The serf bros get the union meetings when the royalty mingle with the unwashed. Water is served in real glass. Sometimes there is even coffee and free parking thrown in.

About unions
Interesting point Richard. Leads me to ask a question of my union. What are the ethics policies of Cupe National? Where does one find a copy? Why are they not on the Cupe web site? Does every executive candidate regardless of ranking within Cupe have to abide by the same rules of conduct during elections? If Cupe has nothing to hide, lets see Cupe's ethics policies.

Corporatized unions will never correct corporatized unionism.

It's been so long since real unionism has existed that people who work for a living don't have a real understanding of what it will take to wrest back control of their working lives.

In the short run for especially egregious cases, an existing union from within the corrupted system may be the immediate answer. However, any union that operates on the corporatized or service model may have to be dramatically ripped from the system and forged into a leaderless vehicle that can carry people who work for a living to freedom and prosperity.

If you really want change then you have to change your thinking about what a union is and should be. The history of the IWW will give you a foundation and attention to technology, and "glocalism" (read the above link for an explanation) will create opportunities for freedom and power not available to existing union structures, models and hierarchies.

Interesting links:

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