• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Oct 27, 2001

Where Machine Heads Fear to Tread

Last week we explored one of mainstream labour's biggest taboos - the right of workers to change unions. This week, we took a trip into another forbidden zone by going inside the union bureaucracy or, as we call it, inside the machine. For all the talk of openness and transparency that we are fed by the mainstream leaders, the bureaucratic layers of the average biz union are a virtual a no-man's (and definitely no-woman's) land, off limits to union members. Home to thousands of unselected, generously rewarded union staffers, most members have only the vaguest notion of what goes on "on the inside".

It's time to knock a great big hole in the wall of the bureaucratic kingdom and talk about what goes on in there. We've started that process with our exclusive chat with union reform advocate and former official of three biz unions, Hugh J. Finnamore. Some of you may have been shocked by HJ's candid commentary about biz union life but nothing that he told us should come as a surprise to those familiar with life in the machine. Its time the members got a look. Knowledge is power. Nobody within the union bureaucracy impacts members' lives more than the bureaucratic layer of representatives, coordinators, exec assistants and other such functionaries. Members need to understand the dual purposes this layer serves (to represent and to control the members) and what motivates them. That way the Power Source (our term for rank and file members) can begin to demand representation without manipulation.

Within the biz unions, the bureaucracy exists officially to serve the members and unofficially, to control them. The need for an administrative class of experts and advisors developed with the implementation of our labour relations legislation that made most labour-management disputes subject to legal processes (rather than direct job action). When the venue for the resolution of labour-management disputes shifted from the workplace to the hearing room, it was necessary for unions to employ people familiar with various laws and legal proceedings and so on. While expertise in the legal processes is essential to providing good representation for the members, the emergence of the union staffers did a couple of things that have not been good for the members at all: The layer of unelected staffers formed a buffer between the union's leaders and the members. The staffers, completely beholden to the leadership for their economic security, became easy targets for manipulation and exploitation. Ultimately, the staffers became a tool of the leadership - one that is used to control the members and ensure that any rank and file threat to the current leadership is kept to a minimum. It's important that members understand this aspect of the staffers' role and the mental gymnastics that allow union reps to control union members without really feeling a lot of remorse or guilt about it.

How can they do it? Union staff jobs are attractive. The pay, fringe benefits and working conditions are good even by corporate standards. If you are a rank and file member working for an hourly wage in a highly regimented work environment, getting a job at the union office provides an opportunity to improve your income, working conditions and social status beyond anything you're likely to achieve working for your company. For those who are able to get in, the motivation to stay in is tremendous. As HJ told us, "One day you're a virtual nobody, and then the union invites you in and then you're a somebody". Since union staffers have little in the way of protection from unfair treatment by their employer (the union), there is little incentive for boat-rocking. Go with the flow and nothing bad will happen becomes a sensible strategy - and the flow can be just about anything. Maybe the union's leaders don't really want to spend a lot of time and money arbitrating certain kinds of grievances - your mission is to persuade the members they don't have a hope in hell at arbitration and should drop their grievances. Maybe a deal has been cut in a backroom - your mission is to convince the members that the union bargained its guts out and got them a really good deal. Maybe your local's money is being wasted foolishly - your mission is to look the other way. Going with the flow requires that you find new ways of perceiving what's going on around you - of screwing your head around until the picture looks right.

There's a slow and subtle process that takes place involving a number of different factors that are all at work at the same time. We don't doubt that most union reps start their union office jobs believing in something. The union is a good thing, it helps workers, it takes a stand against the company, and it does a lot of good things. . As they get into their new jobs, they evolve a further sense of wanting to help people, of doing what's right for them. Eventually the limitations on what they can achieve become apparent. Some limitations are there because the law only goes so far and others are there because the employer and the union have a relationship to maintain. It's when the relationship with the employer takes priority over the one with the members that union staffers need to begin the head-twisting. It's not that hard to do. Wherever they worked before their union office job, they were subject to a work environment where obedience and respect fro authority was required. Unless they came from a privileged background, they had already accepted that the world isn't a nice place and that sometimes life ain't fair. There are limitations to what can be accomplished. Shit happens. You've gotta do what you've gotta do. Going with the flow and looking the other way becomes something that is just necessary. We're going to try not to overdo it with the Chomsky quotes but sometimes he's just got it nailed down so well:

"You begin to conform your being to get the privilege of conformity. You soon come to believe what you're saying because it's useful to believe it, and then you've internalized the system of indoctrination and distortion and deception, and then you're a willing member of the privileged elites that control thought and indoctrination. That happens all the time, all the way to the top. It's a very rare person, almost to the point of non-existence, who can tolerate what's called "cognitive dissonance" -- saying one thing and believing another. You start saying certain things because it's necessary to say them, and pretty soon you believe them because you just have to."

The corruption and injustice are not always readily visible either. Backroom deals are done in backrooms for a reason. There's a lot that union staffers don't know about or don't know much about. "The leaders aren't exactly forthcoming with information - You know what they want you to know and you rarely know enough to form any strong belief that something is terribly wrong" (from the HJF Interview). And even when you do know that something isn't right, there are a lot of convenient doorsteps where the blame can be laid. The whole organization believes itself to be beset by enemies, real and imagined: employers, governments, other unions, and union reformers - all are against us. These enemies make a convenient place to lay the blame for just about anything.

The control methodology used by the leaders is cult-like. Those of you who have a hard time believing this ought to read a book that came out last year called Corporate Cults: The Insidious Lure of the All-Consuming Organization by David Arnott. The book is about how corporations use cult-like methods to keep their workers slavishly loyal and hopelessly powerless. Much of the methodology that Arnott describes could apply equally in the case of many biz unions. The three traits Arnott cites as being defining a cult are:

  1. Devotion: Complete, unswerving dedication to the organization. The belief that the organization is always right and that its decisions and actions are unquestionable. The belief that one's livelihood/life is dependent upon maintaining one's membership in the organization.
  2. Charismatic Leadership:Acceptance of the organization's leader(s) as supremely powerful, all knowing (even godlike) and beyond question. The leader(s) know what's best and, even if we can't fathom how their actions are helping us, we must have faith.
  3. Separation from community: The organization and its activities take up most of their followers' time. There is little time for external contacts and activities. Time spent with family is limited by workload, travel and official functions. Community involvement is limited to activities and organizations sanctioned by the cult... Oops, we meant by the "organization". Education is restricted to programs and teaching institutions approved or operated by the organization. Socializing with one's immediate co-workers is encouraged; socializing with people outside the organization is not.

Keep these traits in mind as we continue to poke around inside the biz unions.

By the time the murky side of the machine starts to come into focus, the average staffer has a great many reasons to look the other way and has mastered the screw-your-head-around-until-the-picture-looks-right technique. It works really well for the leadership. They have an army of gatekeepers who are dependent upon them for their livelihood, forever. Nobody breaks ranks and nobody gets out alive. Well, almost nobody. We're hoping that as time passes there will be others from the inside that step out over the line for the benefit of the Power Source and the broader community of workers.

By the way, we're not advocating the elimination the resource functions that union reps provide. As long as the present labour relations system exists, there will be a need for people with expertise in the legalities. What is needed, however, is a major refocusing of their responsibilities (it's about representing the members - not controlling them), accountability (to the members) and developing an organizational culture with values that are all about the members.

Controlling the Members? Oh no not us...we would never

And speaking of the members and the need to control them for the sake of the labour-management relationship, here are a couple of good examples from this week's forum.

At a recent Local 1518 membership meeting - presided over by union staffers instead of elected officials - it seems that the interpretation of certain language of the OFG/UFCW Local 1518 collective agreement came up. According to our forum contributor, rather than presenting the union's interpretation of the language, the staffers advised the Power Source that the union and the company are in the process of developing an interpretation guide, since neither side seems to know the meaning of what it agreed to at negotiations - 4 years ago. Does this present an opportunity for the company to put its own spin on the language? Who will be developing this guide? Why isn't the union simply telling the company its position on what the language means (one that favours the members of course)? Shouldn't the union know the intended meaning of the language it signed off at bargaining? These are questions the Power Source may want to be asking.

It got even better. It seems that somebody reported that - gasp! - part timers at some of the OFG stores are working full time hours. What do you think happened? Instead of getting out the grievance forms and demanding the posting of full time jobs, the union staffers announced that the union has agreed with the company to put a stop to "this activity". See it here.

Management BS

The Safeway Power Source in Manitoba is on the receiving end of concession demands. A $5 an hour roll back is needed, says the company, or we'll leave town. Now does this sound familiar? Our forum contributors sure thought so. UFCW Local 823 members may want to refer to our article on concessions. If we had $5 each time some company threatened to pack up its enterprise and leave a profitable market unless it got a break on wages, we'd all be soaking up the sun with the UFCW benefits administrators in Hawaii next month. In the retail food biz we're just not aware of a lot of large corporations that will forgo making a buck - or a whole lot of shareholders that would have it any other way. Businesses don't pull up stakes in a market where they're making a buck. It makes the shareholders nervous and they can vote with their feet any time they want. We're given to understand that the UFCW is assessing the employer's threat. Let's hope it takes into consideration the devastating effect of concessions on the Power Source - there are now more than two decades of good examples to consider.

And speaking of management BS, the newspaper article linked in this thread may be of interest to those who work for franchised stores. It's all about franchisees and the big bucks they lay out for their own little piece of some large corporation's action. The truth is, franchisees make big investments in businesses where they expect a good rate of return. Their problem is that their franchise agreements are often structured heavily in favour of the franchiser (the corporation offering the franchises) - the more profit the franchise generates, the bigger the corp. office's cut. Next time some corp. office high-flyer is giving you a song and dance about the "poor franchisee", tell the company to restructure his or her franchise deal. The Power Source shouldn't have to pay the price because corporate office is squeezing the poor sap "owner-operator". .

Nest of Nepotism

This week's ick-pick award goes to UFCW 1000a - a virtual nest of nepotism. Check out all the happy folks who work there along with their next o' kin:

Secretary Treasurer Brian Docherty's son Paul is a staff rep. James Gilbert, a computer tech, is the son of former 1000a Pres, Danny Gilbert (who retired a few years ago and is now working as an Exec Assistant to somebody at the National Office). Kevin Benn, another staff rep is the son of former UFCW International Director, Frank Benn. Pearl McKay-Blake is related to some UFCW big wheel.

This just adds to the growing nepotism list we started in the forum this week: Mike Fraser is the nephew of Cliff Evans (former Canadian Director). Cliff married his secretary Deb whose sister works in a UFCW office. Local 175 President Wayne Hanley is the son of former Local 175 President Bill Hanley. Former Canadian Director, Tom Kukovica had is wife and daughter on board. His daughter and her hubby just got jobs at UFCW Local 777. Gord Penderleith's daughter worked at head office. Mr. and Mrs. Lumsden both worked at head office until Wally needed a pension bump and was placed in Hanley Heaven. Then there's Robin McArthur and sons of the old RWDSU/UFCW clan in Sudbury Ontario. The mysterious Eugene Fraser? He's a director along with Cliff Evans in the I.F. Propco companies that move money from the CCWIPP to private businesses. We're not sure if he's related to Mike Fraser, but we're open to the possibility.

Reformers are rockin':

Check out the discussion on this bulletin board linked to this thread. WWW.TEAMSTER.NET, another Teamsters Union reform site. These reformers are discussing a situation that's brewing within a Canadian local (Teamsters, Local 938 in Ontario). It appears that they have some concerns about their local president. Some seem to suspect him of financing his election with a big loan from the former head of the Canadian Textile Processors (which merged with the UFCW a few years ago). Someone even alludes to a Cliff Evans/UFCW connection. We're going to keep an ear to the ground on this. The links between the Teamsters and the UFCW might be of interest to the Power Source in both unions.

There's something else that's really exciting about what's happening here. It's an example of how the Internet is going to change the world for unions and union reformers. Look at what these Teamsters are doing: They are discussing, candidly, relentlessly and very intensely what's going on within their local. This is the kind of stuff that people would whisper about in hallways just a few years ago - assuming any of them knew anything about it. But now, all kinds of unpleasantness are being aired and people from right across the continent are jumping in to ask questions and get involved in the debate. This discussion began a few months ago and is still going strong. The Teamsters have got exec elections coming up and these issues seem to be on the front burner among the Canadian members, at least. The pres looks like he' jumping into the fray as well. See if you can spot him.

Before the Internet, members would never ever have had the opportunity to communicate as widely and as easily about issues like these. That's what enabled the leaders to get away with just about anything. There would never be enough members who knew enough about what they were doing to cause them any grief. Those days are history. The truth is out here and the reformers are getting pretty good at finding each other and finding the truth. We predict that within a short time, unions will no longer be a comfortable haven for the self-interested and the opportunistic. Knowledge is power.

Coming up this week at MFD: More about the Teamsters and some very scary stories about the haunted houses of labour.

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