• authored by Members for Democracy
  • published Sat, Nov 10, 2001

Change Or Get Out Of The Way

This very timely expression comes from an address delivered by UFCW International President Doug Dority at the UFCW's annual convention earlier this year. Dority appears to have been lecturing the assembled representatives - staff reps and local exec's mostly - about the need to pay more attention to the members. >From Dority's comments it would seem that his concern about the union needing to become more member-focused had a lot to do with change. "Change is constant, and we must constantly be changing," Dority stated. Although he was not all that specific about what exactly it is that needs changing within the UFCW - maybe that's because it would make for way too long a list for the time allotted - we can agree with Doug that many things need to change within the UFCW and within the other biz-unions too. The magnitude of the change and the ease with which it will be achieved are another matter. Said Doug,

"We don't need to change our values because our values have always been good. Our values are good today and they'll be good tomorrow. We believe if you work for a living, you've earned the right to a voice at work. You've earned the right to a living wage. You've earned the right to retire in dignity - and you've earned the right to democracy and peace."

The right to a voice at work. The right to a living wage. The right to retire in dignity. The right to democracy and peace. These should form a part of every union's core beliefs. A fundamental problem, however, and one that we're not sure Doug is thinking about is that the union's organizational culture doesn't support these beliefs in any meaningful way. The organizational culture is made up of a whole other set of beliefs - ones that influence the behavior of its officials and decision-makers and that play a big part in how those officials decide what their priorities are and what choices they make. Within the UFCW and the biz unions in general, there is a big disconnect between culture and values. Let's have a look at the UFCW's values and some recent examples of its organizational culture in action.

The right to a voice at work:

For union members, collective bargaining is a critical event. It's the one opportunity that members have to voice their demands for improved workplace entitlements and conditions, voice their dissatisfaction with their current situation, and voice their solidarity with each other. The leverage that the threat of strike action gives them means that during the window when collective bargaining occurs, the employer actually has to sit up, take notice and listen to them. How often will members get to have a voice to which their employer must listen with four, five and six year collective agreements becoming the norm? What kind of voice do members have when their collective agreement is shunted off to binding arbitration (as is the case with Safeway workers in UFCW Local 832) - their issues to be decided by rent-a-judges who are beholden to the union and the employer for their living? When union officials engage in bargaining strategies that deprive workers of their source of power, who will listen to their voices at work?

The right to a living wage:

The wages of many unionized service industry workers are already at poverty levels. How will this improve with the multi-year deals, concession bargaining, "partnering agreements" that restrict workers' rights to strike and binding arbitration (which leaves the workers' future in the hands of outsiders who could care less)? How are workers ever to achieve a "living wage" when their union officials deprive them of leverage through these misguided employer-friendly strategies? Why, for that matter, are profitable corporations able to extract concessions or get away with minimal increases to wages? When union leaders sanction negotiating strategies that will, at best, maintain a bad status quo that's a big disconnect between culture and values.

The right to retire in dignity:

Please see our recent article about The Haunted Houses of Labour. What kinds of investments are being made with workers' pension monies? We know that the UFCW's pension plan has, over the past decade, loaned millions of dollars to businesses that are on less than solid financial footing. We've asked the questions before: how prudent are these investments, what kind of returns are these investments generating and how do these investments benefit the members? It would seem to us that a solid pension fund management strategy should be one that maximizes the return to the members while minimizing risk. The financial needs of businesses in which fund trustees have private interests should not be a consideration.

The right to democracy and peace

Believing in democracy means respecting the principles upon which democracy is founded - principles like freedom of speech and like freedom of association. It also means practicing democracy not just paying it lip service. What kind of democracy exists for workers have when those who dare to be critical of their rulers are harassed, maligned and sued. What kind of democracy is there when electoral processes contain few meaningful checks and balances and are skewed heavily in favour of favored incumbents? What kind of peace is there when the few rule the many? Here's an example of what we're talking about.

If Doug is serious about the UFCW's values, he'll need to do more than lecture the partying staffers about it at the annual bash. It will take some real laying down of the law to bring this org culture into alignment with the stated values. Until he does that, the misaligned org culture will continue to manifest itself in many gross and disturbing ways.

Like for instance:

The fast-living high-flying lifestyles of union officials: We've spoken at length this past week about the benefits administrator's convention taking place as we speak in Hawaii and the misguided union officials who are doing the hula on the members' dime. Now let's think about this if we haven't already thought about it enough to make ourselves sick: Here we are with the world in crisis, our economy in a tailspin, layoffs looming for thousands of workers and union reps are partying it up at a Hawaiian resort with a bunch of management guys, money managers, neo-cons and assorted others - at the members' expense (and expensive it is too according to this post)! This waste of members' money is supposedly to do with members' benefits but we're just not sure what information about benefits is available at Hawaiian resorts that isn't available in these guys' offices. What an outrageous example of skewed priorities and piss-poor judgment - a product of an organizational culture that is focused on self-interest.

The treatment of members as a commodity: Whatever biz-unions would like to think they believe about the members, their actions suggest members are little more than a commodity that can be acquired or divested in accordance with the wishes of their owners. Look what happened to the Swiss Chalet workers in 1985. After organizing what must have been over 1000 workers at 29 restaurants in the early 1980's, the UFCW International appears to have handed most of them back to the very union they were seeking to escape. This was part of some deal which may, from what we've heard so far, have included the company. Whatever the reasons for this deal, something fundamental was lacking in the thinking of its architects: respect for the working people who had put their signatures on UFCW membership cards and who supported the union in the face of considerable opposition from both their employer and their union. This is the product of an org culture that looks a lot like business culture. Members are a commodity that can be dealt away when it's expedient to do so.

There are many others and we could go on ...and on. Suffice it to say that Doug has a very big job ahead of him if he thinks that this culture is likely to change without enormous effort. But change is essential and Doug knows it. The glory days of the biz-unionists are passing into history.

The hurricane is coming...

Change is upon us and is driven by two interrelated things: (1) An end to the secrecy that has always protected the biz-unionists from scrutiny and (2) the linkup that's happening among reformers. The latter is happening thanks to technology that now allows us to communicate with each other directly, about whatever we want, whenever we want, through a medium that doesn't lend itself well to the traditional methods of control. If you're a ham-fisted ruler, you could in the past always bust up a meeting, distract members from the real issues by engaging in personal attacks on individuals, and rely on the fact that not many of them are ever gong to find out enough about what you're doing to figure out what you're doing. Well, It's hard to bust up a meeting of the reform-minded out here in cyberspace and attacking individuals has limited usefulness - the individuals are neither here nor there, so to speak. Out here you have to deal with their ideas. Of course, you can attack those ideas but first you have to know how to do this. The anonymity of the web makes it easier for people to participate. They no longer need to fear being singled out, threatened or harassed. Time, distance and location are no longer an impediment.

All of a sudden there are a lot of us talking to each other. We put our heads together and Collectively we know a lot about what's going on. There no more secrets and knowledge is power. Then there is the empowerment that comes from linking up with others of like mind, the realization that maybe you've been right all along, that there are many others who share your views. Together we are finding that we can find the pieces of your puzzles and put them together so we can understand what's happening. We can decide what to do and can rely on each other's skills and talents and support. We can also talk to each other about what it is that we want - in the workplace and from our workplace representatives and we are realizing that we don't have to settle for less. Where are these discussions going to go? To change. So change or be swept away.

Something on this subject from a post of a few months ago:

"...cultural behaviors and unspoken beliefs typically change long before people openly concede to each other that times have changed. Lip service is given for years - generations - to ideas long since privately abandoned. No one conspires against these old shells of they continue to have power and discourage innovators.

This quote is from a book called The Aquarian Conspiracy, by Marilyn Ferguson. Ferguson is commenting on a view expressed by Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic work about democracy, Democracy in America.

Long after an old paradigm has lost is value, it commands a kind of hypocritical allegiance. But if we have the courage to communicate our doubts and defection, to expose the incompleteness, the rickety structure, and the failures of the old paradigm, we can dismantle it. We don't have to wait for it to collapse on us".

This weeks desp-ick-able picks:

If you are a reformer, you're sure to have felt anger and revulsion upon reading "For Whose Benefit" an article by UA Local Members for Democracy. According to UA MFD, a group of their members have been fighting for years to get certain basic benefit coverage they were promised by their union execs 20 years ago. In the interim, while the members live in poverty three of their reps are partying on down in Hawaii.

As for the now infamous Hawaii trip, we are so utterly outraged by the fact that union representatives would see fit to spend thousands of dollars of members' money to live it up with "the boss" that we are issuing to all of the biz-unions participating in this foolishness, an official challenge:

The MFD Biz-Unions' Community Service Challenge

In order to get biz-unions and their free-spending officials focused on what should be their priority - their members and their communities - we are challenging all union officials partying in Hawaii, for every dollar spent on this foolish, self-serving and unnecessary trip, to donate a corresponding dollar to a service, agency or activity that directly benefits their members or their community. Now remember, this has to be a dollar out of your own pockets, biz-unionists. The idea is your spending the members' cash stupidly, so you have to redeem yourselves by contributing your own cash to a good cause.

We challenge - make that "we dare" - you to calculate the cost of your airfare, hotel and meals and contribute an equivalent amount to your local treasury or to a community service organization. What? Can't do it? Why not? Don't have that kind of change on you? Well, it wasn't too much when your members were footing the tab! We think this idea has a lot of potential.

Just so you don't think we're picking on vacationing honchos, we'll extend the challenge to union honchos and their hangers-on who have benefited from the real estate transactions described in the Haunted Houses article. So, all you union guys and hangers-on who have profited from property transactions that involve union members' funds, we challenge you to take the profits from those transactions and donate them to a humanitarian cause or, in the alternative, throw open the doors of your properties to the needy in your communities. We're not kidding. Do it.

Doug, you may want to encourage this. It's a very active way of promoting cultural change.

And don't forget...

It's November 11th and that means we've got to think about people who died for democracy. Tell us that doesn't put it all in perspective.

Coming up this week: Yes, we really are going to tell you about those Teamster reformers and about running for election in a UFCW local. These stories have been growing as we've been putting them together and it's the most we can do to keep up. Stay with us.

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