An Important Response to Morton Bahr
President Emeritus Of Communications Workers Of America
The Labor Educator recently published an article entitled "Contract Violations" (10th of July). In it the current strategies and effectiveness of the labor movement nationally were thoroughly blasted. This, though, wasn't done out of hatred or spite, but from concern and sadness at the feeble defense our labor leaders are mounting against unrelenting attacks coming at us from much of the media and the corporations and their cold-blooded political enforcers. The damage resulting from this rapacious hostility is unquestionably afflicting hard-working people and their hard-pressed unions deeply. So to begin an urgent debate on this, we're publishing an email below critical of that July 10th article, an e-mail sent by brother Morton Bahr to this column. Any response to this discussion is welcome:
I read your piece feeling that you are most sincere in what you write about. My conclusion, however, is that you are too far removed from the movement to know what most unions are doing on behalf of working families and our communities. You apparently base your conclusions on what appears in the press. I suggest that you seek to interview top union leaders to hear, firsthand, what they do every day of the week.
Pres. Emeritus, CWA
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And I do consider you a brother even though I've written Aluntly, even brutally, about the helpless floundering going on now in the great American labor movement we both so cherish. First though, I want you to know that I remember with high regard your forward-looking ideas and struggles during a difficult time of intensifying automation in the communications industry, when you were leading the CWA. And I, of course, want you also to know that I appreciate how endlessly demanding it is running pension funds, conducting grievance procedures, preparing for contract negotiations or strikes or for intense local and national elections — and so much more. These great, worthy efforts, however, are obvious and well understood, requiring no need to talk about them to labor leaders.
Nor is there a need either to talk to labor leaders about other obvious but not so worthy economic and political threats menacing working people with growing severity. One would have to be near brain dead not to notice that wages and benefits are flat-lining while corporate profits are sky-rocketing, that union membership keeps dropping precipitously while public opinion regarding organized labor is plunging to dismal, dangerous lows. And isn't there also a truly horrifying fact confronting us, which no one need talk about to labor leaders to dread — yes, those crippling Right to Work laws and lockouts and assaults on collective bargaining metastasizing out of the South and Tea Party West into of all places Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin with only heaven knows where it's going next. If this should be passively accepted, ignored, bungled or denied in one way or another out of laziness, greed, dull thinking, defeatism or indifference, God help us.
No, no, sorry! Though it's painful to say, our current labor leadership has been standing watch for years over this slow-motion train-wreck with such an impoverishment of courage, innovation and will to battle, they're truly standing on the very edge of dereliction of duty, or worse. That's why, Brother Bahr, I urgently asked on the 10th of July: What is it fellas? What's wrong here? I've always seen labor leaders as strong people, who don't take crap. But what's happening now appears more often than not to be just the opposite. Because over and over, I keep seeing actions and maneuvers by the labor movement that lack even a hint of daring while much of the fervid energy needed to battle what's going on flounders in blatant, self-serving bureaucracies and petty intra union [and personal] politics, where originality all gets slaughtered, leaving only a frightening lack of imagination and the door wide open to our most passionate enemies.
I must say, though, there's been a beginning acknowledgement lately at organized labor's highest levels of this growing crisis. And we're hearing suggestions in some leadership circles for combating this looming peril through activist alliances with civil rights, environmental and women's groups. A very, very good idea. But that ALONE won't cut it. Uh-uh, labor's regeneration must radiate forcefully from within itself first and foremost. Whatever follows that is gravy. Nothing can replace a dynamic spirit seizing the unions, creating actions and procedures that are startling and unexpected, yet totally legal, which would surprise and rock our adversaries, who are so comfortable and benefiting so much from the failing methods of a declining, timeworn labor movement. So let's try then in the little space left in this column to touch at least briefly on some possible ways out of this darkness steadily gathering around us.
We definitely must begin here because everyone surely knows that it's impossible to escape the soaring power in the modern world of the media, more pervasive now than ever. Almost any institution, including labor, will rise and fall depending on how it's perceived in the press, on TV, in the movies, on the Internet, et al. And, oh boy, we're looking pretty damn bad there, aren't we — and so often. Isn't it time then for taking some sharp, jolting actions? All right, starting immediately then, every PR and advertising agency supposedly serving the AFL-CIO and the unions should be fired en masse, all of ‘em. That's right. And all the in-house press relations departments throughout organized labor should be thoroughly shaken up and infused with a fiery, combative spirit. This I know is undoubtedly impractical. But the need for it isn't.
The ongoing public relations disaster so sorely plaguing labor has to change from scratch — drastically — and pronto. If that doesn't happen, political support, organizing opportunities, even the self-respect of our members will only continue in jeopardy. Bold, vivid challenges then must be artfully crafted with all our determination and resources in the media itself, exceptional challenges defying their distorted image of working people and their representatives as selfish, greedy, boring, boorish, incompetents, who are ruining the economy and are best ignored.
And original, stirring ways for launching such a challenge exists. Deep, detailed discussions to get this going should start soon right at home with our own theatrical and writers unions, including SAG, AFTRA, Actors Equity and others — probably the greatest pool of talent in the world. And this is just the beginning.
Let's initially consider exactly what the unions are getting right now. Beside so many of our press releases being ignored, have you seen those goody, goody TV ads lately showing how bland and wonderfully nice unionism is? Those ads might just as well be about the Boy Scouts. Don't they do good things too? At most, considering our colorful and storied history, those syrupy ads convey maybe some slight positive notions. Most often, though, they lack the punch of compelling reality, expressing instead two of the most dreaded words on Madison Avenue — dull and boring. A good ad has to brand itself on the brain. Remember the woebegone fella in that ad saying, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." Who can forget that?
Really, it's a pity such arresting, unforgettable visuals and experiences taking place every day at inherently harrowing union work sites all across America rarely appear anywhere. If they did, the public would never, never forget them. Think of the bravery, the drama going on night and day at perilous construction sites or far down in the mines or in long-haul trucks on bleak winter nights jack-knifing through ice storms and blizzards. You'll find no everyday grit like that in all the banks and boardrooms and brokerage houses the world over. Without the extraordinary courage of those ordinary working folks, the country would grind to a halt.
I saw this up close when I was working on the pipeline in Alaska and we had to take the pipe up twenty-five hundred feet of almost sheer cliff, fighting rockslides and blizzards all the way. That was Thompson Pass. We all wrote wills. Then sure, we went back to work for the huge, huge money, but from pride too in Local 798 of the pipeline welders union, who'll never let it be said that 798ers were scared to go anywhere. Yes, without men and women like these, everything for sure would grind to a halt. Now what's this garbage about folks like that ruining the economy? That's simply gotta go! Labor, if it really means business, has the money, the duty, the clout and access to talent to get this searing, invaluable message into the media consistently. Get griping images and stories and competent production people with PR skills and we're off. Everything from vivid documentaries, telethons, sympathetic rock concerts, theatrically staged rallies, and so many other things could emerge from this, including stunning ads using celebrities still owning union cards, who see the gravity of the situation and would want to tell our story in ways so artful, it'd be near impossible to ignore. The artistry for sure is available. And by pooling perhaps half of every unions' press and PR budget currently being wasted and using it surgically in many forms, this prodding of the media could be financed long enough to begin exposing the prejudices the media doesn't always even know it has. We'll let 'em know.
Unfortunately, there's another great problem we have to take on — the rising, nearly universal hostility of the press to every labor issue no matter how just. Maybe some wild ideas just might be available for tackling this too. We could start quickly down that path by enlisting some excellent, provocative writers and reporters. Many free-lance out there and would be glad to work for us. So we could have them start casting a piercing, eagle-eye on the worst of these union bashing publications and after investigating enough, they can begin hammering out excoriating, fact-finding columns setting the record straight.
And here's where we have an utterly fabulous advantage. Vast numbers of the most important people to us, our union members, can be reached by these hard-hitting articles through a simple method costing almost nothing These telling columns can be syndicated weekly or monthly by the AFL-CIO in every union newspaper, blog, web-site and newsletter in the nation before being distributed as challenging press releases. Again with the millions labor would save by dumping the useless press efforts we're still trapped in, space could be purchased in a half dozen of the most significant publications in the US, where our penetrating, no-nonsense articles would begin clearing the air for labor on a regular basis. That along with our own union publications would comprise one of the largest press circulations in America, creating the means if necessary to start boycotts of bullshit newspapers and their advertisers. Yep. Listen up Fox news: you'll find no more passive Mr. Nice Guys here anymore. uh -uh, Mr. Murdock.
Okay, money talks, bs walks. If all the money in union pension and defense funds were added up along with that endless cash flow coming each year from union dues, the total would be staggering. Yet we rarely hear a whimper about the enormous influence these immense sums, if pooled from all unions, could have on even the most daunting labor struggles. Sadly though, tragically perhaps, organized labor hasn't used this great power anywhere near often and thoroughly enough to gain political and economic muscle inherent there. Here's a quick, sad, tiny example of this. A local teamsters union of diligently working art handlers at Sotheby's New York auction house, playground of the world's billionaires, were summarily locked out of their jobs because they wouldn't accept cut- backs to their health benefits while the company was well into making five hundred million dollars of profit that year. The labor movement, with its vast financial resources, could have made an important national issue of this, blasting the increasing use of the lockout, among the ugliest corporate techniques of all. But they didn’t. No surprise then, the men went back to work humiliated with their basic health care slashed. Shame! shame! shame!
Many other times opportunities to brandish financial heft as mighty leverage during severe union battles involving much greater stakes have presented themselves, but have been foolishly missed. You can be sure, though, that any hard-nosed business guy would consider leaving the full power of money unused simply a sucker's game. The labor movement has to stop getting hustled at that wretched game as soon as possible if it's ever to regain the intrinsic clout its fourteen million plus members, controlling billions in assets rightfully deserve.
I'm sure you remember that popular movie "Norma Rae" depicting the harrowing organizing struggle of southern textile workers employed by J. P. Stevens & Co. That struggle was not won through picket lines crowding the gates in North Carolina, but in nervous board rooms right on Wall Street. Through a process invented during that bruising confrontation described now as a corporate campaign, massive pressure was applied on financial institutions providing due or die funding — some of it union money — to a recalcitrant Stevens & Co.
Then glaring corporate shenanigans like interlocking directorates were dramatically exposed and cracked by the union organizers, bringing true fear into those tense boardrooms. And that miserable struggle was settled lickity-split. The company's strengths were turned into the company's greatest vulnerabilities. Opportunities appear not infrequently for using the corporation's own governance, rules and relationships to defeat them at their own game. Preferring not to employ these forms of pressure is like having a machine gun in a battle and using a shot gun instead. Experts are out there who have these corporate campaign techniques down pat. And fewer yet have the strategic and organizing skills to execute these dynamic campaigns. It's time to contact them — the sooner the better
Again, space is limited, so lets get right to the point. Republican: Forgetaboutit! Democrats: Well, she's like that ugly kid at the prom you have to dance with. No one else is available. So the quickest most daring way to begin changing this dilemma is to copy an outrageously effective page from the Tea Party playbook. Start or threaten to start powerful, to-the-death primaries throughout the Democratic Party, making any of our unreliable allies sweat and strain to get into office or rely on our indispensable support. This may be risky. But those weak sister politicians who always leave us in the lurch will get the idea. Crumbs off their table will no longer suffice.
Union leaders so often are turning to lawyers for everything these days. Back in the thirties, lawyers were certainly around. But heavy-duty, no barred thinking was done fiercely and creatively by union leaders standing mostly alone. And those early leaders developed long-term, hard-edged strategies affecting us to this day. Constantly now our union leaders are handing off their responsibility for deeper visions and resourcefulness to their lawyers, who are entrapped inside conventional, technocratic boxes fashioned in law schools, possessing little understanding and little feeling for everyday working people. This is boding poorly for a future demanding more and more original thinking in our leaders and sensitivity to the burgeoning hardships union folks are facing in an increasingly perplexing world. No, you can't buy solutions to this from lawyers, even for many hundreds of dollars an hour.
One person, one vote. Everyone knows this is the most profound ideal of democracy and for good reason. The will of the many — with firm protection for the rights of the few — guarantees harmony, free thought and the ability for peaceful change and innovation to flourish. It's been proven throughout history that the best democracies create the best economies, the healthiest people and a blossoming repeatedly of the most vital creativity. So don't you think organized labor, especially under the duress we're bearing now, could use a bit more of this medicine, which one person, one vote would accomplish in the AFL-CIO at once, endowing the rank and file with a welcomed, precious new vigor. But expecting any change like this, I know, is only a dream, yet a dream that should never be forgotten because it just might one day help the great American labor movement become great again.
In all humility, everything suggested above interacting together could hopefully add just enough fighting spirit to working people to at least try and shake America itself out of its lethargy and revive our economy and democracy once more for the common man. This not happening would only threaten more and more heartbreaking decline. And that, speaking surely for many others, is out of the question.
In solidarity, brother Bahr,
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Bennett Kremen has written about labor issues for The New York Times, The Nation and other publication and his latest book, "Savage Days Haunted Nights" is available at Amazon.com and Kindle firstname.lastname@example.org