The post-2016 American experience has been one of a political pendulum swinging slowly, then rapidly, to the left. One of the beneficiaries of this has been organized labor; unions are experiencing a popular (if not numerical) resurgence. Like politics, the union world is going to need a very democratic shakeup. Embrace the tsunami! Or let it carry you away.
“Socialism”—though conceptually watered down to near meaninglessness, but socialism nonetheless—is the topic du jour in electoral politics. For unions, socialism is nothing to worry about. Unions are the embodiment of true socialism in the workplace. Each worker is not an individual struggling against overwhelming forces; all workers, together, are one, and will fight for one another in mutual cooperation. It’s great! The left loves unions, naturally, because unions are the most effective grassroots manifestation of the sort of “we, not me” spirit that motivates the ongoing backlash against American-style rapacious capitalism.
People have seen the worst excesses of capitalism and have determined that they want more socialism. They want democratic socialism. That means democratic decisionmaking and political processes wedded to a socialistic economic approach. The happiest and best-managed nations on earth figured out this common sense formula long ago. We are still struggling with it. I do not know if the United States of America writ large will ever become a democratic socialist nation. I do know that the world of organized labor should already be an example of democratic socialism in action. Unions are mass service organizations based on one person, one vote, majority rules, and mutual benefit and support. That, my friends, is what democratic socialism means. It is not, however, so simple in the real world. The biggest unions in America have been around for decades. They serve their economic function. But the democracy part, they sometimes have trouble with.
Look at what has happened just this week. Employees of the SEIU, one of America’s strongest unions, are set to go on strike, against the union, for union-busting. The leadership of the Teamsters union is set to impose a contract on Pennsylvania UPS workers that 96% of those workers voted against. And the AFL-CIO, at the behest of its most conservative, energy-friendly unions, came out against the Green New Deal. What all of these things have in common is this: They are the types of things that happen when unions forget that they are radical democratic service organizations and begin thinking they are businesses.
All institutions, as they gain power, are subject to familiar temptations and failures. They can become insular and disconnected from those they are supposed to serve; they can act for their own benefit, rather than the benefit of all; they can become myopic, inward-looking, short-sighted, ponderous, and unable to stay connected to the grand vision that may have propelled them in earlier days; and they can grow a calcified leadership that refuses to turn over and fails to follow progress where it leads. For institutions to remain healthy, they must periodically be stripped of these creeping afflictions. We are seeing this sort of cleansing happening to the national Democratic Party right now. And we need to see it happen in the union world, too.
Organized labor has some of the most inspiring and capable visionaries and activists you will find anywhere—but, in the middle management and leadership roles of the largest unions, they can often be outnumbered by uninspiring bureaucrats. Just as people have recognized that the government is too important to be left in the hands of careerists who won’t maximize its potential to help people, so too must the true believers in the power of unions start to elbow out those who myopically focus on their own material gain and fail to have a real plan to ignite widespread union growth on a national scale. Union leaders who are not even ideological enough to treat their own unionized employees with respect must go. Union leaders who value the respect of major corporations more than the will of their own members must go. Union leaders who are happy to chase short term dollars into long term disaster must go. And union leaders who aspire only to be a part of the existing power structure rather than to build something far better atop it must go.
Unions are in a crisis. We need the best fucking leaders drawn from the widest possible pool with the most radical vision. If that is not you, you should not be a union leader in the 21st century. The stakes are too high.
Democracy is not easy. Viewed from the very top, democracy can be a pain in the ass. But it is the antidote to the sickness that causes institutions to fail over time. America, wracked by an inequality crisis, desperately needs a revival of strong unions. The infrastructure for that revival is already in place. We have the tools. But the tools must be wielded by people who are driven to do service and who are backed by union members because they are guided, always, by union democracy. If the leader of your union is not serving you, and the union, and the needs of the entire working class, it is time for them to go. Serve everyone or leave. That simple standard applies to everyone from the head of the AFL-CIO down to the shop steward at your job. Organized labor is a calling. All for one, one for all. The interests of the executives is the least important thing there is about unions. For the leaders of unions to place themselves and their bureaucracy before the needs of millions of workers is a moral crime.
Democracy can fix broken unions. It can wash away the problems, if it is allowed to function properly. And if it is stifled, we all just need to push a little harder. Every dam has a breaking point.