You can measure the difficulties of the labor movement by the number of lawyers in the room. The more there are the deeper the problems.
I started out in the labor movement fighting against the idea that lawyers should have a central role in decision-making in the labor movement. As a rank and file shop steward and local union officer I recall often having to fight against the idea that the lawyers on the union staff knew more about the union and its potential than the union’s own members.
Now I am a lawyer, I train future lawyers and I often advise labor union members and officers. But my early conviction about the inverse relationship between the presence of lawyers and the effectiveness of the labor movement has not wavered.
Thus, it is disheartening that in three of our most important and visibly symbolic unions, the United Auto Workers, the Screen Actors Guild and the Service Employees International Union, lawyers are taking an abnormally large role. And while there is less public discussion I have a feeling that the role of lawyers is also looming large in the battles between the once allied unions, UNITE and HERE.
At the UAW, the rank and file workforce is now at the mercy of bankruptcy lawyers because the labor movement is unwilling to take a forceful stand on behalf of industrial working class America. Despite the opportunity to lead the way to restructure our national transportation industry by reorganizing the Big Three into a new Public Trust Transportation Company, the UAW seems more interested in going down with the ship.
Over at the Screen Actors Guild, a well-intentioned opposition group led by New York based actors and a group called Unite for Strength in LA sent two lawyers into negotiations today with the AFL-CIO over its contentious relationship with its sister union AFTRA. These groups hold the balance of power in SAG these days having pushed aside a damagingly dogmatic faction called Membership First. In any case, apparently also AFTRA sent two lawyers to the meeting and the AFL-CIO sent a lawyer and…well, one can only imagine what these people were thinking without a single actual rank and file actor to be seen.
The tools being used by SAG’s new leaders are as arbitrary and bureaucratic as those used by the old Membership First leadership. They included an ultra vires attempt by the SAG National Board to muzzle their own national President (granted, this particular President has very little to say that is worth listening to). Of course, the President decided to sue instead of fight politically and there were more lawyers!
If that is the way the union is being run nowadays no wonder the entertainment industry treats labor negotiations like they are a side show hardly worthy of prime time.
SEIU is in the view of some the one shining light in American labor as it has expanded its membership by hundreds of thousands over the last decade or so under the leadership of Andy Stern. But very few of those new members are the result of actual organizing but rather acquisitions modeled, consciously, on corporate raiders. For a while the illusion could be maintained but in the last few months it broke apart as the California based United Health Workers led by a Stern loyalist bolted and formed a new independent union after Ray Marshall (an economist!) backed yet another bureaucratic effort by Stern to crush the vibrant UHW. The UHW was acquired in a sense by SEIU in a deal brokered with then-California governor Grey Davis. It was a top down attempt at organizing but the rank and file have woken up and have their own ideas about how to run their union.
Finally, in the least well-known battles inside labor these days, the once amalgamated UNITE and HERE are splitting apart at the seams. (Pun intended – hey, I realize I am no Shakespeare.) UNITE led by Bruce Raynor who at one point was a key organizer of southern textile workers seems content to try to run to the side of Andy Stern who is backing them against HERE. HERE is led by John Wilhelm, a popular former Yale University union leader.
Wilhelm has attempted to push Raynor out who in turn says he is pushing Wilhelm out. At the heart of the mix is the Amalgamated Bank based in New York and historically linked to one of UNITE’s predecessor unions, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, with $11 billion in assets under management, most of it union pension funds. The Amalgamated has been an important player in many battles for progressive corporate reforms including being the first lead plaintiff in the shareholders lawsuit against Enron. God only knows how many lawyers are caught up in this showdown.
In the very same scene where Shakespeare, sardonically, suggested that we have had enough with lawyers, he wrote:
“…and yet it is said, labor in thy vocation; which is as much to say as, let the magistrates be laboring men; and therefore should we be magistrates.”
If not magistrates, then at least it is “laboring men [and women]” who should run their own unions. I said that.
(Apologies to Bob Dylan.)