Lately, I have been reading about union “solidarity” in the newspaper and watching several news stories claiming that public unions have come together to aid union protesters in Egypt. Several union leaders have credited themselves with the fall of the Egyptian government. Also, I was reviewing a recent guest “Confessions of a Union Organizer” in one of our own newsletters written by Calvin Hullett, a former police officer who was a hero to the Teamsters one day and thrown into the union recycling bin as “collateral damage” the next which inspired me to write a little about union “solidarity” from an insider’s perspective.
As a former high ranking union official and organizing director, I have seen VICIOUS FIGHTING between competing unions and even within the same union against fellow “brothers and sisters”. I remember when I was putting together the organizing agreement between the United Steelworkers (USW) and the California Nurses Association (CNA). I met with USW President, Leo Gerard and CNA representatives. Together we orchestrated the merger to organize hospitals across the country and build a “wonder coalition of union brotherhood”.
I went into this merger eager to build a dream team of organizers with strength and power but I soon realized this was not going to be easy. I worked with CNA President, Rose Ann DeMoro, and her executive staff and came to a quick understanding there was so much anger towards hospital management that it clouded their judgment when it came to developing organizing strategies.
The CNA was also in full rage mode against the SEIU. The CNA spent much needed energy plotting attacks against the SEIU. This made it especially difficult for us because, at the time, the SEIU was a fellow AFL/CIO affiliated union and the CNA wasn’t. We also had problems with the SEIU in California because they were angry that we were working with the CNA. This actually led to several instances of pushing, shoving and in some cases full blown battery in the hospital parking lots in which both sides were attempting to organize.
We were butting heads with the CNA leadership from the onset and it was clear to me that the CNA entered this “alliance” in bad faith. Everything, from the colors of the logo to materials, was a major fight. Deciding who would work under who in the hospitals was a major concern. From the beginning, the CNA never honored our agreement. I told Leo Gerard to end the agreement and get our money back from the CNA. Legally they could not end an agreement like this however the division was so great that eventually it collapsed under its own weight.
After working on the CNA project, I was flying home from California for the Christmas holidays and I decided to stop and check in on a large organizing drive which was started by the USW local union outside of Nashville. There was a major meatpacking facility with about 3,500 workers (potential members). The campaign was actually started by a newly hired organizer who started his career with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). He started the organizing with the UFCW before he was fired and was now continuing it with the USW. The UFCW filed a petition for election and we were an intervening union with a showing of support.
I went to an organizing committee meeting held by the former UFCW organizer at a city hall rented room. Soon after I arrived, five angry UFCW organizers tried to break up the meeting. I had to physically kick them out of the meeting. Trust me when I say that I “sternly” warned them never to interfere with the USW attempts to organize these workers again.
I called Gerard and told him that this campaign was a big loser. We were wasting energy and resources on trying to organize these workers. In reality, we didn’t have a "snowball's chance in Hell" of winning. Gerard told me that our “intervention” was to serve as payback to the UFCW for backing out of another agreement a year earlier. I strongly objected because this massive campaign would cost me my annual budget.
Over 90% of this meatpacking plants workforce was Hispanic. The geographical area where the workers lived was so large that I had to arrange to bring in 35 Spanish speaking organizers. At the time, most of our Spanish speaking organizers were working on other campaigns. This was a nightmare. We resorted to taking members out on union leave clauses, and since we weren’t going to win, Gerard thought we could build political support by bringing people in where favors were owed.
I flew in two days a week to overlook this train wreck. Almost every day, my organizers were having fist fights with the UFCW organizers with the meatpacking workers caught in the middle. Inside the plant the Hispanic and non-Hispanic workers were fighting against each other. Pro USW and pro-UFCW workers were also battling it out on the shop floor. Needless to say, I needed a vacation when this was over, but vacation was not an option. We had to organize!
I traveled to a union meeting in Georgia for a USW local at a large tire plant to recruit fresh organizers and build regional support. As soon as I started talking, the meeting turned into a shouting match. Several members objected to organizing Hispanic workers. They said things like, “They are all probably illegal immigrants who are taking American jobs”. The local leaders seemed to agree with the rebel rousers. I made a call to USW Headquarters in Pittsburgh and joked that there were pickup trucks following me all the way back to Tennessee to make sure I left. They actually saw me as the “enemy” coming to take their jobs away from them.
My predictions about the failure of these campaigns became reality. Not only did the union lose these campaigns but the company received a majority of the worker’s votes which means there was no runoff.
I was in another state when the unofficial results came in. I received a call at about 10:00 p.m. and was told by my organizers that they were “jumped” and beaten inside the plant after the vote. They stated that they were outnumbered 2:1. Security was called and everyone involved was removed from the plant. I was definitely angrier about the fact that they were assaulted than I was about losing the vote as I knew it was not going to end in our favor.
I asked my organizers, what they were going to do about their unfair physical beat down? I was told that they were going to make one last trip to their hotel. Later I got another call and was told that everyone had left town and that the police were looking for them. My team had found the UFCW organizers in a local bar, in front of their hotel, and had a knock down drag out fight which destroyed the bar.
I often talk about the competition between unions and within unions. These organizations are full of sharks (as much or more than any other money making organization). The union’s leadership leads by intimidation and will not hesitate to throw a human being under the bus, this includes union members. Remember what our credo was: “Victory by any means necessary!” We often targeted our own officers or members who were a threat to our “rule of law”. If someone publicly challenged us, we took special “pleasure” in making an example out of them.
When I met with the top union leaders in Washington, we had great plans to “unite” everyone and stop the fighting between the unions but it never happened. It probably never will as long there is competition between unions. In the union world, everyone is after the same piece of the pie; it’s just the nature of the beast!