There is an old English proverb about scarcity which goes: “If we had some eggs, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some ham.” It often seems the labor movement finds itself in the same situation; “If we had more democracy, we could have a more democratic unionism, if we had unionism.” When the rank-and-file is not facing trials and tribulations in their struggles with management, they are doing so within their own unions, caught betwixt and between a rock and a hard place.
The past year has been a tumultuous one for organized labor. Every year has its peaks and its valleys, but never before has the space between the two seemed so stark. Last Winter, teachers from all over the country rose up and set off a wave of strikes for better wages and working conditions. The teachers who struck did so (for the most part) not on the initiative of their respective unions, but on their own; often via informal social networking both online and in interpersonal groups. The organization and coordination of such massive amounts of people and the cultivation of courage by those selfsame people represents a great opportunity to expand on the concept of membership power.
In late Spring, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision on agency fees levied by unions against non-members in the public sector writ large. Without those fees, labor organizations across the country have begun to wrestle with the problem of free riders and, again, opportunities may yet spring up to encourage democratization. In the Summer, the voters of Missouri rejected a binding referendum to make the Cave State “Right to Work”, despite major opposition from large business. In the early Fall, the National Labor Relations Board considered a change in its “mere negligence vs. gross negligence” distinction, possibly holding unions to a much higher standard when it came to processing Duty of Fair Representation complaints. A month later, the NLRB ruled against a group of San Francisco workers for picketing in front of their workplace, possibly setting a precedent for a larger set of restrictions on union picketing.
In the midst of all this judicial and legislative brouhaha, AUD has done its utmost to retain its place in the forefront of the fight for furthering union democracy. In this past year, AUD board members have filed legal briefs in support of embattled union reformers. Just this past Fall, AUD held forth (in written form) in favor of a group of AFSCME members fighting for representation on the union’s regional council that is actually proportional to their respective districts’ membership and not arbitrarily out of sync with it, as it stands today. The struggle for applying the principle of equal voting rights is hard fought in trade union circles and a decision in favor of the reformers may well shatter an old paradigm that allowed much leniency with regard to disproportionate representation on such bodies.
Earlier this year an AUD board member filed a motion supporting a union member’s right to legal counsel. The member filed an LMRDA Title I complaint against the union and the union’s legal team tried to deprive him of counsel using a motion to disqualify. The court denied the motion, relying in part on the evidence that AUD provided.
In such trying times, it must be remembered what the labor movement must be about if it is to continue to survive and, perhaps one day, thrive in the modern world: responsiveness, transparency, and democracy. We here at the Association for Union Democracy work steadfastly to make that uniquely Bensonian dream a reality. For nearly half a century, AUD has counseled countless unionists on their democratic rights and how to exercise them in the context of their labor organizations. But we sometimes come up short in our attempts to help everybody as much as we think we can. That is, we could have ham and eggs, if we had some ham. And some eggs. So, we need your help. AUD depends on the contributions from members like you to stay afloat and take the deluge of calls, emails, and, indeed, walk-ins, as well. We ask that you contribute and make certain AUD is ready to face the challenges of 2019 as well as we did 2018.