Retiring President’s Advice: Trust the Members
A year ago I announced to the delegates to the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) that upon completion of my current term in office in January 2012, I would be retiring.
By that time, I will have served as president of SCFL for twenty-five years, long enough by any measure.
The Managing Editor of this newspaper, Ron Blascoe, suggested that I might use this space to share some insights that I may have gained over those years. So here, sort of, I’ll take a shot at it.
The one enduring philosophy that I’ve tried to maintain during my years in the labor movement is an immovable belief that our movement, and indeed most movements and institutions, are best served with a heaping helping of democracy.
By democracy I don’t mean only that we elect our officers and our Business Managers, but that for important decisions all members are urged to participate in debate and cast votes on these important decisions. It also means that all members, be they activists who serve as delegates to SCFL or rank and file dues payers in a local union, should be recruited to also participate fully in the implementation of those decisions.
Sometime during the course of my years in the labor movement this so-called philosophy got a name—the organizing model of unionism. This means, simply put, a heavy dose of member involvement in the organization.
A discrete but very visible example of member involvement was on display at this year’s LaborFest. Dozens and dozens of volunteers cooked and served the food, sold tickets to buy the food, tended the kids games, set things up and tore them down, etc., etc. The crowd at LaborFest this year was a least twice the size of any previous crowd in my memory, yet everything came off pretty much without a hitch, other than longer than normal lines.
A more complicated and more broadly cast example would be the Living Wage campaign that organized labor led in Madison and Dane County over a decade ago. The decision to pursue such an effort involved lots of folks providing lots of input. Then, to broaden the net and make sure there was wide support for the initiative, we called a widely advertised Town Hall meeting, involving many who were not union members.
Lots of good came from this meeting, but two things in particular stand out. One was the decision, which came from the floor, to link the Living Wage to the federal poverty level for a family of four, rather than a set dollar amount that would soon diminish in value. The other was the emergence of a key leader of a non-profit agency who became our main connection with the folks who would benefit the most from the Living Wage ordinances.
Throughout that campaign union leaders, union activists, and community activists were engaged in rounding up testimony, advocating with city council and county board members, preparing literature, and accomplishing the many tasks that go into such an involved multi-year effort. In the end a multitude of people had ownership in this successful campaign. And the Living Wage ordinances have served our community well for over a decade now.
There is an inclination amongst some union leaders to try to consolidate power once they’ve been elected. Their motivation in doing this is sometimes to secure their positions, sometimes because they don’t trust the judgment of their members, sometimes because “that’s the way it has always been done,” and sometimes who knows why.
I would argue that, whatever the motivation, the result of this is not good. When decision making and activity are consolidated into the hands of either a single individual or even a small group of people, the result is usually stagnation. And stagnation leads to atrophy. And that ain’t good.
Anyone who questions the capacity and judgment of the membership need only look back a few months to the Wisconsin Uprising last winter. The numbers who turned out clearly demonstrated that the members “got it.” And the creativity of their homemade signs alone indicated that there’s a load of talent to be tapped in order to further our institutions.
Our unions are currently under more vicious attacks than most of us have ever seen. We will survive these attacks, because we always do. But we will not merely survive these attacks but rather emerge stronger and better if we fully utilize all the creativity, talent, brains and energy of all our members.