As labor is burning, our National union leaders are fiddling. Some of them are simply arsonists. While the labor movement has made tremendous progress in the past, every working American knows that we are facing exceptionally challenging economic times and a union movement that continues to decline. Everyone, that is, except for some national union leaders, who these days seem too focused on creating internal divides and engaging in selfish politics to focus on the fight for their members’ rights.
This simply cannot continue. Whether it is the split of the national AFL-CIO unions into factions, or the tensions between public workers and building trades unionists in New Jersey, or National unions running roughshod over their own locals, it is a certainty that these ugly and unproductive divisions will choke what is left out of the life of organized labor. If we are going to make strides in critical areas like pensions and health-care , paid family leave and the right to organize freely, we must stop bullying each other. If we are going to win the fight against the unrelenting tide of givebacks and job loss, we must do so with one voice. As Abraham Lincoln once said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
This week, my Local and I, unfortunately learned this ugly fact firsthand when the national Communications Workers of America (CWA) staged a coup of our local’s offices and violated their own constitution to retaliate against our Local for our vocal and public opposition to the recent pension and benefits cuts and last year’s New Jersey state workers contract deal. Instead of engaging in a constructive and substantive debate about the best way to preserve and improve members’ benefits, our national leadership resorted to extreme and oppressive tactics to further their own individual agendas.
These tactics were on clear display when our National union stripped the members of our 16,000 person Local 1034 of their democratic rights. Our members democratically elected me, and my executive board, to oversee their union. But our National clearly decided that a democratic electoral process should not get in the way of their personal agendas and seized the building and the assets of our local and tried to remove me and my executive board from our elected position. They have drummed up a bunch of fictitious, false and baseless allegations to justify these ridiculous measures. They ignored both the union constitution and federal law, which call for notice, a hearing prior to taking action, a fact-finding mission and appeal rights. It is a travesty.
Unfortunately, our situation is not unique. Over the past few years, unions across the country have put internal politics and personal agendas above the interests of our movement as a whole. In 2005, unions left the AFL-CIO to form a splinter group, severely diminishing the union’s influence and ability to create lasting change. We lost power, regardless of which side was “right” or had a better plan for reversing labor’s decline. At that time an organizer was quoted as saying: “A divided labor movement creates a favorable environment for those who seek to reverse pro-worker gains.” And the national political climate could not be more anti-labor than it is right now happily capitalizing on those divides.
According to Barack Obama, Americans across the country are asking themselves daunting questions like “Will I be able to leave my children a better world than I was given? Will I be able to save enough to send them to college or plan for a secure retirement? Will my job even be there tomorrow? Who will stand up for me in this new world?” The labor movement should be at the forefront helping to find answers to these critical questions and electing Obama rather than spending energy beating each other up.
While the National CWA has locked us out of our local offices, they cannot and will not lock us out from talking with our members and meeting them at their workplaces. The members run this union, always have and always will. The leaders of our local are going to federal court to demand that the local be rightfully returned to its members and elected leaders. As elected leaders, we will continue to work tirelessly to protect and advance our members’ rights and we will not be silenced.
For the past 26 years, I have devoted my work life to the belief that the American labor movement is an essential part of our country’s core democracy and the key to economic prosperity for working people. We cannot make that a reality until we figure out how to stand together and stop burning down the house of labor.