Once I was a Union Man. I lived and breathed organized labor. I celebrated its heroes, people like Joe Hill – the early 20th Century union organizer – who, when faced with death at the hands of a firing squad, reportedly said, “Don’t mourn for me. Organize!” I embraced its great orators – the socialist Eugene Debs and Mine Workers leader John L. Lewis. I studied labor history’s great events. The famous 1936-1937 United Auto Workers (UAW) sit-down strike in Flint, Michigan was – to me – as important as the American Revolution. As a Union Man, I believed that organized labor was the working class’s best hope for justice. Labor was my faith. It was my religion. Every time I heard about a strike or a protest, I knew which side I was on. No facts, no evidence, and no amount of logic could ever shake me from my attachment. Like every good progressive, I believed that America was at war with itself. As millionaire trial lawyer and Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards is fond of saying, there are “two Americas”- the rich who rule and the great mass of exploited working people.
While I was a graduate student in the late 1990s, I began to feel a growing sense of guilt. I was a non-working class intellectual, reading books, writing articles, and conducting research for my dissertation. I wondered whether I should be out in the factories or on the docks, attaching parts to cars or loading boats. That was where the class war was being fought. I felt guilty about my privileged status – the inescapable fact that I did no hard, physical work. Of course, other graduate students complained about all sorts of things. They felt that they too were being exploited, but I would have no part of this self-pitying malarkey. As a graduate student, I woke up after nine in the morning, controlled most of my day, and lived in a comfortable apartment with a pool. The only thing that troubled me was that I was not troubled. I knew I had to do something. I had to relieve my sense of guilt and – at the same time – fight for what I thought would be better, union-dominated world.
While finishing my dissertation, I sought work as a union organizer. Though I had no direct organizing experience, I did have a deep knowledge of the labor movement. Moreover, for several years I had worked on union related campaigns. I helped fight what appeared to be discriminatory hiring practices at a local grocery store, promoted a “living wage” for town workers, and called attention to the evils of corporate America.
I applied for work at a local Council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). AFSCME was, and still is, the nation’s second largest union. It has more than one million members and, through its massive political donations and ability to supply precinct workers, a tight grip on the Democratic Party. From 1978 to 2003, AFSCME was the Democratic Party’s top donor, contributing $16.5 million - far more than any donor to the Republican Party. A powerful union, I thought. And I would be in the thick of its efforts to transform America.
During the interview, I poured out my heart and soul. I recounted my previous political work. I dropped the names of John Sweeney and Richard Trumka – the AFL-CIO’s President and Treasurer – both of whom I had met while living in Washington, D.C., for a year. I forcefully stated I wanted to be a part of Sweeney’s effort to revive the labor movement from the doldrums of the Kirkland years. “Labor is changing,” I proudly said, “and I would like to be a part of it all.” When AFSCME’s officials asked if I wanted to add anything at the last part of the interview, I pledged my absolute loyalty to the union cause. A few days later, I got the job. I was so excited that I joyfully yelled into the phone. “You will not regret this. You’ve just hired your best organizer!”
The weeks and months went by. The Council’s staff taught me the basics of organizing. I also attended a national AFSCME organizing conference where I met dozens of other organizers and where I was introduced to the legendary Richard Bensinger, one of Big Labor’s most renowned organizers and a key player in the rise of John Sweeney to power.
Some of the organizers I met rose from the rank-and-file. They were blue-collar folks who were either sick of their office job or fired up about AFSCME’s alleged mission to help workers. A surprisingly large number of organizers I met were young kids fresh out of college. They were eager to change the world and ready to work for little more than bread and water. Regardless of their background, every organizer I met was either a staunch Democrat or (as was usually the case with the college kids), a Chomsky-reading America hater. I never met one organizer who was a Republican, or even an independent.
AFSCME’s representatives told me how to acquire lists of worker names and addresses - without their permission or knowledge. I was taught how to approach workers in the privacy of their own home, at night, in the morning, or whenever they were not working. I was spoon-fed recruitment lines and told what to say when a worker opened the door to their home or apartment. I was told how to “rank” the workers I saw and to push those who seemed favorably disposed to unions to start organizing within the workplace. AFSCME officials also strongly encouraged “dumpster diving” – going through the garbage at a workplace or even at a worker’s home. “If you believe in unions,” one AFSCME representative told me, “you’ve got to get a little dirty.”
Much of this, I thought, seemed far removed from my glorified image of unions. We were being taught how to ferment unrest, how to find trouble, and how to exploit it. Almost all of AFSCME’s organizing strategy was built on finding workplaces that could, with a significant amount of union coercion, be persuaded to vote union “yes.” Almost all the time, we were not going anywhere that we had been invited. “Those days are long gone” a fellow organizer told me. “We can no longer afford to wait for a call for help. We have to find the workers ourselves.” But isn’t it better, I thought, to let workers think for themselves, free from the power and tactics of an outside group? As much as I was for unions, I also believed in the democratic process. I wanted workers, not union organizers or union bureaucrats, to determine what was best for them. This type of thinking, however, seemed alien to AFSCME’s mindset. AFSCME’s leaders wanted to organize so badly that I was even told to follow school buses back to their garages to scout out potential organizing targets!
One of the central motivations behind AFSCME’s renewed emphasis on organizing was self-preservation. An AFSCME business representative told me that I was part of the “gold-digging staff” - by which he meant that AFSCME’s organizers were responsible for bringing in the revenue to keep the union afloat. I laughed these statements off and tried not to think about them. But try as I might, I was increasingly troubled by what I saw. I was being taught how to surreptitiously exploit workplace problems and to capitalize on them by encouraging workers to support unions and, eventually, to start paying dues. And what, I soon began to ask myself, were these dues being used for?
The AFSCME Council I worked for, as I learned, had a long history of corruption. This was something that should not have come as a surprise to me given Big Labor’s long history of corruption. Since organized labor’s origins in the 19th century, union corruption has been of epidemic proportions. The powerful Teamsters Union has always relied on extortion, bribery, and violence to maintain its power. Under Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters became an arm of the Mafia. After Hoffa’s demise, little changed. In 1986, 300 pound Teamster President Jackie Presser (who, at the time, was under indictment for extortion) used worker dues to fund a $647,000 party, one in which he had musclemen carry him in on a throne while loudspeakers blared, “Hail Caesar!”
Other union leaders have resorted to murder to maintain their grip on power. In 1969, United Mine Worker chief Tony Boyle hired goons to murder “Jock” Yablonski, an opponent of his corrupt regime. For good measure, the goons killed Yablonski’s wife and daughter. John Sweeney himself – the man whose name I proudly dropped at my AFSCME interview and who now stands atop the labor movement – enjoyed receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars for a job he did not hold.
The leaders of my AFSCME Council were hardly different. The Council’s head was right out of “The Sopranos.” He stated he intended to clean things up, and he started by raking in a six-figure salary and living in a plush, penthouse apartment. The Council’s head organizing director, in turn, had just bought a lavish new house and a new, fully loaded SUV, which she proudly showed off to anyone interested. She was also in the habit of rolling into work after 10:00 a.m. “The traffic,” she would always say with a smile on her face, “was terrible.” Her lunches were usually two-hour affairs, with much wine and beer drinking, to boot. Indeed, by the time she rolled back into work, she was in no mood for it. She would call her union buddies, gab with the Council’s leaders, and complain about big, bad corporate America and evil Republicans. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, she would be rolling out of the office. “I’ve got to beat the rush hour,” she would say.
The more I thought about AFSCME, the more troubled I became. I began to see a darker side of AFSCME. It was not a democratic union that respected workers and welcomed dissent within its ranks. Instead, it was an authoritarian organization, devoted to maintaining the cushy positions of its leaders – people who were living off the hard work of the workers they professed to care so much about. Incident after incident demonstrated this to me. On one occasion, an AFSCME representative deleted files on my computer because they contained statements from AFSCME workers that were critical of AFSCME leaders. On another occasion, I was called upstairs and forced to explain how I could write a completed report (one that I saved on my home computer so as to avoid it having to be erased) that was based on extensive interviews and conversations with workers and so sharply critical of AFSCME’s leaders. “Do we not encourage and promote dissent and openness?” I protested, to no avail.
On two other occasions, I got into even greater trouble when I questioned AFSCME’s total allegiance to the Democratic Party. In one report that made Council leaders boil in anger, I urged them “to avoid wise cracks about the National Rifle Association” and eschew “talk about AFSCME support of Gore.” Many of AFSCME’s workers, I noted, were conservative. I should not have been surprised by the response: “You had better shut up and follow orders.”
Close to the end of my first year, everything came to a head. AFSCME’s leaders sent me to organize a group of school cafeteria workers, mostly middle-aged women who were clearly not being treated well by their boss. Their wages, I thought, seemed low (although, at this point in my life, sophisticated economic reasoning was not my forte. I – like most leftists – thought that cafeteria workers should make the same amount of money that lawyers and doctors do. After all, they feed our kids!) More troubling was how the cafeteria boss played workers off each other. (He may have attempted to fondle one of them.) They were, it seemed, just the type of workers AFSCME was designed to help.
I went about my work, meeting and talking to the women. I was very successful. I managed to get almost all of the women to sign a union card indicating their intent to vote yes if a representation election were to be held. AFSCME, however, had very different plans. The Council’s leaders, I subsequently learned, had sent me out on this campaign (by myself) to keep me out of headquarters while they figured out what to do with me. They were not committed to organizing these women. Further, from the Council’s perspective, organizing a small group of school cafeteria workers was not cost effective: the amount of money AFSCME would make from these workers would not be equal to what AFSCME would have to expend to represent them. “Solidarity” – the word I had taken to heart and the word that I naively thought defined the labor movement – was meaningless to AFSCME. It was, in the end, all about the money and collecting the dues that AFSCME’s organizers harvested to sustain AFSCME’s leadership.
When I learned that I would not receive the support I wanted on the campaign, I was livid. “This is not,” I informed the Council’s lead organizing director, “what labor is all about.” “How do you expect me,” I continued, “to look a worker in the eye, when AFSCME can’t even do the right thing?”
The next day, I was fired. To add insult to injury, I received a short letter from AFSCME President Gerald McEntee that confirmed my termination. What a Stalinist, I thought. He signed off on my fate because I presumed to question his union’s corrupt leadership.
As stunned as I was, my faith in unions was not dead yet. I soothed my concerns by convincing myself that AFSCME was just one bad union. Surely AFSCME did not represent all of organized labor? I dusted myself off and searched for a new organizing position. I applied for work with a local branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the AFL-CIO’s largest union and the union that has now pledged $65 million to defeat President George W. Bush. When I informed the SEIU local organizer that AFSCME had fired me, she brightened up. “AFSCME is, to put it politely, a bit stodgy. We,” she assured me, “are much more militant.” Her voice rose as she stated that “SEIU believes in the revolutionary power of unions!” Though I was concerned by her use of the word “revolutionary” – in my graduate studies I had learned too much about the nightmarish fantasies of the revolutionary Left – I was impressed by her apparent earnestness.
I was also impressed with the entire SEIU operation. When the organizing director gave me a tour of the local headquarters, I was instantly struck by the difference between SEIU and AFSCME. There was no slacking, no long liquid lunches, no extended water cooler breaks. There was only intense, focused work. Phones rang and were answered. Political plans were being hatched. Work-related debates could be heard throughout the building. Clearly, this SEIU local was humming along. It was militant and its take-no-prisoners attitude animated the entire organization. When SEIU offered me the job, I accepted. Within a week I was off chasing down hospital workers and spending nights with fellow organizers in a seedy motel. At least, I thought, we were not living large off worker dues.
Working day and night, and using an unethically obtained list of worker addresses (simply part of the class war I thought), I knocked on doors, pleaded SEIU’s case, and gathered notes on all of the habits of the hospital workers. I found out when the workers would take their breaks. I found out if and when they would come home for lunch. I found out if they had any grievances. I found out if they hated their bosses, were angry about low wages, upset with poor benefits, or tired of fellow workers. Whatever problem existed, I was determined to find it and use it. I wanted to know every worker better than their bosses did.
On one November evening – as the winter chills were setting in – I approached a woman’s apartment. It was dark outside as both the street lights and all neighboring porch lights were off. I was surprised when she opened the door, but I was not surprised that she was nervous talking to me. After identifying myself as an SEIU organizer she immediately asked me how I got her name and address. “We had,” I stated, “some inside help.” This hardly helped calm her nerves. I am tall and weigh almost 190 pounds. I was also a complete stranger to this woman. I tried several different lines, but none worked. “Can you just send me a letter,” she stated. Realizing the difficulty of the situation, I backed off, thanked her, and stated I would try to mail her something. Under the circumstances, I thought my encounter with this worker went as well as it could have, and I was sure that SEIU’s lead organizer would understand when I explained the situation at our regular late night meeting.
I was wrong. Instead of nodding in agreement and plotting out a different strategy for approaching this woman, she flew off the handle. “How could you lose her!” she yelled. “She opened the door and you didn’t get her to sign a union card? What is the matter with you?”
I tried to explain the situation to the lead organizer and to all the other organizers in the room from the woman’s perspective. I thought that, as a woman, the lead organizer would understand another woman’s entirely reasonable concerns about being approached by an imposing stranger on a cold, dark night. Instead, she proclaimed her zealous faith in “revolutionary union power.” (“Union power,” she barked, “is the most revolutionary idea ever conceived.”) Her face was red, her eyes were on fire, and there was a thunderous rage in her voice. She was possessed of a mindless desire to achieve revolution - regardless of life’s practical realities. She was a zealot. “If workers fail to see what unions can do for them,” she said, “we have no hope!”
As she spoke, my heart sank. This SEIU organizer was insane. Her sentiments and ideas would work for Mao or Stalin but they would not – could not – work in America. But none of the other organizers said a word. They all just nodded in agreement and cast angry glances at me, as if I were a traitor to the revolution.
I realized I had three choices: I could go along with this and engage in some form of self-flagellation; I could protest the complete madness of it all and risk getting fired again; or I could quit. I dismissed the first option immediately as, by now, I could no longer tolerate all that I had seen from Big Labor. My experiences with AFSCME, and now with SEIU, forced me to accept organized labor’s dark reality. Nothing I had done or seen in the past year had matched the image I had of the labor movement. Its underhanded tactics, its lack of concern for the real-world issues workers confront everyday, its authoritarian and undemocratic nature, and SEIU’s disturbing visions of a revolutionary society were all things I could no longer be a part of. At the same time, I realized that fighting back would be worthless. I understood how SEIU was run and I understood that I would never gain any listeners among its staff. My third alternative seemed the only plausible one.
That same evening, I went back to my hotel room, called my wife, and asked her what she thought. “You need to do what is in your heart,” she told me. “And whatever it is, I will love you.” The next morning I called the lead SEIU organizer and told her I was quitting. I jumped into my car, got onto the highway, and headed home. One journey had come to an end but another one was beginning.
My bookish worldview had been shattered by reality. As difficult a period as it was, it was also – I subsequently realized – filled with promise. My mind was now open to the reality previous obscured by blind faith. Over the next several years, my politics would change – from Left to Right. Many other factors played a role in my evolution, but my experience with Big Labor was certainly an important one. Several years removed from my years as a Union Man, I can now see how destructive unions are to American politics and to the American economy. I have observed how they block school choice and fight against educational accountability, denying so many poor African-American, Latino, and white children the only hope they have of succeeding in our nation. I have watched how unions bankrupt companies, cities, and states. I have also noted how unions have become an arm of the Democratic Party, regardless of what most workers believe.
Big Labor is not what I thought it was when I was in graduate school. Though its membership has declined steadily over the past several decades, its power is still a threat to the healthy functioning of American society. As Linda Chavez and Daniel Gray have recounted in their brilliant new book Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics, “we all suffer the consequences of the labor unions’ relentless defense of their own power; big government, higher taxes, expanded bureaucracy, and less choice for individual working men and women.” Chavez’s and Gray’s statement was a lesson I had to slowly and painfully learn for myself.
1. Linda Chavez and Daniel Gray, Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics (New York: Crown Forum, 2004), pp.12-13.
2. Robert H. Zieger, American Workers, American Unions, 2nd ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1994), 197.
3. James Green, The World of Organized Labor: Labor in Twentieth-Century America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), pp.243-244.
4. Chavez and Gray, Betrayal, pp.176-178.