New Labor Forum

It’s an Academic Question: Why Progressive Intellectuals Should Not Stay Out of Internal Union Battles

In Regular Edition on May 19, 2011 at 12:09 pm

– By Dan Clawson

As an academic beginning to engage with the labor movement, if there was one point on which everyone was clear, it was this: you absolutely, positively cannot get involved in the internal politics of the labor movement.

I disagree. If we are to study and work with labor at all, we almost inevitably are involved in its internal politics. Even if it were possible to avoid doing so, I don’t think it would be desirable.

Reasons to Stay Out of Unions’ Internal Politics

Before presenting my position, let’s consider some of the (quite sensible) arguments against intellectuals getting anywhere near the internal politics of unions—reasons that are usually taken as obvious:

1. We all have experience with the academic who has not himself (or, more rarely, herself) done any actual organizing, but who does not hesitate to tell everyone else, most especially people in labor, all the things they’ve done wrong.

2. For those in labor education programs, or those being paid to do research for unions, staying out of internal union politics is a simple matter of survival. To take sides is to lose access to, and funding from, the side you are opposing.

3. There’s the issue of knowledge: do we know enough to be involved? For disputes within labor, there may well be good people and good arguments on both sides; not being in the thick of things, we may have a hard time judging what is really happening, how the workers feel, and the unstated consequences of particular positions. With the best of intentions, even if we think we are fully informed, we can operate in ignorance and make serious mistakes. In such a situation, it is better to stay out of the conflict.

4. There is a good chance that we will be manipulated for factional purposes—union leaders schooled in rough-and-tumble politics will take advantage of naïve academics who don’t understand what they are getting into.

5. Battles within labor will become the focus of outside attention, and our involvement increases that likelihood. A thousand good things that labor does will be ignored, and all the focus will be on the one problem we address.

Responses to These Objections

1. I totally agree that academia is filled with people who feel free to give (self-satisfied) advice from afar. This isn’t about academics and internal union politics—it’s about people and behavior that is pretty insufferable at any time.

2. One of the most important reasons that people stay out of internal labor battles is that a non-trivial proportion of labor-engaged academics are working in labor education programs or receive funding from unions for research projects. For those people, taking a stance on internal union politics runs a very real risk of being cut off from some of their constituencies or risking a multi-year research project. That’s a risk that someone like me—who’s not based in a labor center, who (at worst) would have to switch to a new research topic—doesn’t run.

The risk to labor-funded faculty is real and should be considered in any decision to get involved; but, in many ways, it is a bad faith argument. In just about every organizing campaign, leaders of the campaign are subjected to serious psychological pressures, risk their relationships with co-workers, and run the non-trivial risk of being fired or discriminated against at work. We constantly ask workers to run those risks. If workers don’t take risks, there is no labor movement. How could a labor-oriented intellectual, in good conscience, operate on the basis of: “it’s important that workers take risks, but I’m not willing to do so”? If you are encouraging others to do that which you are unwilling to do, you should get out of labor education, since your own example undercuts your message. At an absolute minimum, labor centers should be sponsoring debates on these disputes; many are unwilling to do even that.

3. I think the same basic point applies to a lack of knowledge: if the issue is important, we should learn about it. We never have “all” the facts, but we still need to engage with ongoing struggles. Not knowing enough may be an opening position, but only on the basis of: “I need to learn about this, and soon, so I will know enough to take action.” Our ignorance is not a long-term reason to stay uninvolved; it’s a demand that we learn.

4. It is absolutely true that we may be manipulated by internal factions; I myself have been burned by this. We should be hyper-aware of this reality. Many internal union disputes are primarily factional struggles about which group will hold office; those we want to avoid. But other internal union struggles raise important issues about values that matter to us; they bring to the fore precisely the reasons we care about labor and want to engage with it. If we avoid those issues we are shirking our responsibility and are, in fact, weakening the labor movement. In the real world, important principles and personal advancement are often mixed, so we need to make decisions about the relative importance of the two, and about our ability to intervene in ways that will advance our principles rather than advance someone’s basically apolitical quest to hold office. But this problem is inherent in most real world politics; to avoid all such situations is to withdraw from struggle.

5. Yes, anything that makes labor look bad is going to get disproportionate media and public attention; and, yes, things that we say may be quoted (fairly or out of context) as part of the attacks on labor. We should be very careful about what we say and write, and always bear this in mind. But if we believe that some key union, or leader, is beginning to travel down a road that will seriously damage labor, and we say nothing, is that helping to build the labor movement? We should remember as well that even if we say nothing critical, that will not prevent union leaders from savaging each other, as the SEIU’s recent disputes make clear.

The Case for Engaging in Internal Union Politics

The most important reason to engage with internal union politics is that doing so is inevitable if we are to be union-involved. In effect, the “stay out of union internal politics” adage means “always support the group in power, never support the opposition.” If there is any level of internal opposition, and the group in power asks us to write a report, do research needed for a contract campaign, help educate workers, sign a statement of support, or write an article about a recent union success, by doing so we are (probably) taking sides. If we do these things for those in power but not for the opposition, or for some unions but not for others, we are definitely taking sides.

Not only that—anytime we write to make a case for or against a policy that is disputed within labor, we are involved in the internal politics of the labor movement. If you are convinced that the national labor movement needs to support immigrant rights, or abjure protectionism, or stop demonizing China, or that construction unions need to practice aggressive affirmative action strategies, and you write a hard-hitting argument to that effect, there will be people in the labor movement who think you shouldn’t be interfering in their union’s internal politics. If we can’t write about key policies, we lose much of our ability to help labor, but anything we write is an intervention in the internal politics of labor.

This Issue in Practice: Recent Conflicts

Most recently, these issues have forcefully arisen around disputes between the SEIU’s national leadership and other union leaders. I was significantly involved in the dispute between the national SEIU and its large California health care workers local (UHW). (The most complete coverage of these disputes can be found in chapter 8 of Steve Early’s The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor.)

When the leadership of the 150,000-member UHW local broke with the national SEIU leadership, many of us felt that it was highly likely that the SEIU’s national leadership would trustee UHW, removing its elected officers, seizing its assets, and taking control of its operations. Bill Fletcher, Jr., one of the most perceptive analysts of labor, said that the SEIU trusteeing UHW would be like the United States invading Iraq—easy to do, profoundly damaging to both sides, and creating a quagmire that would cause pain for years. To help prevent that from happening, I (among others) organized a letter, signed by one hundred labor-engaged intellectuals, urging President Andy Stern not to trustee UHW.

I’ve always thought that the letter was in the best interests of both the national SEIU and UHW, but it led to the sorts of problems that are pointed to by those who argue that academics should stay out of internal conflicts in labor. With any letter put together in a hurry—something like two weeks from start to dispatch—confusion reigns and disparate understandings flourish, especially since the signatures were sought by multiple people using individualized e-mails. People understood their signatures in differing ways. I intended this to be an open, within-the-house-of-labor letter. When I sent the letter to Andy Stern, the initial SEIU reaction was friendly; when the letter was sent to the UALE e-mail list of some five hundred academics no one objected. But when UHW leaders, without our advance knowledge or agreement, ran a half-page ad in the New York Times, all hell broke loose.

Many of those who signed the letter probably did so largely out of ignorance, thinking: “if [person x], whom I know and respect, asked me to sign the letter, it must be a good thing to do.”The SEIU’s initially friendly reception turned sharply negative when the ad appeared in the Times, and most of the signators received calls from someone they knew in the SEIU asking them why they signed, and/or asking them to withdraw their signatures, and/or indicating that there would be consequences. Many of the people who had signed (quite reasonably) felt burned, and let me (and others) know about it. I myself would have happily signed even had I known the letter would be reprinted by UHW, but I would have fully informed those from whom I was attempting to collect signatures, and I’m sure many people would have chosen not to sign.

General Principles

Saying that sometimes academics should be involved in internal labor politics certainly does not mean that we should do so lightly or routinely. The more unusual our interventions are, the more likely they are to be taken seriously. The more those who take a stand have worked with labor and can point to work that has helped labor, the more attention labor leaders will pay. We should not act unless we inform ourselves about the issues. We should be aware that our actions may have consequences. Perhaps most important, for this or for any other organizing action, we should think carefully about the reasons for our actions and their likely consequences. Will our involvement in union internal politics actually promote the values and positions we believe in?

One of the lessons of the SEIU disputes is that although academics are often convinced that we don’t matter in “the real world,” union leaders feel otherwise. They are very concerned about what labor-friendly academics think and do. Labor leaders are willing to invest significant time and energy into a battle for our hearts and minds. If a sizeable number of us take a stand, labor listens, and that is perhaps the strongest reason why, when we think key values and issues are at stake, we should be involved in internal union politics.

*Thanks for comments and reactions from Steve Early, Tom Juravich, Stephanie Luce, Ruth Milkman, Eve Weinbaum, and Ferd Wulkan. Several of these people strongly disagreed with one or another part of my argument, and definitely aren’t responsible for what’s written here.

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  1. I think you do an excellent job of raising the objections to academics getting involved, and of answering these objections.

    My own concern is with the nature of such interventions. I think it is one thing to work closely with a union, and to express your ideas and criticisms of what they are doing, from the inside so-to-speak. It is completely different to sign on to a letter—which (in my opinion) is too easy, and therefore less responsible. In fact I hate the kind of politics that involves signing on to some E-mail petition or other. I don’t think these things are serious or taken very seriously because they require so little. For one thing, people sign them (as you suggest) because their friends do, without having much knowledge about the issues. It is the most superficial form of political engagement.

    On the other hand, participating with a union, and giving your honest feedback, even if the leadership may not want to hear it, is a completely different way for academics to engage with unions, and this, I think, has much more weight. I think we should encourage labor academics to develop real relationships with unions, and try to influence them in principled ways when we feel they are moving in the wrong directions.

    I’d love to hear your reaction.

  2. I thionk that informed criticism of union policies and practices, espewcially when it comes from academics wiwth commitment and experience in the labor movement, is important for helping union activists in formulating strategies and perspectives. More questionable is the practice (which I’ve participated in) of circulating opoen letters taking sides in internal union conflicts. The problem is such cases is that many signers really are not informed about the complexities, and as Dan Clawson says, put their names to statements distributed by people who they trust. What’s worse is an effort to garner lists of porofessors to take sides in conflicts within unions of graduate student TAs. A recent instance, having to do with the electoral fight within the University of California UAW TA local, made me realize, not only the perils of making judgments from a distance based on the ‘facts’ provided by one side, but more important: professors undertaking to interfere in the business of a graduate student union. We professors in this case are, after all, ‘bosses’. In such a case, we need to be conscious of the way our intervention is quite clearly unethical (and even illegal).

  3. In the spirit of generating discussion about New Labor Forum articles, I’ve been thinking about Dan Clawson’s argument here. I’ve tended to view the question of whether labor academics should get involved in labor’s internal disputes as a strategic one, resting on a basic principle that such engagement is at times healthy, necessary and good. So I read his article nodding my head a lot.

    But I think his article downplays what I sensed to be a core objection to academics getting involved in such disputes, best characterized by the absolute (rather than situational) admonition against doing so that he cites in his opening lines. I don’t share this sentiment, but I’ve been mulling over where it might come from.

    There are gradations of what might be called an internal dispute—in other words, there are internal politics, and there are internal politics. I disagree that academics’ contrary positions on China, trade, or immigration are analogous in this discussion, even if different parts of the labor movement fight over them. These are debates that are taken up by many groups in our society, and one’s advocacy on any side of them is within that broader context. But whether SEIU was right or wrong in the case of trusteeing UHW – or other similar situations of late – are not disputes that are taken up broadly in our society. They’re pretty much in the house of labor, even if they do evoke larger principles and ideals. So when I hear people say, “we shouldn’t get involved,” or, “it was a mistake to sign that,” or “you shouldn’t circulate a petition against” a particular union, they’re talking about a very specific kind of taking sides.

    The question is then, should we take sides in these kinds of disputes? Clawson, in considering all of the “reasons to stay out of unions’ internal politics,” mostly treats the arguments against getting involved in a situational manner, as tactical and strategic calculations (you don’t want to be a blowhard, or bite then hand that feeds you, or be mistaken, or make things worse, etc.). Conceivably, you could overcome these objections. In matters that are important enough, he counters, you can learn more, understand and accept the risks, and carefully, judiciously, make an intervention. This shouldn’t be done “lightly or routinely,” as “the more unusual our interventions are, the more likely they are to be taken seriously.”

    So why wouldn’t you agree with this reasonable point, beyond the reasons Clawson considers? My sense is that for some, it’s just not the role of academics, no matter how friendly they might be to labor, to get their hands dirty in this way. To the extent that our opinions about labor politics matter inside or outside the movement, it’s not because we’re labor’s constituents or fans. Presumably, any respect we have is earned from our efforts to create useful and meaningful research, constructive analyses and theoretical insights into labor’s historical and contemporary challenges and actions. Being critical, honest, and outside of the fray give labor academics a good part of their legitimacy.

    These positions sometimes conflict with each other, and I think where there’s disagreement is whether being “outside the fray” trumps other considerations at these more heightened critical moments. It’s back to Weber’s vocations—either you’re a scientist or a politician, but not both. It’s true that you take sides the moment you engage the labor movement with any degree of critical thought. But critical engagement is not really the same as engaging in “real world politics.” I was struck by Clawson’s discussion of the perils of being manipulated by internal factions within labor, and his conclusion that “to avoid all such situations is to withdraw from struggle,” as if that’s a problem. But I think for at least some labor academics, there’s a positive virtue in trying as best as possible to remain outside of struggle. In fact, they see their own (perhaps imagined) neutrality as a position of strength not just for themselves but for the ideas they represent and care about. Labor intellectuals have already taken one major step away from any claims to pure neutrality by being pro-labor. Couching criticism in more abstract and general terms, rather than naming names, resurrects a kind of non-biased perspective.

    That’s my sense of where some objection comes from. Clawson deals with this by saying there’s no such thing as neutrality: “The most important reason to engage with internal union politics is that doing so is inevitable if we are to be union-involved.” But his examples – writing reports for one union or another, doing trainings, research for campaigns – really only apply to labor studies folks who are much more closely tied to actual unions than many of the people who could participate in some kind protest. Generally speaking, labor-friendly historians, political scientists, sociologists, or critical theorists are unlikely to be in a client relationship with any union. And even labor studies people who are more directly tied to unions could conceivably draw all kinds of lines around their research to uphold this ideal of neutrality, even if it’s not perfectly reached.

    As I said at the top, I don’t personally share the idea that academics should strive for neutrality under all circumstances. As Clawson argues, if we assess that our brothers and sisters in the labor movement are taking very wrong-headed actions, we should say so, individually and collectively. Honest criticism and debate are themselves worthy effects. We should always proceed with care, with as much knowledge and evidence as possible, and with eyes-wide-open. I think our relevance and ultimate legitimacy in the broader movement depends on not just our work, but on our whole and principled involvement, which can mean sticking our necks out. And although I can’t say I’ve always lived by it, I now take to heart the simple advice to never write or sign anything I wouldn’t be comfortable seeing in the New York Times!

    • The question is framed as whether progressive academics should get involved in the internal politics of a union. I would broaden the question and ask: what about other pro-union people — such as activists in a different union? While there is good reason to focus in particular on the role of academics — perhaps because their opinions may actually matter to union leaders such as those in SEIU — the question arises for the rest of us as well.

      Union activists are also taught from day one that it is inappropriate to interfere in another union’s internal affairs. This too should be re-examined — both from principled and tactical perspectives.

      We would probably all agree that a community organization of color speaking out about a union’s record on race is appropriate. So shouldn’t the same be true for activists in another union? Or when a union’s blind support for American foreign policy enables corporations to export our jobs to cheap-labor countries abroad? Even from a fairly narrow union perspective, that is our legitimate concern.

      Isn’t it true that progressive activists in the labor movement are (hopefully) working to build a powerful movement for social justice? So what happens in another union in fact is relevant and of concern to us. [Of course there are all sorts of tactical questions that arise, ones not so different from the ones academics face.] Racism or corruption in one union undermines our struggle for democracy, equality and, ultimately, workers’ power.

      Academics: you’re not alone!

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