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.

  1. Dan Clawson provides a provocative starting point for discussion and debate regarding the role of intellectuals in the U.S. labor movement. He outlines the arguments against intellectuals’ involvement in unions’ internal battles, assesses each in turn, and concludes that progressive intellectuals who support the labor movement should carefully and thoughtfully involve themselves in unions’ internal struggles. Here I add a little historical context to this issue as well as pertinent information from past iterations of this debate. I conclude with a suggestion for more effective input.
    The U.S. labor movement has from its beginnings, maintained more distance from intellectuals than have labor movements of other advanced industrialized nations (Perlman 1923; Mills 1948). Selig Perlman saw a valuable role for intellectuals as “sympathetic outsiders” rather than those seeking to “control the course of the labor movement.” He argued that some defeats, the 1919 steel strike in particular, were the result of the American labor movement’s failure to use “the services of writers, journalists, lecturers, and speakers to popularize its cause with the general public… to provide a sufficient organization of labor publicity to counteract the anti-union publicity by the employers” (1923:291; 293-4).
    Twenty-five years later, C. Wright Mills (1948) identified four types of labor intellectuals: Those employed as (part time or full time) staff assistants (researchers, educational directors, economists or lawyers); those active in the unions and serving as officials, members, or promoters of a radical party; free-lance research intellectuals such as college professors, journalists, research technicians working for the mass media, or lawyers; and the union-made intellectual who masters all the skills necessary of a labor leader and who effectively combines features of all three intellectual types (the staff thinker, the party intellectual, and the free-lance researcher). Mills argued that it is the latter that have the potential to greatly influence labor unions. Unions which generated a broad spectrum of union-made intellectuals who maintained channels up the union hierarchy and down to the shop floor, were the ones that developed “democratic vigor. “
    Clawson has mainly the free-lance researcher, particularly the professor, in mind while making his arguments in favor of intellectuals’ participation. What does Mills have to say about the free-lance researcher? First, he notes that this type of intellectual has no constant foothold in unions or in the organizations that work with unions. While these are “idea men,” they had (as of 1948, and I add, in the years afterwards), “no influence on the policy makers in labor unions.” Furthermore, he states:
    The free-lance is not only powerless; he is often naïve about the kind of power needed to influence a labor leader. Neither knowledge nor experience necessarily lead to policy-making power in a trade union, and certainly power is not often influenced by admonitions, particularly if they are well-founded in the leader’s own shortcomings. …The party intellectual usually knows that the only way he can influence the union official is to organize a power base of party members in specific locals or plants. The staff intellectual may wait cautiously for years before he attempts to influence policy without paying the price the radical party man, or the labor leader himself, is willing to pay. But the free-lancer often seems to think he can influence by the sheer magic and wisdom of his talk. (1948: 284-5).
    Does that mean that progressive free-lance research intellectuals should retreat into non-activity and silence on internal (and external) union matters? I would argue: No.
    First, we may have an important role in supporting unions’ battles with employers. Perlman argues that intellectuals should serve as sympathetic outsiders, helping labor unions to get the word out about the working conditions and problems under dispute during strikes and other disputes. While Clawson’s essay doesn’t address the issue of how intellectuals may aid labor in their struggles against employers, I would guess that he is supportive of that mission. I suggest that we consider how we can better position ourselves to serve in that supportive role.
    Second, according to Mills, expecting the “sheer magic and wisdom” of our talk (publishing articles and op-ed pieces) to influence internal union disputes (assuming that labor leaders and members read them and implement our ideas) is wishful thinking. Mills stresses the complexity of internal union power structures, and the capacity (or incapacity) that intellectuals in various roles have to change union policies. He is particularly pessimistic about the capacity of free-lance research intellectuals to impact union policy. Yet his theory is consistent with the idea that discussions, coalitions or collaborations with union staff thinkers, party intellectuals (in today’s world, these are leaders of internal union democracy movements), and other free-lance researchers, but especially with union-made intellectuals (if we can find them), might be the best entrée for input into internal union disputes. Academics might intensify their connections with labor leaders (i.e., through periodic meetings between labor leaders and academics at their professional organization meetings, like those arranged at the American Sociological Association meetings several years ago, through labor centers, state federations, and central labor councils). Those who become familiar with union issues through such conversations and joint efforts will be the most knowledgeable and best positioned to make arguments that resonate with union participants. These are the ideas that have a chance to develop traction in practice.
    Mills, C. Wright. 1948. The New Men of Power. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
    Perlman, Selig. 1923. A History of Trade Unionism in the United States. New York: The
    Macmillan Company

    Judy Stepan-Norris

  2. Re: Dan’s response:

    1. I suspect the number is small, and that is partly the fault of the unions, who are too often reluctant to work with academics, or who, when they do, simply want the academics to do work that supports their campaigns. They want them to appear to do objective studies that come up with the findings they want. They don’t want to hear what the academics actually have to say. This is an issue that deserves attention, I think.

    2. Good point. How does one go about it? I feel that I’ve been lucky in getting to work with David Young and Jeff Hermanson, who allowed me to be a full participant in the ILG’s work, and briefly with LIUNA and the Writers Guild. I didn’t stick with either of the latter ones, but could have if I’d wanted to. I also tried to do this with the Teamsters, with the Port Truckers, and it worked for awhile. It meant meeting regularly with the organizing director, participating in strategy sessions, sitting in on organizing meetings, etc.

  3. Re: Edna’s comment:

    1. I wonder how many academics actually do participate with a union. My guess/worry is that it’s a damn small number.

    2. Take the issues of conflict between SEIU nationally and the two other unions it was in conflict with, NUHW and HERE. I wonder how things would work if you were participating with any of those three unions. What form of involvement would be possible/appropriate? In some ways, the best way to intervene between NUHW and SEIU would be to work with NUHW, but what happens if you aren’t in California (but still feel that important issues are at stake for all of labor)? I ran a couple of fundraisers for NUHW, made some phone calls for them (and helped organize others to make calls), and had at least one student go work with them. I did not myself go out there, although in retrospect of course I wish I had gone out for the Fresno homecare campaign.

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