By Emma P.
(These views are the opinion of the author and may not represent the views of WV United or its membership)
I hate election years.
Every even-numbered year after 2008, I’ve dreaded the political ads, the yard signs, the debates, and the commercials.
Snippets and soundbites air, reducing complex, political decisions into thirty-second advertisements. Sides of the road become littered with signs in green, red, blue, white, purple, and yellow. Primetime air is given to two individuals whose policies are often never remarkably different from the other (depending on the year). TV shows and online streaming services break the pattern of content enjoyment with one-sided attacks and straw man arguments.
But the thing I dread most now are endorsements. And I think it’s high time that unions forego endorsements all together.
Let me explain the process that got me to this point.
I grew up loving politics. I religiously watched the 2004 and 2008 presidential debates, both primaries and general. When I first came to high school, the first question I asked some of the older students was, “How good is your debate team?” My parents took me to Boston during the 2004 Democratic National Convention because they knew I was obsessed with politics, and I proudly brought back a Kerry/Edwards button that I put on my bookbag that year. A few years later, I took a trip to D.C. with some friends to protest the Iraq War. In college, I helped register students to vote. I canvassed, phone banked, and went to countless meetings. I celebrated the 2008 election and believed at the time that once that was over, everything would be better.
I soon found that what I loved was the facade of political change. Only problem was, I didn’t know it was a facade, because that’s what they’re meant to do - deceive the viewer by placing one sight in front of them while concealing what is behind it.
It took a few more years for me to finally realize that voting hadn’t solved my problems, that the political theater I grew up watching was an expensive show, and most importantly, that the people whose sole job it was to get others elected had plans of their own.
The person who drove me to the polls to vote for the first time? He became a well-connected insider to the 2016 Clinton campaign.
The person who helped set up our canvassing network in 2008? He now leads a non-profit focused on getting out the vote.
The person who ran our college organization? He’s a highly-paid attorney somewhere out West now.
The people who I knew who didn’t run these groups, who didn’t know the people, who know the people, who know the people running, who didn’t do more than put in a few hours here and there, well they’re working everyday jobs now.
So, did we put in all these hours to help elect people to lead us, or did we unknowingly do it to promote the opportunities of others?
I ask this question because, too often, when we see high-profile endorsements, we rarely ask ourselves the old Latin inquiry: Cui bono? Who benefits?
We’re told that endorsements are for the benefit of members. We’re told that a group of our fellow unionists, pulled from our own ranks and from our own workplaces, have diligently discussed the complexities of these issues in such a fashion that there is no possible reason not to vote for the favored candidate. Whatever you do, “Don’t vote against your own interests!” Cui bono?
Delivering a union endorsement is a mark of a great leader. When it pays off, that leader can use it as a stepping stone to something more.
The famous labor leader and miner, John L. Lewis, used everything in his disposal during the first decade of his presidency of the UMWA to squash rank-and-file dissent. In the early 1920’s, a not insignificant minority of members wanted to put into UMWA's platform the long-term goals to create a worker’s party and nationalize the mines. Lewis fought back against these platforms and reduced the militancy of this base. He sided against wildcat strikers and held back their justifiable anger at the corrupt system they saw all around them. When FDR ran for president in 1932, Lewis put the full weight of his now-strengthened position to get Roosevelt elected. After the National Labor Relations Act passed, Lewis rapidly unionized hundreds of thousands of miners across the US. His success in this time period, his relationship with a powerful political elite, ensured that he had nearly full control of the UMWA as its president for four decades and as the first president of the CIO for four years (simultaneously). Cui bono?
In the 1980 election, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) refused to endorse Jimmy Carter for re-election, and instead endorsed Ronald Reagan. For those of you who remember your history well, when PATCO members went on strike in 1981, they were promptly fired and Reagan assisted in their decertification. Only one month into his presidency, the man PATCO had endorsed actively worked to destroy their union. The 1980’s then saw a wave of anti-union legislation roll across the country. Cui bono?
More recently, former president of the SEIU, Andy Stern (1996-2010), went from running one of the largest unions in the United States (~1.8 million members) to working as Senior Fellow at the Economic Security Project. Before his departure, Stern’s bio bragged that, “Stern has visited the White House more frequently than any other single person during the Obama Administration.” A once vibrant, pugnacious figure in the labor movement at the head of America’s most politically active union now holds a job attacking teachers’ unions.
Cui bono? Non nobis.
What a Better Union Requires
In 1911, the sociologist Robert Michels developed a theory known as, “The Iron Law of Oligarchy.” Michels was fascinated with the development of contemporary progressive and socialist political parties throughout Europe. Many of these parties championed a radical form of democracy that had never been seen anywhere in the world. Yet, for all their talk of democratic engagement, almost all of them developed a much more conservative, rigid, impenetrable hierarchy. Michels wanted to know why that was.
In his ground-breaking study, Michels concluded that, without sustained efforts from the membership and a high turnover rate of leaders, all organizations became oligarchic institutions. Instead of becoming the harbingers of democracy, they consume and destroy the flame of liberty, substituting that once sought after goal of equality for hierarchy. The risk-averse nature of leadership steps in, and within a short time, even the most radical groups become shells of their former selves.
Union endorsements are dangerous because they fall into the pattern that Michels points out in the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Most unions operate under a representative system for their Political Action Committees (PACs), which is the section of unions which can make an endorsement. Union members elect representatives to the PAC, and their vote is weighted based on the number of members in their industry or region.
In other cases, PAC members vote on new members when terms end. This ensures continuity from year to year but at the cost of member input. Those who do become elected to these positions often must temper their desires for radical change with those who desire continuity.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The University Professional and Technical Employees (UPTE-CWA Local 9119) in California is a statewide local. After the last presidential election, their local decided that they wanted to change how they process endorsements. They changed the parameters in the following ways:
First, only pro-union candidates who oppose laws like right-to-work can receive an endorsement. This eliminates certain candidates and reduces the viability to a more manageable number.
Next, members are sent an issue-based survey asking about which concerns are the top priority to them. The PAC looks at these surveys and creates questions based on member responses.
Then, when the PAC interviews candidates, they take diligent notes about their responses and make sure that the questions they ask them come from member concerns.
These notes are placed online with an analysis based on candidate responses. All members have access to this information and are encouraged to see how each individual responded before they make an informed decision.
Lastly, members cast their vote on the candidate they would like their local to endorse. The PAC must honor the vote of the membership base and cannot deviate from it. In this sense, the local’s PAC provides guidance and executive functions for the union’s endorsements, but does not dictate unilaterally who should receive it.
If every union followed these guidelines, maybe I would reconsider my suggestion. However, since most unions do not follow this process, it is fair to assume that getting rid of endorsements altogether until this process is followed would be better in the here and now.
Some may argue that I am upset because my “favorite candidate” didn’t get the nomination, that this is sour grapes over some slight I have felt from unions endorsing someone other than my preferred candidate(s).
Let me make this perfectly clear - I have no “favorite candidate.” There are obviously politicians that align closer to me than others, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say there is some part of me that wouldn’t feel better if they were in power.
However, I do not believe that a politician, any politician, will ever give us what we as unionists need.
Others may argue that they agree with this sentiment, but will counter with, “You have to use every tool in your toolbox, though.”
No, you don’t actually. If you want to drive a screw into a piece of wood, you need a drill. If you stop midway through and decide you want to use a wrench or a hammer instead, it might work eventually, but a drill works best. Not all tools are necessary to win what you want.
Instead of using every tool in the toolbox, why not use the one tool designed for this task?
An endorsement signifies that your group, as a whole, agrees with the guidelines put forth in their candidate selection; it signifies that the membership, regardless of the number, agrees with the names written on a piece of paper. When this happens, membership can feel alienated from their group. Anti-union groups use this division to split members, fracture their movements, and institute even harsher legislation. We cannot allow that to happen.
If we want our unions to be built for our class, we should be using the tools to build our class. Elections and endorsements don’t do that; direct action does.