A Labor Leader Loses His Way

Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009

The Hopes That Were Invested in “Change to Win”

Four years ago when several key labor unions formed Change to Win as an alternative umbrella organization to the AFL-CIO, many of us hoped that a new vision of the labor movement was being born–one that would go beyond the economics-only focus of industrial unionism and see unions as an important social context for building a greater sense of community and a new universal vision of a society based on empathy and compassion for other human beings.

Of course, the labor movement had always in part been identified with the ideal of social solidarity, with the brotherhood and sisterhood that ought to be at the heart of all human relations. But since the high-water stage of labor idealism in the 1930s, the AFL-CIO’s public voice had become increasingly identified with an acceptance of the hierarchies of American capitalism, seemingly limiting its vision to the laudable but limited goal of bringing workers the material benefits of middle-class life.

When the garment workers and the hotel and restaurant workers joined forces to create the new International UNITE HERE, and UNITE HERE joined forces with the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the Laborers, and the United Farm Workers (UFW) to form Change to Win, it looked like a new labor vehicle might be emerging–one that could link a renewed commitment to organizing with a revival of labor’s historic commitment to the creation of a more egalitarian and communal world.

But we always knew there was a danger in the break-up of the AFL-CIO–and not only that labor might weaken itself through internal division. For while the AFL-CIO seemed to sacrifice any universal vision in favor of a vision of permanent material class conflict in which the labor movement was focused primarily on expanding labor’s share of the economic pie, the new organization ran the risk of subordinating militant labor activism in favor of a bland labor-management partnership that would sacrifice workers’ real needs and interests in exchange for easy union recognition and a new “humanistic” integration of labor into the management-run corporate hierarchy.

Our Fears about Stern’s Leadership

Many of us were concerned that Andy Stern–the head of SEIU, which had emerged out of the new service sector to become one of the largest unions in North America–had personal ambitions to become a new psychologically sensitive labor guru. We feared that he would fall prey to the temptation to expand union membership by agreeing to contracts favorable to employers, while he himself pursued a personal ambition to become labor’s leading public spokesperson supplanting AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. For all of our efforts in Tikkun to shift progressive political discourse from a purely economic to a spiritually deep, communal focus, we have been equally aware that the New Age concern with spiritual and psychological oppression has often been the context for the pursuit of narcissistic self-interest by charismatic leaders all too ready to abandon the necessary militancy of transformative struggle for acceptance within the socio-economic status quo. Which way would Change to Win, with Stern as the most publicly visible representative of the new organization’s largest union, go?

Tragically, we may now be witnessing our worst fears being realized–or at least gaining ascendancy. Stern has recently spearheaded a series of SEIU-led interventions in other unions that appear designed to increase SEIU’s own wealth, power, and influence without regard to the well-being of the workers it represents or the historical continuity and integrity of the unions he is seeking to take over. The worst of these has involved his open attempt to take advantage of a rift that has arisen within UNITE HERE, which is among the largest of the private sector unions in Change to Win and is thought to be one of the most progressive private sector unions in the country, representing 450,000 workers in the hotel, restaurant, food service, and gaming industries in the United States and Canada. Stern’s actions have now provoked twenty-six union presidents, including the heads of the Steel Workers, the Teamsters, and the Teachers, to issue a formal public pledge standing in solidarity with UNITE HERE and pledging to defend it against any incursions by another union.

Understanding what has been so alarming about Stern’s conduct in relation to UNITE HERE requires going into some detail about the historical forces that shaped the formation of UNITE HERE. It also requires discussing the growth of SEIU as a significant public-sector representative of service and health care workers and examining the way that Stern is seeking to take advantage of those forces in a manner that may be destructive to the entire labor movement.

UNITE HERE’s History in the Private Sector

In 2004, UNITE (the successor to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union) and HERE (the union representing hotel, restaurant, food service, and more recently gaming workers, including the 60,000-person Las Vegas Local 226) made the decision to merge in 2004 into UNITE HERE. In the early years of the labor movement during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the textile, garment, and needle workers had been a leading force in the emergence of organized labor, and the textile workers’ leadership had had the foresight to invest the union dues that were the fruits of their successful organizing into a union bank for the benefit of the workers. This substantial UNITE asset was matched, however, by a gradual hemorrhage of the UNITE workforce, the result of the movement of capital in clothing manufacture overseas, a tendency which has only increased since the passage of free trade legislation like NAFTA, which has decisively contributed to the waves of closure of the historic textile mills in the United States that had previously employed UNITE’s workers. The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union (HERE) was in precisely the opposite position. HERE has become an increasingly important force in organized labor with the shift toward service sector employment within the continental United States, and therefore has had a potentially expanding base of workers, although lacking the accumulated wealth held by UNITE and its Amalgamated Bank.

The merger of these two great unions into UNITE HERE was therefore understood as an integration of UNITE’s capital assets with  HERE’s workers in a way that would be potentially beneficial for both unions and for the labor movement as a whole. Plus the two leaders who formed a co-presidency were both shaped by the mix of their labor heritage and the idealism of the 1960s, in a way that seemed to bode well for realizing the common aspirations of both unions to form a single body that was greater than the sum of its two parts and that could exert a major influence on both labor organizing and the progressive rejuvenation of the labor movement.

SEIU’s History in the Public and Non-Profit Sectors

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that UNITE HERE remained a private sector union forced to engage in challenging economic struggle with owners of private capital, who were not inclined to “make nice” in either recognizing unions during organizing drives or cooperatively agreeing to long-term collective bargaining contracts after organizing drives had succeeded in gaining union recognition. By contrast, SEIU emerged in the decades following the emergence of industrial unionism as a much larger representative of increasingly public employees, whose employers are federal, state, and local governments much more inclined to willingly agree to union recognition and to enter into long-term collective bargaining contracts within large state bureaucracies.

The expansion of public-sector unionism that followed the 1950s and that gained momentum within the governmental sector with the liberal social consciousness fostered by the social movements of the 1960s has made it possible for unions like SEIU and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) to expand and grow as the state sector of the economy has itself grown, even during the conservative decades following the election of Ronald Reagan. It is true that the rise of the New Right had a powerful impact on undermining the early successes of labor unions in the private sector, which declined in membership in the decades following their high point in the 1950s as the idea of socialism itself lost its idealistic appeal as the metaphorical carrier of the longing for community existing in all human beings. But this same New Right was relatively unsuccessful in attacking public-sector unions whose unionization actually facilitated the smooth long-term functioning of governments that do not have to battle for their existence in competitive private markets and that are not nearly as motivated by profit maximization and cost discipline as are the owners of private capital.

From the point of view of advocates of equality and social justice, one could say that SEIU and other public employee unions were able to take advantage of the inherently social nature of government to receive a greater and more stable share of their employer’s collective assets, and in a way that facilitated the long-term stability of the governmental bureaucracy as a form of socio-economic life. And in addition to and consistent with its expansion in the state sector, SEIU also found increasingly willing partners in the growing non-profit sector, which also experienced enormous growth in the decades following the 1960s, with non-profit employers showing substantial willingness to embrace unionized workforces when asked to by their workers encouraged by SEIU’s well-publicized nationwide initiatives within the non-profit sector.

In this larger context, we can see how the social contexts that gave rise to the growth of  SEIU encouraged the emergence of a public leader like former social worker Andy Stern–a leader who on the positive side is idealistic and more socially progressive than traditional bread-and-butter trade unionism, but on the negative side might be tempted to prefer easy unionization across the labor force in exchange for a weakening of bargaining standards, by too easily agreeing to employer take-aways, and by subordinating worker self-organization and empowerment to smoothly negotiated deals between union leaders and government managers.

And we can also see how the respective ways in which UNITE and HERE came to their potentially very beneficial merger in 2004 could also have sowed the seeds for the merger’s own destruction, insofar as the UNITE side was likely to continue to lose its base in workers who were losing their jobs to relatively cheap labor outside the country, while the HERE side would proportionally be likely to increase its influence with the expansion of the hotel, restaurant, and especially gaming sectors as the United States itself shifted to an increasingly service economy. We can see that this confluence of historical forces might well provide a temptation for mega-union SEIU, with its upwards of 2 million members and its very well-paid and large union staff with a  presence in virtually every major American city, to leap in and exploit the potential structural conflict inside UNITE HERE, believing that it has a more correct vision of widespread and easy unionization, and a chance of success in leading a raid on a fellow union, even one with a strong, private-sector rank-and-file base and a powerful and loyal infrastructure of long-time organizers and capable union leaders.

SEIU’s Raid on UNITE HERE

The coming to fruition of these negative tendencies appears to be exactly what has happened in the past year. UNITE HERE began with a co-presidency between UNITE’s Bruce Raynor and HERE’s John Wilhelm. With the possibility of a single presidency that Wilhelm appeared likely to win at the annual convention in June, Raynor made the decision, sometime in the fall of 2008, to reject the possibility of true UNITE HERE unity that had been envisioned when the merger originally took place. Instead, he decided to declare the UNITE HERE merger a failure, ignore the explicit terms of the union’s constitution that prohibit actions designed to undermine its integrity, and either seek out or respond to overtures from Andy Stern to take the bank and the UNITE-side workforce and pursue a merger with SEIU.

Stern for his part had already made unsuccessful overtures to both UNITE and HERE to join SEIU under his leadership four years ago, and it is the contention of many in these unions that Stern has now decided to take advantage of the conflict within UNITE HERE to try to achieve the same outcome by a process of divide and conquer. He financed and, with Raynor, created an artificial new hotel-restaurant-gaming union called “Workers United” that is an affiliate of SEIU and is now openly trying to undermine traditional UNITE HERE jurisdictions around the country, and essentially pillage them.

This has been a tragic and, for many, infuriating development just at the historical moment when the country has a new pro-labor president in Barack Obama and a strongly pro-labor Secretary of Labor in Hilda Solis, and just at the moment when the long-struggled-for Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA)–guaranteeing unions the right to gain legal recognition and collective bargaining rights upon presentation of a majority of signed union cards to employers–was very near passage in Congress. Already the disunity in labor’s ranks that Stern’s actions have in significant part precipitated has strengthened Republican resistance to the passage of EFCA in Congress. Most recently it led Democrats to abandon the inclusion of the card-check provision that seemed headed for passage at the time of Obama’s election. Thus, just as organized labor seemed poised to forge a national consensus in support of the most progressive pro-labor legislation since the passage of the Wagner act in 1933, it now appears to be beset by internal wrangles that have allowed moderate Democrats resistant to the expansion of workers’ rights to break from Obama and the Democratic leadership and ally with the openly anti-labor Republican forces to block truly significant reform.

Choices the Leaders Could Have Made

But the important thing to recognize about Stern’s attempt at a hostile takeover of UNITE HERE is that the larger socio-economic and historical forces that have created the opportunity for him to take this kind of action do not themselves explain the action. Bruce Raynor could have responded to his declining power within UNITE HERE by honoring the spirit of partnership that was the basis of the 2004 merger and participating in the power sharing negotiations that John Wilhem repeatedly offered to him. Andy Stern could have used his leadership role in Change to Win to seek to heal the fissure between Wilhelm and Raynor and participate in a dignified three-way conciliation process that acknowledged the former HERE side’s expanding role in the private sector but that incorporated initiatives to protect and strengthen remaining UNITE side sectors of the workforce, including initiatives likely to be supported by President Obama and Secretary Solis that would limit and even seek to reverse the loss of UNITE side manufacturing jobs overseas.

Why then have Raynor and Stern chosen instead what appears to be the most destructive path possible, replete with internet smear campaigns against Wilhelm and other UNITE HERE leadership, attempts by SEIU staff to undermine and even defeat ongoing UNITE HERE organizing campaigns to the detriment of workforces that had nearly unionized, the creation of the SEIU-bankrolled artificial new union “Workers United” whose main objective is to weaken UNITE HERE by capturing a portion of its workforce, and the use of physical threats and lockouts in areas of the country where the UNITE-side leadership has majority control of the union’s regional governing boards to evict elected HERE-side leaders of UNITE HERE locals from their offices and replace them with UNITE-side counterparts? Why would two life-long labor leaders who have devoted their whole adult lives to the labor movement do something so seemingly irrational and counter-productive?

Reasons for Leaders’ Destructive Behavior

The answer here requires bringing to the forefront of our thinking an aspect of what shapes historical events and processes that is not yet well understood by progressives–namely, the vulnerability of everyone raised in our individualistic, socially separated, alienated culture to the legacy of unworthiness and humiliation that introduces a compensatory narcissistic distortion into both our perception of events and our interpretation of and response to them.

We live in a world that is corroded not only by the material injustice of economic and other forms of inequality, and not only by the material threats posed by environmental degradation and unsustainable production and consumption practices, but also by the spiritual immiseration that results from the deprivation of sustained authentic and affirming connection with other human beings. Buried beneath the artificiality and noisiness of our media culture and the often passively endured and isolating routines of everyday life is a chronic and universal sense of “underconfirmation” of our deepest self, of being insufficiently recognized at the core of our being by other human beings, including family members and those we love most and most long to connect with.

Although in reality this failure of recognition and social solidarity is no one’s fault and is but a social legacy of centuries of alienation, of the as yet unrealized possibility of a world based on love and mutual affirmation, we each internalize this deprivation of recognition as inherently humiliating and a source of mysterious unworthiness and shame, an abnegation of the self that is so painful as to be unsupportable and which we therefore deny and banish from awareness. In its place we build the narcissism of the ego, a compensatory self-”image” worn on the outside of the underrecognized and concealed real self and compulsively motivated to aggrandize itself in order to ward off the threat of the other’s refusal of reciprocating connection.

This epidemic of non-recognition circulating through our culture is the psycho-spiritual root of human suffering, and the need to deny the humiliation attendant to it exerts a distorting influence on judgment, choice, and action, leading us to repeatedly misunderstand what situations require to move us all forward.

Seen through the lens of this psychic structure–this humiliated “inner victim” that is a legacy of our culture’s pervasive alienation–the historical socio-economic tendencies I described earlier as creating “vulnerabilities” inside the UNITE HERE merger or in the potential SEIU response to a breakdown inside UNITE HERE are actually experienced by leaders like Raynor and Stern as what might be called temptations to go crazy. Although I know neither of these men personally and do not pretend to know the actual workings of their minds, the reality of the universal effects of social alienation on our collective psyches makes psycho-social hypotheses of the following kind plausible in a way that begin to make sense of what otherwise appears to be simply irrational and destructive conduct.

On the Raynor side, the “loss of face” associated with UNITE’s decline and the waning of Raynor’s power relative to Wilhelm and HERE may well have created the illusion that he, a lifetime labor leader now approaching sixty, would suffer a humiliating “defeat” at the June UNITE HERE convention, tempting his compensatory ego to puff itself up and try to destroy the union itself.

In Stern’s case, his already existing narcissistic persona–that compensatory image that inhabits all of us and that in his case he imagines is himself–may be tempted by the opportunity history is offering him to be the godfather and “save” the colleague who comes to him, to put Amalgamated Bank’s resources to the correct use, and to bring his partnership-with-management organizing model drawn from public-sector organizing to the entire labor movement, with him as the leader of a new twenty-first-century labor vanguard that will revitalize a movement that has been stuck or declining for many decades. These are the narratives of the narcissistic ego covering over and protecting the unconfirmed real self in each man, and because there are partial truths in each man’s story, they are each able to convince themselves that the destructive course of action they have embarked upon is the best one possible, is even necessary.

Thus we see that whatever explanatory force the development of objective conditions have to “setting the stage” for the historical events that follow upon and respond to them, these conditions acquire human meaning through their appropriation by subjective human consciousness–in this case through the distortions of perception shaped by Raynor and Stern’s psychology that may have led them to succumb to the temptation to act out their self-protective grandiosity rather than respond to the same conditions in the constructive manner called for by the historic opportunity of Obama’s election (and of course called for simply to advance the internal solidarity and mutual support of the labor movement).

The Inadequacy of Constitutions to Ensure Cooperation

The lesson to be learned from all this is that to address the distortions embedded in all of our psyches that are the legacy of under-recognition and residual humiliation–of the alienation of self from other that pervades our capitalist culture–we must create processes of collective reflection and modes of collective intervention that can identify and thaw the distortions that can so derail progressive progress. These dynamics actually play themselves out all across our cultural landscape, inspiring horrific and unnecessary social violence in the name of grandiose, compensatory nationalism in the context of war-inclined nation-states and also undermining one progressive organization after another to the point that many people have come to choose the safety of privatism to idealistic public movements that threaten them with exhausting and emotionally or physically threatening trauma.

The standard way that we have sought to address this dynamic up to this time is exactly the way UNITE and HERE tried to do it at the time of the merger: write a UNITE HERE constitution that purports to state in writing how conflicts and other internal difficulties will be resolved, while forbidding (on pain of expulsion from the union) actions that seek to ignore the constitution’s democratic processes with the intent of harming the union or undermining its jurisdiction. Bruce Raynor’s conduct in fomenting rebellion among UNITE HERE’s regional boards around the country, in purposely forming a competing union (“Workers United”) designed to effectively steal sectors of UNITE HERE’s workforce, and in joining forces with SEIU to promulgate attacks on UNITE HERE’s leadership through internet smears and expensive mailers sent to tens of thousands of worker households (including my own, as my partner works for UNITE HERE) … all of these actions appear to be obvious violations of UNITE HERE’s founding documents, which clearly prohibit secessionist organizing and participation in actions in concert with any other labor organization aimed at displacing UNITE HERE’s authority and influence over its own jurisdiction and membership.

But written documents like these, while important as representing a binding moment of solidarity among their signatories, are also no more than words on paper that are dependent for their efficacy and meaning upon the good will, cooperation, and commitment of those who have agreed to be governed by them.

At the time of this writing, UNITE HERE has brought suit against Bruce Raynor for these and other actions, and Raynor has responded by resigning his position in UNITE HERE, becoming president of Workers United and executive vice president of SEIU, and hiring his own bank of lawyers to argue his case. However this legal battle unfolds in the coming weeks, it is clear that the pathological dynamic that has led to this crisis will now be played out in the legal arena–with the political struggle that has been carried on in the public arena involving media manipulation, inflammatory websites, misleading mass mailings, and the consequent stirring up of confusion among workers–now taking the form of a war of legal interpretations by lawyers trained by their own ethics codes to make “any available legal argument” irrespective of its moral validity based on the actual truth of what has taken place.

The Need for Psycho-Spiritual Healing Processes in Progressive Movements

Because legal documents and concepts are always subject to this kind of indeterminate interpretation, with rational arguments always available to construct legal positions congruent with pre-existing psycho-spiritual distortions, these documents and concepts cannot provide the solution to the tendency toward psycho-spiritual distortion itself. Instead what is needed is the creation of healing  processes built into the ongoing practice of our social movements, processes that consciously foresee the vulnerability of all of our social change movements to what we might call “internal panic,” to losing touch with our most idealistic commitments to the creation of a loving and egalitarian future society and lapsing into the narcissistic ego-identifications that are a universal expression of the humiliation built into our conditioning within the system of social relations we are seeking to surpass.

I am now sixty-two years old and have been involved in social and political activism for my entire adult life, and not once have I been involved with a progressive movement or project that did not undermine itself and, in many cases, destroy itself by succumbing to the ghost of its own internalized humiliation, the legacy of the under-confirmation that every one of us suffers from as a result of being shaped within a social world in which we have been trained to doubt the lasting presence of the other as a reciprocating carrier of love, acceptance, and recognition.

Those who wish to preserve the existing society rather than transform it have sought for centuries to manage this problem through the control systems of reified roles policed by disciplinary hierarchies and various forms of “the pledge of allegiance.” But those who want to transform the world have hardly begun to practice the kind of ongoing spiritual reassurance needed to consciously monitor and very gradually heal the same wounds that the preservers of the status quo seek to keep in a state of unconscious repression.

There is no sense and no future in proceeding as if we in the social change movements are already in the future society, with our only obstacle being those benighted others who don’t yet see the justice of our cause–because the reality is that others do see it, but rightly don’t trust that we have any means to assist them in getting from the present moment to a world that is actually better than the one they are carving out within the relative safety, however despairing, of their private solutions.

What such healing-centered psycho-spiritual processes would look and feel like in the context of a hard-boiled arena of class struggle like the labor movement is something that spiritual progressives may be uniquely able to address and propose. These processes must include regular occasions of celebration that elevate our sense of connection to each other and serve as regular pre-figuring reminders of the world we aspire to bring about, as well as mediations that allow us to manifest the truth of our differences and to work out a path toward reconciling them. What these celebratory and meditative processes look like concretely is something we will take up in future issues of Tikkun.

In the meantime, I hope the leadership of the labor movement as a whole (and there is no good reason this should not include Andy Stern) will see clearly the destructive dynamics that the legacy of narcissistic identifications has unleashed, and intervene decisively to stop and reverse these dynamics before they undermine the greatest opportunity that organized labor has had in a generation to make significant social progress and exert influence on the moral direction of society.

Peter Gabel is editor at large of Tikkun and the author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (available at www.tikkun.org/store).
 
tags: Economy/Poverty/Wealth, US Politics   
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