Tikkun, Winter 2011

Transforming Trade Unions: A Psychotherapist's Insights

by Michael Bader

More than any other single person's thought, Michael Lerner's powerful critique of the progressive movement for ignoring the fundamental need for meaning in human beings has shaped my politics today. By honoring the internal psychic experience of people we seek to organize, Lerner opened a space where I could finally wed my politics and the insights generated by my work as a psychotherapist.

After we expand our understanding of human motivation, the primary problem we face is how to build political power.

Tikkun has helped untold thousands of people put love back into politics. However, as Paul Tillich said, love without power is just sentiment. Just as the Civil Rights movement was based in the black church, the Left today needs an institutional base. Since 1972, the Right has set out to build a well-financed, interlocking, loosely coordinated set of institutions that promote their message, train their cadres, and support their public representatives with money and ideas. Similarly, the Left needs interpretive institutions that can creatively link people's real interests -- their needs for economic security, meaning, recognition, agency, and connectedness -- with a broader political program.

For the last eight years, I've been working with labor unions, one of the few remaining institutions that can provide funding and grassroots support for the progressive movement. My aim was to work with others to help transform these unions into organizations that, in our language, are about both names and numbers. By names, we mean that unions need to shift their focus away from an alienated and instrumental relationship with their members that revolves primarily around handling grievances and bargaining contracts, to a deeper relationship involving connecting with members as whole people -- a relationship that can then be used to identify leaders and build a movement. And by numbers we mean that were unions to increase the percentage of their members in active leadership roles from the current 3 percent to 20 or 30 percent, this alone would create an army that could exert real political and economic power, even though overall union membership is shrinking.

What I found was both exciting and discouraging. The excitement was generated by the effects of our work with a small number of local labor unions in which leaders were willing to take the one risk necessary for any significant change program -- namely, they were willing to "feed the new and starve the old." So, for example, one huge local decided to stop doing traditional grievance handling and instead to begin a conversation campaign of getting to know 15,000 of its members through non-directive, individual meetings -- meetings that sought to identify the real interests of the members -- and then, in subsequent meetings, to experiment with creatively fashioning roles in the Union that were aligned with these interests. That local became amazingly successful.

The discouraging dimension of the work was the repeated encounter with a culture of everyday union life that was crisis-driven and reactive, with a short-term horizon for planning. This culture produced staff who were martyrs, and members who were disengaged. The pressured, defensive "going-on-being" of the union leaders with whom we worked could be temporarily altered in retreats, but would almost immediately collapse back to "normal" when these leaders returned to the local.

It became clear to us that the willingness of the leaders of a union to take risks, to really internalize the urgency of change, and to tolerate the anxiety of being on unfamiliar ground was a crucial enabling condition for significant change. Another crucial lesson we learned is that you can't change one part of an organization while leaving others intact. If you retrain field staff to do their work differently, you have to retrain their supervisors, senior teams, and even their executive boards. And, finally, we learned that people need significant and relatively constant support in the form of individual and team coaching in order to face their internal conflicts about change and to facilitate and sustain new behaviors.

Still, the challenge of progressives today is to either radically grow their organizations or create new ones, to do so under the auspices of an expanded view of human motivation, and to make the exercise of power their primary goal. As we often read in Tikkun, all the rest is just commentary.

Michael Bader is a psychologist in San Francisco and the author of Arousal: The Secret Logic of Sexual Fantasies (St. Martins Press, 2002). His articles for Tikkun include The Perils and Possibilities of Teshuvah (2005), The Psychodynamics of Cynicism (1996), and High Crimes & Jerry Springer: The Psychopathology of a Public Hanging (1998).

Source Citation: Bader, Michael. 2011. Transforming Trade Unions: A Psychotherapist's Insights. Tikkun 26(1): online exclusive.

tags: Activism, Economy/Poverty/Wealth, Politics & Society  
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