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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Why Unions Need to Re-Organize

Years back, a few of us tried to organize the coop. For almost 2 years it was a campaign from Hell. We were complete novices and fatally naive. This cozy community-owned food coop hired the biggest union-busting law firm in New England with a long list of victorious anti-worker wars behind them. It took a while, but we were crushed at the end. Entirely exhausted, worn out and slandered about, we fell. But we all learned a lot, just too late.

The first wrong thing was being open about it. I danced up to the board president and waved the pamphlets saying, "Isn't this a great idea?" Yeah, stupid asshole doesn't even cover it. But we'd already said, in the Meat Dept., we should go straightforwardly with it from the start. It was a nest of gossip. If we'd tried to keep it secret it wouldn't have been anyway. There are no secrets in this town. I thought we might gain a hippie-consciousness support, it being a coop. And to some degree we did. The hippest of the membership started an ad hoc committee in support of us. There was much controversy. While we were gathering union cards, management was learning what to say and who to rope in for their side. The contension went on and on. Art was done. Rallies were held. Movie nights. Many, many radio shows. Meetings upon meetings. Hours on the phone every night. A friend parodied "Union Maid" about trying to call me,"Oh you can't reach me I'm talking to the union, I'm working on a union, I'm speaking to the union." Friends gave me union-related gifts. We worked like dogs. I got to speak and introduce Bernie at the Labor Day Parade and Picnic in Burlington. It felt just like being in politics again. We were also older warriors now. It'd been 35 years since the protest heydays. Our skills were rusty here. The evilness gene went ahead replicating while we were trying to find a grip and stay together because people were falling away. We lost. We all learned a lot. It broke our hearts. But it was a helluva ride, too.

Now, I see the mistakes. We should have vetted the idea of a union and then shopped for one. There was a huge culture clash between the union rep from Massachusetts and the coop workers here. We should've gone for the same union that workers in coops up north were organizing with. It was a better type of union for our store than the giant who'd billeted our mailboxes. Our workers and that union were mismatched. Big mistake.

Also, when some of us were harassed in private meetings and run-ins with management and one of us was whispered a fairly unfunny death threat we shouldn't have dragged our feet. The NLRB (quite right-wing then, too) said we had a good case but we'd waited 10 days too long to file the complaint. Again, we were being nice. We'd wanted this to be peaceful and constructive. Foolish and naive.

And we learned about unions. Not little real locals, but the big guys. The state presidents and such of the initialled. We sat in meetings with them. We worked together. We had no say in anything. To this day one of my eyebrows is permanently up in a "Fuck you." stare. That's what's wrong with unions today. The big ones are just another form of the corporations existing to keep itself existing. Little, self-governing unions, that's the key.

I'd do it again in a heartbeat. With a good regular union that gives your local total control of what you want it to be, like the UE would have. I had no idea there were all kinds of unions. I've watched unions thrive and rubbed out since I've been paying attention. I've seen a lot of the slithery tactics of management in several places. They wouldn't want me back in the work force now. I've been to scary poverty and homelessness and sickness and drug addiction and cold turkey twice. Scary makes me laugh now. It'd be worth the fight this time, 'cuz I know how to win..


Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Sorry you didn't win with the union, but you learned, and what's more important, you've been winning in a lot of other important areas. (Good for you!)

Austan said...

Thanks, Susan. You have a big heart.