Labor, democracy and the debt ceiling

Lately, in discussions with union members and labor leaders, we’ve been debating how the president is handling negotiations with the Republicans on the debt ceiling. I’m hearing a lot of disappointment and frustration. It got me thinking about some early experiences in the labor movement.

The first time I was elected a union steward was back in the late 1960s, in the United Glass and Ceramic Workers Union Local 192 in Nashville, Tenn. (It later merged into the Steelworkers union.) A union steward on the shop floor learns some stark realities very quickly. You may have a union contract, and you better know it backwards and forward. But your ability to protect worker’s rights on the job does not come so much from your elected position. Mostly it comes from your ability to help mobilize and activate the union members around you.

You also learn that the union’s power and the company’s power are nowhere close to equal. The company owns everything you work with and the place where you work. Union power comes from democracy and the involvement of members. Company power comes from ownership and top-down control.

Union democracy is not just, or even mostly, about how leaders are elected or about members voting on contracts etc. Those are critically important, but union democracy is mostly about, as we used to say, “putting the ‘U’ back in ‘union.'”

Every union leader also learns that it is far easier to get mad and argue with the union rep than it is to get mad and argue with the company. The foreman can fire you; the union steward can’t.

Every shop floor union rep has had the experience. A member comes to you and says, “The company can’t do x,y, or z.” Well, of course, most times the company just did it, or there wouldn’t be a conversation. And the member demands, “What are you going to do about it?” An effective union rep replies, “The real question is: What are we going to do about it?”

Every analogy breaks down. Still, I think you can see where this is going. The real question about the crisis negotiations is, “What are we going to do about it.” It’s far easier to be disappointed and frustrated, harder to get organized for effective action.

And just as important as getting organized is choosing the main target. In this fight, whether you agree with the Obama administration’s strategy and tactics or not, the main problem is the teabag Republicans who are defending Wall Street profits and trying to make Main Street pay for their mess.

The good news is that with all the frustration and disappointment, the “U” is getting back into the unions. Look at the upsurge of union and retiree activism against any cuts in Social Security and Medicare, for example. Not to mention the labor upsurge in dozens of states.

And it appears that President Obama’s strategy in the debt negotiations is paying off. Not a done deal, but the Republicans seem to be signaling total capitulation on the issue of the debt ceiling. They seem to be beating a “militant” retreat, giving the president the authority to raise the debt limit, while demanding only a token “intent” statement from the President on cuts. And we all know that the president can’t “make” the Democrats in Congress agree to cuts. So the mass pressure and the mobilization that the threats to Social Security and Medicare produced might just work in stopping any really bad cuts.

But the U can’t let up. To stop the Republican crazies we have to keep the pressure up and not get sidelined by frustration and disappointment.

Photo: Scott Marshall/PW


Scott Marshall
Scott Marshall

Scott has been a life long trade unionist and was active in rank and file reform movements in the Teamsters, Machinists and Steelworkers unions in the 1970s and '80s. He was co-chair of the Save Our Jobs committee of USWA local 1834 at Pullman Standard in Chicago and active in nationwide organizing against plant shutdowns and layoffs. He was a founder of the unemployed organization Jobs or Income Now (Join), in Chicago, and the National Congress of Unemployed Organizations in the 1980s. Scott remains active in SOAR (Steelworkers Active Organized Retirees). He lives in Chicago.