To the editors,

There is no doubt that unions need to be more democratic. Unions in the same vein need to have active memberships, not the least reason being the need for unions to be involved in politics and in the community. Michael Miner’s take on the controversy in the National Writers Union (NWU) concerning a resolution on the threatened war on Iraq [Hot Type, December 6] is a good example of a general misunderstanding many people have about unions’ proper place in the political sphere.

Tom Gradel and Helena Worthen are both people I have had friendly relations with for some time. Part of the job Tom has done for the needle-trades union UNITE has been doing public relations and organizing alliances with students, churches, and the community against “free trade.” Helena has worked not only in educating union members, but has been intimately involved in organizing around issues concerning many abused workers in our community. They both recognize the need to “educate” and involve union members and the community around important social issues. My knowledge is that Tom’s call for democracy in making decisions in the name of the union was acted upon by the NWU steering committee quickly after the war resolution was taken. The product of this recognition was the questionnaire Mr. Miner writes about.

But the implication in the article was something entirely different. It involved the questionnaire, but it also involves an atmosphere that has permeated the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in particular, but has been reinforced since the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which tamed the highly political people who organized the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). The act placed restrictions on effective picketing and sympathy strikes and enforced anticommunist oaths that the union officers were forced to take. Actually, it can be said that a major part of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) is a means to ensure that labor will not achieve political power in the United States. For the last 55 years a culture of “business unionism” has been the norm–with “employer prerogatives” (economist issues) having clear ascendancy over social justice issues that are the basis for forming unions in the first place.

The social justice brand of organization involves “internal” organizing in shops. The NWU clearly has no physical shop. This makes its job of keeping up with the membership more difficult than possible in the offices of the phone company. One does not have to join the union to be a writer either, which makes the need for solidarity that much greater. It also means that the union needs allies who can pressure various publishers to abide by the pay standards and other conditions that writers need in order to have their labor appreciated as “value.” Thus “the union” needs to be in the community in order to get the word out. But it also means that “the union” has to demonstrate to the community that it is a good partner in taking stands that are beneficial to the community. This goes beyond the individual members’ understanding of their health insurance. Since allocation of government resources is in question, it might involve opposing a war that may go badly in so many financial and social ways. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has estimated this war’s final cost might be upwards of a trillion dollars. It will also mean the further decline of the United States in the eyes of the people of the world and the negative effects that that will bring. This is certainly not a trivial matter for this or any other union! And union members have got to be brought into a discussion which deals with this sort of information and judgment. As part of a social justice institution, union leaders have an obligation to do this.

Teamster Local 705 passed a resolution against the war at its last stewards’ meeting. Stewards are the first line to the membership for “internal” organizing. But unlike the NWU, the Teamsters can stop production in places like UPS. Since the most skillful negotiator needs a basis of power to have any hope of success, it is particularly incumbent upon unions of the type that NWU is that they make alliances in the community, educate the community about their union, and work in the community as trustworthy allies. A resolution opposing a wasteful and dangerous war is certainly something their members should discuss and probably take a stand on.

Dennis Dixon

Committee member,

San Lucas Workers’ Center

W. Diversey