Union “Democracy,” or, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love Activism

23 Apr

by Kyle Arnone
PhD Student and TA, Sociology
AWDU Candidate for Head Steward and Executive Board Trustee

The Political Hygiene of Our Union

I only got involved with UAW 2865 in February, when I ran for a Head Steward position in the first contested election in recent history.  My short experience with UAW 2865 has been formative, and keeps leading me back to one fundamental conclusion: formal democracy is different from substantive democracy. Time and again, I’ve witnessed how the leadership can manipulate the formally democratic process to deprive members and activists of real, substantive democracy.

Elected Representatives Who Don’t Represent

My first direct experience with this came after I introduced the Workload and Employment Security Survey developed by a group of AWDU activists to our local unit at UCLA, my first meeting as a Head Steward in March. Our idea was that if we could build support in enough local units, then we could propose the Workload and Employment Security Survey to the Executive Board. After introducing the rationale of the survey to the unit, I immediately encountered resistance, some of which was constructive, but most of which was resistance without rationale. Even so, there seemed to be enough support for the idea of a survey, with a few amendments, that we could hopefully endorse the survey as a unit. We agreed that we would allow everyone to make suggestions and revisions, and, after incorporating suggestions, we collectively decided on whether or not we wanted to endorse the survey as a UAW-sponsored project. In good faith, I sent an electronic copy of the survey in an email to unit members explicitly asking them not to share the survey with anyone outside the unit until after we decided whether or not we wanted to move it collectively.

What happened next shocked and infuriated me. Jorge, the Southern VP, without consulting unit members as agreed upon, introduced the survey at the next Executive Board meeting to the shock of AWDU activists Cheryl Deutsch and Charlie Eaton, the only current AWDU members on the E-Board (out of 10 total members). And at the very next E-Board meeting, the E-Board voted to distribute the survey—an outdated version that lacked the functionality (and really the essence) of the one developed by AWDU activists, a version that would have allowed respondents to browse the statistics generated by the survey on their own by campus and department.

On Friday, March 25th, the leadership distributed the survey to members at 9:56PM—the last weekday of Spring Break!  This fact alone showed that the leadership is either (1) near-sighted, or, the more likely situation, (2) motivated by a desire to undermine AWDU activists’ efforts to mobilize members (or both). Who could be expected to fill out a survey on the last Friday of Spring Break at 10PM at night? Who even saw it? My conversations with friends in my department led me to believe: hardly anyone.

Jorge later justified his actions by saying that “members” wanted the survey to get out as soon as possible, and even used my name to support his claims. He claimed to represent our interests, as he simultaneously bypassed the wishes and authority of the local unit.

The Vote to End All Votes

My next experience that demonstrated the principle that formal democracy can be used to undermine substantive democracy came during the last Joint Council meeting on April 9th. AWDU activists prepared several resolutions for the meeting geared towards improving the functionality and efficacy of the workload survey and enhancing the fairness and transparency of the upcoming election.

I introduced the first major resolution to improve the functionality and accessibility of the workload survey. The resolution met fierce resistance from a small cadre of members at the Joint Council. Some were concerned about the “partisan”-nature of the resolution, partly due to the mistaken inclusion of a reference to AWDU in the resolution. Some were also concerned that public accessibility of the survey would jeopardize the privacy of members, even though the resolution explicitly proposed to “anonymize” the data.  Others raised concerns that the survey results would somehow get into the hands of “management,” and that this would somehow undermine our efforts and entangle the union in legal issues. The underlying logic of these concerns, of course, was that the union should avoid taking any steps that might mobilize members and increase their awareness of labor issues, since that may lead the union down a dangerous path, one that circumvents the institutional channels to handle member “grievances,” which are effectively designed to isolate individual members rather than harness their collective experiences.

Instead of introducing a motion to amend to the resolution, Daraka, UAW 2865 President, moved to deem the resolution “out of order,” an exclusive power vested only in the President and not available to other members of the Joint Council. A slim majority of joint council members approved the motion to deem the resolution “out of order”—the discussion of which had  consumed nearly an hour and a half of debate—killing the resolution on the spot. Most Joint Council members voting on the side of the leadership lacked the context or understanding to make an informed decision, understandably voting the easy way, to vote against something they didn’t quite grasp.

A determined AWDU activist introduced yet another proposal to improve the functionality of the survey, incorporating as many concerns into his resolution as possible. After a couple of amendments, the final resolution resolved to send the survey to the Executive Board and an ad hoc committee of advisors for revision, to be completed at an indeterminate time. The result was a toothless resolution that to my knowledge hasn’t gone anywhere.

After a short recess, the meeting resumed. Another AWDU activist introduced a resolution geared toward enhancing the transparency of the upcoming election. Immediately after introducing the resolution, a non-AWDU Joint Council member introduced a resolution to adjournonly 2 hours and 38 after the meeting commenced and while a resolution was still on the floor! All of this is in accordance with Robert’s Rules—the question is whether or not we collectively want to support such formalism at the expense of substantive debate. The vote took place without discussion and passed—once again by a slim majority.

The only resolution introduced at the Joint Council meeting by a non-AWDU member was a resolution to end all resolutions—a vote to end all votes. While formally legitimate, i.e., in accordance with Robert’s Rules, the vote essentially squashed any form of substantive democracy, precisely at the moment when AWDU activists had begun to introduce resolutions to improve the fairness and transparency of elections procedures, which is probably not a coincidence.

Supporters of adjourning complained that the meeting went on for too long. [If you’re worried about long meetings, then maybe don’t run for a Joint Council position? Francesca Polletta has famously characterized “freedom” (i.e., democracy) as an “endless meeting.” ] I wondered to myself how the Joint Council was expected to run the union, which only meets four times per year, in two and a half hours—or only 10 hours for the entire year! To put this in perspective, consider that if you brush your teeth for only three minutes per day, you spend more than 18 hours per year on this one aspect of your personal hygiene alone. We were expected to run a union with 12,000 members and a $2M operating budget in almost half that amount of time. By these standards, our union has failed to maintain its political hygiene.

AWDU: A Real Alternative

The Joint Council is the only statewide venue where local union representatives (Head Stewards, Unit Chairs, Recording Secretaries) have an opportunity to democratically decide on the statewide objectives and strategy of the union. So if the Joint Council is dysfunctional, then decision-making falls exclusively in the hands of high-level union officials—in the hands of the Executive Board, and especially the President and two regional Vice Presidents. This is exactly what has happened.

I’ve learned that real democracy isn’t just enshrined in the union’s constitution or something to which leaders give lip service, preached without being practiced, formal but not substantive; real democracy is essentially cultural—something practiced and learned, something that takes time, dedication, and a real appreciation of its importance.

AWDU activists practice democracy internally. We deliberate, debate, and decide on our objectives and strategies, no matter how much we may disagree with each other (which happens often!). We have no constitution enshrining these procedures. Nevertheless we’ve managed to practice substantive democracy without exception and intend to carry these practices over into the union if elected.  In this sense, AWDU represents a real alternative to the formally democratic but substantively derelict democratic process in our union.


2 Responses to “Union “Democracy,” or, How I Learned to Start Worrying and Love Activism”

  1. Berkeley AWDU human April 25, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    I like the comparison to dental hygiene. Hehehe.

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