Towards a more perfect union


Recent labor developments in Lake and Sonoma counties illustrate the strong roots of some persistent union problems.

Unions appear to have largely forgotten what made them successful in the first place, and management has been getting smarter for many years.

For more than a decade I served as a shop steward, officer, and regional representative for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat unit of The Newspaper Guild, and am a retired member. I am far from anti-union. However, during those years I regularly battled the Guild.

First it was over defending members in discipline or firing cases: There were times when the member clearly had no legitimate defense and the union could have worked to convince them they should not abuse a very generous sick leave policy, or that they needed to seek help for personal problems.

Then it was helping to persuade the Guild it should not accept money from a CIA front organization, the American Institute for Free Labor Development, which purported to be training labor organizers in Latin America, but was in fact targeting them for totalitarian governments. (See Ronald Radosh, “American Labor and United States Foreign Policy: The Cold War in the Unions from Gompers to Lovestone”, or George Morris, “CIA and American labor; the subversion of the AFL-CIO's foreign policy”).

Finally, there was a proposal that the Guild join with other Northern California unions to establish a non-profit summer and holiday camp for union members' children. Guild staffers weren't interested, although there was ample evidence members desperately needed that help if they were going to concentrate on their jobs during working hours.

Those experiences convinced me my union had lost interest in serving its members in any way except increased salaries, although its mission statement includes raising the standards of journalism and ethics of the industry.

The Lake County Board of Supervisors, in offering slightly higher pay to IHSS members who take drug tests, is trying to raise standards of home care. The union wants to recall the supervisors, and says the proposal is an invasion of privacy and creation of a two-tier pay system. Instead, why don't we call it merit pay? Who wouldn't prefer a caregiver who has tested clean and sober?

In Sonoma County, Gallo winery workers have just voted out their union, the United Farm Workers. They said the dues were high and they couldn't see much benefit in union membership. Some complained they couldn't understand the English ballot. So why doesn't the union offer language help to its many immigrant members? Management does.

Smart move

The Press Democrat recently reported “The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation are sponsoring two Spanish-language employee development workshops on the use of the Internet for viticulture on July 14 ... Samuel Barros, of Greenfield Winery, will teach Spanish speakers how to perform basic searches on Google and use industry-related Web sites such as the University of California pest-management Web site. . . . There is no cost to seminar participants.”

That's smart.

The winery situation, and that of any industry which employs immigrants, is complicated by more than a language gap. Mexican workers come here with a justifiable distrust of unions. For many decades, the role of the official unions was to maintain labor peace and keep wages low, to keep Mexico profitable for Mexican capitalists and attractive to foreign investors.

Fidel Velázquez Sánchez was Secretary General of the Confederation of Mexican Workers, the national umbrella workers union, from 1941 until his death in 1997. He regularly sold out the workers, Mexican friends in the construction, music and domestic workers unions have told me. They called him a dinosaurio, and complained he supported a series of four presidents who privatized state-owned industries, a center of power for the unions, and agreed to national contracts that shifted most of the burden to workers — while their minimum wage in real terms fell by nearly 70 percent. Velázquez also supported passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 after initially denouncing it as a disaster for workers of all three countries.

Earlier waves of immigrants from Europe came here with more trust in unions – their countries had a long history of guilds and unions which taught their members a craft and gave them places to stay when they were traveling in search of jobs. (That's where we get the term journeyman.) Often, they were also the center of social life and a surrogate family.

The UFW complains labor contractors opposed the union. Of course they did. They're employed by management and have a huge role in the lives of immigrant workers, who depend on them for housing, translation, transportation and advice.

There was a time in the United States when unions played that role. The union helped immigrants learn English, find housing and medical care, get their kids into school and learn the ways of their new country. They knew how to develop loyalty.

If today's union leaders would take a look at history they might figure out how to raise their nationwide membership above its current 12 percent.

E-mail Sophie Annan Jensen at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..