Making a Militant Labor Movement to Beat Back Bureaucratic Business Unionism

By James Anderson

During a recent interview with a recruiter from UNITE HERE, the union representing just under 300,000 blue collar workers, I was both shushed and set straight about the current state of the labor movement.

A UNITE HERE recruiter and Harvard alumnus – institutional affiliation I thought instructive, not to mention illustrative of class hierarchies within the very vehicles ostensibly tasked with advancing the struggle against those hierarchies – informed me during the interview, without a hint of compunction, that the union is pretty “top-down” and rather “bureaucratic.” Her words.

The union is a democracy like the United States is a democracy, she said after cutting me off and interrupting me several times in true Ivy League fashion. The statement, declared without a hint of irony, should not have surprised given how Harvard feeds the plutocracy.

Now, “the United States is a democracy” only in the sense that – as a 2014 study from another Ivy League institution, Princeton, co-authored by a scholar at Northwestern – it is really not. Far from affording people a meaningful say in the decisions affecting them, which is what democracy is all about, the system resembles an oligarchy, mainstream political science research has asserted. The wealthy wield inordinate influence over formal political institutions. Class shapes the electoral arena and policy.

While asserting the oligarchic nature of the political system is rather uncontroversial at this point, the existence of wealth and class-based iniquities that stratify and bureaucratize labor unions usually pass without much comment from those involved and benefiting from the arrangements. For a union renowned (and rightfully so) for its rank-and-file grit, like UNITE HERE, the dearth of democracy and reproduction of bureaucratic machinery both within the union and throughout society should be recognized as more of a problem.

What was more problematic for the recruiter, however, appeared to be my pointing out these realities.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. As you might have guessed, I wasn’t exactly distraught over the rejection. Yet I found the entire incident disconcerting for other reasons.

If it was only affluent Harvard grads in the sorts of union staff jobs that only those from privileged backgrounds can afford to work while residing in cities like San Francisco boasting the highest cost of living in the country, then it would not be much of an issue.

But similar bureaucratic business unionism abounds. It is alive and well, sounding the death knell for what remains of meaningfully organized labor just a few hundred miles south of the Bay, in San Diego County for example.

For several months I worked for inexcusably low wages as a courtesy clerk at Ralphs, the weird West Coast Kroger grocery affiliate, to supplement my (also low) wages as an adjunct professor at a nearby university throughout the fall 2015 semester.

Unionized, poorly, by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, the job paid $9.10 an hour minus union dues, which tellingly were the same for managers who, despite their supervisory roles, were also represented by the union and could make three times as much, if not more, than their underlings.

Cashiers who kept the store running for years still made less than $10 an hour.

They were right to wonder what the union did for them, although the answer – next-to-nothing – was pretty obvious.

“Sorry I missed you” signs from the local’s union representative were frequently posted in the breakroom after few, if any, store employees actually got a chance to discuss workplace concerns with him.

To discuss work or union concerns more generally was equally and absurdly difficult.

Employees first had to travel to another city 20 minutes away to sign up for the union they had to join. If they wanted to attend general assembly meetings, they had to travel to the local’s union hall in San Diego, about an hour away, at a time when most employees were working and unable to either make the drive – or take the “The Coaster,” the commuter that runs through San Diego County – to get there.

When I tried to contact the local for a quote I needed for another story I aimed to write about the picketing the UFCW had organized at another store, I was told I would have to speak to the president, who I contacted – via his secretary, since he was not available – without receiving a call back.

This anecdote requires qualification. The UFCW has elsewhere spearheaded righteous anti-bureaucratic, even modestly anti-capitalist workplace democracy in the form of worker-owned cooperatives like Our Harvest and Apple Street Market. Both co-ops are located in Ohio and organized by the UFCW, which collaborated with the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, a non-profit incubator for unionized cooperatives, and contributed $10,000 to get the two enterprises off and running.

The Age of Anti-Labor Bureaucracy

The union co-op model is one way to confront the top-down, bureaucratic business unionism – typically characterized by classism – which has become the biggest, if also too tacitly accepted, challenge facing the labor movement. Rather, union bureaucracy would be the biggest challenge facing the labor movement if such a society-wide movement still existed. It does not, in the main, thanks to top-down bureaucratic business unions complicit in their own demise at the hands of transnational entities that (surprise!) have almost all reneged on the Faustian bargain they forged with American workers prior to the new class war they started waging against the global working class in the 1970s.

In his new book, “The Utopia of Rules,” anthropologist David Graeber argues bureaucracy – the increase in mandated files, required electronic forms, incessant evaluations, enlarged administrative duties and additional layers of regulations resulting from the expansion of markets into previously un-commodified areas of life (contrary to free market fantasies equating exchange relations with fewer restrictions) – mushroomed after a slew of uprisings in the 1960s and 1970s. Those uprisings – including a plethora of sit-down strikes in the late 60s and early 70s, unsanctioned by official union leadership – represented anti-authoritarian rebellion against two dominant modes of bureaucracy.

Students, workers and liberationists of all stripes widely rejected American-style consumer capitalism responsible for mass alienation and a war of aggression against Vietnam. They also repudiated the corrupt bureaucratic machinery of the Soviet Union with its repressive insistence on top-down centralized planning and one-party rule. (The latter notoriously invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the “Prague Spring,” crushing Czech efforts to realize “socialism with a human face,” the non-bureaucratized incipient system of popular control obliterated before it got off the ground.)

Graeber argues extra layers of bureaucracy have been increasingly added to manage conditions of structural violence, relations of inequality and gross power imbalances ultimately backed up by the threat and use of physical force. That physical force, or direct violence capable of causing immediate harm to human bodies, amounts to a dramatic simplification of social relations, he suggests, since all the interpretive work that normally goes into maintaining personal relationships is rendered moot when I can just whack you over the head (or carpet bomb you into submission) and get what I want. Since structural violence is predicated upon the threat of such force, it too is inherently stupid. And it spawns a bureaucratic apparatus to address that systemic stupidity.

I would qualify by noting bureaucracy not only manages stupidity. It also maintains and reproduces its own idiotic edifice while augmenting the larger inherently exploitative system, capitalism, by entrenching and normalizing injustice, making it harder to realize established conditions as subject to change. It therefore becomes exceedingly difficult to mount meaningful resistance to transcend the unjust, bureaucratically-structured arrangements.

Since the onset of the era of bureaucracy following the revolts of the 1960s and 1970s the right-wing of society has been exceedingly successful in co-opting the anti-authoritarianism of those revolts.

The Right offers a critique of bureaucracy. It is not a very good one, of course, but it is a critique nonetheless. The co-opting right-wing condemnation is epitomized by so-called “libertarianism,” the ironic vanguard movement of the bureaucratic counter-revolution insofar as its political ideology demands all public control give way to free markets through elimination of regulations restricting private enterprise, which, as suggested, has hitherto actually increased government-backed regulations exponentially.

The Left and anti-capitalists generally, as Graeber points out, lack a coherent critique of bureaucracy.

Not coincidentally, up until recently the Left has also lacked a critique of what Michael Albert, founder of the Z Communications activist-oriented media system and proponent of the “participatory economics” model he created to inspire non-capitalist forms of organization, calls the “coordinator class,” referring to the higher-paid professionals (e.g. doctors, lawyers, engineers, upper-level managers, some professors) who monopolize empowering work. While those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder must navigate mountains of paperwork almost every day just to survive – as anyone who has ever had to apply for government assistance can attest to – coordinators at the top benefit from bureaucratic institutions. Exercising greater decision-making power over others makes them feel important. Since their relative power means they need not concern themselves with the details of the lives and suffering of those at the bottom who, in contrast, must spend considerable time thinking about what those on the top do and desire just to appease the privileged persons who partly determine their fate, the coordinators feel further justified in their social roles, content with bureaucratic and classist norms.

Higher paid professors occupy a class and institutional position that unfortunately all too often engenders similar sensibilities. Tenure-line faculty at the University of California now average $136,000 per year. Non-tenure track lecturers in the California State University system, in contrast, average only $28,000 per year. The latter figure also omits that not all adjunct CSU professors can pick up the necessary classes to actually make that much. At California State University San Marcos, I could only get two classes in my department during the fall 2015 semester. I was paid about $700 per month per class. I, quite obviously, occupied a very different class position than the average UC professor.

The differentials in class privilege and subsequent suffering extend to other walks of life. A young female adult from an affluent middle class background who sells drugs and gets busted can avoid any prison time whatsoever. Meanwhile, my own sister who gets caught with five prescriptions drugs she doesn’t have prescriptions for, is now doing time in the women’s correctional facility in Decatur, Ill.

Journalist Matt Taibbi has documented how the ever-widening wealth gap in the US in particular has created a society where the overwhelming majority of white-collar criminals avoid any time behind bars while the justice system imprisons the poor at alarming rates. Angela Davis has argued the correlation between committing what the state determines to be a crime and punishment is not nearly as strong as the correlation between the extensive surveillance and policing of certain communities and the mass incarceration resulting from those practices.

These iniquities are no doubt backed up by bureaucracy, which renders it exceedingly difficult to challenge social arrangements constituting and maintaining that iniquity. If unions claim to contest such social iniquity – and I argue they should – then they must confront the bureaucratic structures intrinsic to it and endemic within their own organizations.

The rudeness of the UNITE HERE recruiter with a Harvard education was more than just annoying. Her penchant for cutting people off and defending the bureaucratic structures protecting her privilege is, in effect, case in point.

Within and Against Business Unions in the Epoch of Bureaucracy  

Stopping this self-reproducing bureaucratic system implies militant union action against bureaucratic business unionism. What defines that militancy is, indeed, often the opposition to union bureaucracy, which frequently comes in the form of an insurgency in the ranks, among the rank-and-file.

There are more than a few militant unions still around. Their recent struggles are instructive.

Graduate student-workers throughout the University of California system, for example, took to grassroots organizing across UC campuses a few years ago to overthrow the old union leadership. The old guard had held their local, United Auto Workers Local 2865, hostage to both a top-down bureaucratic mode of governance and to an overly-submissive posture during contract negotiations with the administration. UC grads formed the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union, which agitated from below, organizing a “grade-in” at Berkeley and demanding broader member entry into previously closed-door bargaining sessions to put pressure on both university management and the managerial union. After the AWDU took union offices in 2011, the union opened meetings of the Executive Board to the public, started running the Executive Board more collectively and moved decision-making power down to local bodies when possible. The shift to leader-full organization, partly through elimination of the crusty bureaucracy encasing labor from above, helped the local to deftly deploy a strategic two-day strike in April 2014, which successfully put pressure on UC management so a favorable contract settlement could be reached.

“It wasn’t always like this in our union,” Caroline McKusick, the former press contact for Local 2865, told me at the time. “Our union was previously controlled pretty tightly by an administrative caucus of a certain small group of organizers. It was originally around 30 officers. Now we have more like 70 officers or 75.”

With many social movements shifting to extra-curricular activities unrelated to economic struggle throughout the bureaucratic epoch of the last several decades, reflecting the right-wing libertarian-led renunciation of class analysis and the flight from the fight for better material conditions, student-worker unionism witnessed across the UC system represents new promise. It even addresses problems that emerged with the New Left – namely the pivot away from the proletariat to over-emphasis on relatively affluent student populations as the embodiment of radical potential, which coincidentally was advanced forcefully early on by the Free Speech movement at Berkeley.

But trends these last few decades, including the rise of tuition-based education, have transformed students and recent graduates into debt-saddled déclassé intellectuals, downwardly mobile and often college-educated individuals who share grim employment prospects far worse than previous generations.

Also coincidentally, graduate employees at Yale just chartered a new union under the auspices of UNITE HERE. It should go without saying that all super-exploited graduate teachers and researchers deserve a show of solidarity. Substantive solidarity, though, likewise demands critical self-reflection through unceasing critique of any bureaucracy present within the union more broadly. It also demands critique of Yale itself. The latter is infamous for engendering seething anger from the surrounding New Haven community, as one former Yale graduate student instructor and current public intellectual has already pointed out.

While the UAW Local 2865 and Yale mobilizations reflect some renewed interest among students in confronting economic injustice in their own lives, the former has also not relegated other iniquities to the background. The UC student-workers formed an anti-oppression committee to build solidarity with non-unionized students and community groups struggling for social justice. The committee’s website claims it works to address racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, citizenship status as well as trans- and homophobia inside and outside of bargaining. Notably, at the time of this writing, classism was not explicitly mentioned on the webpage as one of the oppressive targets, which raises questions about just how insidious some of the most pernicious forms of nuanced class privilege – the same ones reproduced by bureaucracy – can be.

The model of radical union reform adopted by the grad-student workers in California was put into practice first in the Midwest by the Chicago Teachers Union, which established the new template for anti-bureaucratic, organizational democratization when they formed the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators four years before the CTU’s epic strike in 2012. CORE took the reins of CTU in 2010, forging alliances with students’ parents and communities while putting forward a vision for educational reform that rejected mass shuttering of public schools, teacher layoffs and misdirection of resources to predominantly non-unionized charter schools completely unaccountable to the public. CORE called instead for the reinvestment of funds in existing schools, smaller class sizes, enriched curriculum and increased wraparound school services for low-income communities. More than that, CORE transformed CTU into a social movement union with renewed emphasis on encouraging meaningful participation among actual teachers – educators empowered to explain the necessity of the strike to journalists and the community.

Also in Chicago, in another blowback against bureaucratic bullies, workers at the Republic Windows and Doors factory thrust aside the Central States Joint Board, the union that formally represented them while simultaneously excluding the rank-and-file from bargaining, several years prior to the high-profile sit-down strike at the plant in December 2008. Workers engaged in smaller-scale wildcat strikes opposed by the CSJB. After dispensing with the local CSJB’s bureaucratic corruption, as Chicago-based journalist Kari Lydersen documented in her book “Revolt on Goose Island,” Republic workers voted to affiliate with UE Local 1100, a union with a track-record of supporting direct action on the shop floor and more democratic member participation. Local 1100 members led the successful sit-down strike at Republic to get the severance pay and health benefits owed to them, and the UE later supported the company’s conversion into a unionized cooperative similar in structure to the aforementioned UFCW initiative launched later in Ohio.

Suggestive of a resurgence in syndicalist strategies, fast food workers in places like Minnesota recently eschewed the en vogue indirect action approach of exerting pressure outside the shop floor, the preferred method for most of the nationwide Fight for 15 movement to garner grossly underpaid workers a living wage. Workers at a Minnesota Jimmy Johns instead organized with the Industrial Workers of the World, circumventing the bureaucracy of business unions and of the political establishment to challenge authoritarian supervisors and the money-grubbing owner with direct action on the job site.

In the same city, workers elsewhere affiliated with the IWW to contest the co-optation of collectivist ideals by Sisters Camelot, a non-profit employer purporting to use egalitarian workplace democracy to serve low-income communities. The reality, Wobblies asserted, was quite different. So they went on strike and also formed their own non-profit, the North Country Food Alliance, a democratically-run union shop wherein all workers are IWW members each with equal votes at weekly meetings to discuss all matters of the organization.

The Paradox of Union Militancy and the Re-appropriation of Right-Wing Populism

While these examples inspire, they also illustrate a paradox: To beat back union bureaucracy requires the kind of militancy that business unionism militates against. To become militant (read: effective), members also have to displace bureaucratic practices, but eliminating those top-down and typically class-discriminating structures requires an effective militancy among a rank-and-file capable of self-organization.

The problem, though, is less paradoxical and more pedagogical. It demands an inside-outside strategy – working people educating each other, outside of official union channels when necessary, through a pedagogy of collective disobedience that, when required, defies the intransigence of existing leadership to contest power disparities on the job. Evidence suggests this is easier with community support cultivated by union engagement with other issues affecting the communities of which members are part – without of course, neglecting the need for creating a material basis conducive to ending interlocking oppressions.

The labor movement, if it is to build itself back up, needs to develop an explicit critique of both bureaucracy and the ideological co-optation that has taken place since the 1960s. Part of this requires re-appropriating working class frustrations so insidiously channeled by right-wing populist movements that tap into people’s legitimate anger at a liberal class – and the subservient business unionism – that sold them out. When cultural capital is parlayed into positions of relative privilege and power under the guise of struggles for economic justice – as the UNITE HERE recruiter’s penchant for coordinator class power demonstrated – it is imperative we not accept that.

Shout back at the bureaucrats! Collectively empower other working people by making the coordinator class as uncomfortable as possible. Refuse to submit to or accept situations in which one class of people enjoy all sorts of comforts while another class, denied those perks, is expected to provide the services that make such luxuries for the select few possible, themselves excluded.

Cafeteria workers at Intel, one of the Silicon Valley firms responsible for redirecting the creative anti-authoritarian and communalist ethos of the 1960s into high-tech profit-making enterprise, “are being organized by” UNITE HERE. The cafeteria workers serve the higher-paid tech workers. The white collar techies, indifferent to what service staff endure, cheerfully wear different badges on the job signifying that they can enjoy a variety of amenities and workplace perks denied the appreciably poorer service employees.

Castigating the multi-million dollar company and its executives in a situation like this is necessary but not sufficient. The techies with their badges who disproportionately benefit from the new economic caste system, while simultaneously driving up rents in a region of California where the cost of living is already astronomical, inhabit institutional roles that must also be challenged as illegitimate.

Until unions address those nuances of power, bureaucratic and otherwise, the labor movement will remain a shell of its former self, as opposed to creating the new world in the shell of the old as it should.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He taught two media studies classes in the Department of Communication at California State University San Marcos during the fall 2015 semester. He has been a member of several unions, including Graduate Assistants United, the California Faculty Association, UFCW Local 135, and the Industrial Workers of the World. While a Graduate Assistant at SIUC, he served as steward for his college and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. He was a long-time member of the GAU Communications Committee. He regularly contributed to the GAU website and newsletter. His academic writing has appeared in journals like Critical Studies in Media Communication and the International Review of Information Ethics. His journalistic work and editorials have been featured in news outlets including Truthout, In These Times, Toward Freedom, ROAR Magazine, ZNet and Counterpunch.


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