Solidarity For Sale
How Corruption Destroyed The Labor Movement And Undermined America’s Promise
Is Robert Fitch a good investigative reporter driven mad trying to get his hands around a unified analysis? Is he a member of an axe-grinding sect who isn’t showing his whole hand? Is he more of a Lenny Bruce or Jackie Mason, spritzing facts, stories, and observations; better at projecting attitude than theory? Or is the whole story of American labor unions just so tragic there’s no way to get it right?
There are lumps of narrative here that might make good books on their own: the story of the Teamsters, the story of DC 37 (the best part of this book). And there are lumps of theory here that might make more sense extracted and expostulated at greater length: the left and its relationship to labor unions; the connection of the closed shop, the hiring hall, and organized crime. But pushed together these lumps become disorienting, rather than cumulative in power. And they are strung together with entertaining but peculiar references to the history of Christianity, or Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as put downs and connections that are pontificated but not proven.
The big balloon Fitch wants to prick appears to be the one held by fellow leftists who idealize essentially corrupt labor unions. But after a book length tour of crooked unions, fake reformers, and scatterbrained radicals, Fisk’s final recommendations seem modestly wonkish, with no attached explanation of what social forces or political alliances might call them into existence. Kind of like those theories of how the left could have more power in the United States if we would simply switch to a proportional parliament. Don’t hold your breath.
So let’s strip away the wise-ass left-wing elbowing, the policy proposals, the unprovable put downs, and the odd-ball comparisons to Martin Luther and the Reformation, and see what’s remains. Some interesting stuff.
Buried in here – beyond the material about wildly overpayed hacks and mobbed up locals that take payoffs to allow scab labor – is an explanation about why lots of union money often gets so little apparent bang for its buck within the Democratic Party: because it’s getting what it wants. Behind the scenes some union big shots get some go aheads for organizing in the public sector, some lucrative access to benefit and pension funds, (sometimes sealed by an actual power marriage) and what Fisk calls “get out of jail free cards” or protection from prosecution from the powers that be. Teased out, this could also clarify some unions’ satisfaction with the current intolerable status quo on health care, since channeling that benefit money would end with a single payer health plan. But again, that case could be better made within a book focused on health care or pensions.
If Fitch has one big idea, it’s that the lack of competition among unions leads to stagnation and corruption. True enough, as an insight. But by bouncing around from scandal to scandal and not developing[ an overview of the spectrum of corruption, he fails to prove how central his insight is, and that leads one to believe it’s not central at all. What about unions that don’t control their pension funds and health benefits, and scramble for dues and members in right to work states? According to his meta theory, they should be more honest and effective. Are they? Unfavorable comparisons to labor unions in France, or Norway, or Canada are mentioned and then dropped. How similar are we to France? How different from Canada?
I have a problem with a book about corruption, period. It’s like a book about sin, or being mean or greedy. Are we talking anymore about specific institutions or are we talking about human nature, American individualism, and upward mobility? From my life in labor unions I would say most Americans are in favor of corruption as long as they are included in it, and lots of union members find moralistic radicals unreasonable, even suspicious, although occasionally useful. Jimmy Hoffa and Bobby Kennedy were popular with the white working class of their era, so what does that tell us? What about the Godfather movies or Jimmy Cagney? Gangsta rap? The Sopranos?
By focusing on the perceived stupidity of fellow radicals, Fitch takes the spotlight off the average Joes and Janes who make up the union membership and understand, in my experience, the hierarchies they inhabit as an eternal combination of idealism and corruption – the question being how one works the percentages and how good they are, and how one manipulates the corruption to one’s advantage. I once heard a local president convincingly explain his union’s political involvement to the membership as a successful effort to buy off politicians to counter the politicians the company bought off. In that context, a prophet denouncing corruption can come off more like Job than Jeremiah. It’s hopeless, but we must endure.
Fitch has an insight: that incompetent union potentates sitting on their little piles of dues money don’t really care if a rising tide of anti-union sentiment is wiping out the other smaller islands in the union archipelago, as long as it doesn’t wipe out theirs. But how do the unions that are only half-bad, or three-quarters-good work? What about unions that need solidarity to stay in business, instead of exclusivity? How does that work? Because he doesn’t bother with distinctions in his polemic, there’s no way to define just where the tipping point is between effectiveness and corruption, or between solidarity and an oath of silence. That makes his description of Ron Carey’s reign atop the Teamsters particularly suspect. Carey was a regular, no doubt, and was working more than one angle, but I saw his UPS strike up close, and it mobilized the membership and the public in a way an essentially corrupt operation would find impossible.
Fitch correctly understands that the left is fucked as long as unions whither under attack by the right and benign neglect by neo-liberals. But the union members I’ve represented aren’t looking for a Reformation, and I say that as a life-long, church-going Protestant, they’re looking to be protected by a reasonably honest and effective institution and don’t care if the leadership is taking a little something off the top. They’re looking, to extend the analogy, for a Catholic Church that won’t go broke from a pedophilia scandal. But they don’t want to start a new religion.
When the muckraking journalist appears in this book, we get some interesting explanations of the inner workings of economic power. The description, for instance, of collaboration between Mayor Giuliani and the leadership of DC 37 is just great. When the left-wing sectarian (but which sect?) appears we get scolded and lose any explanation of the inner working of economic change. I don’t buy the idea that it’s Fisk’s fault if what he uncovers is used by our enemies, but it’s fair to ask how far he’s fallen into that old left-wing trap of being more interested in winning the gold star for purity of vision than providing hope for the average working person.