ACORN and the Anti-Union Unions
The progressive low-income community organizing group, ACORN, has been under a lot of fire from the right due to a few videos showing some unsavory behavior on the part of a few of its intake specialists. For some time now ACORN has actually been the subject to criticism the right-wing and the media don’t care about: its labor practices.
Nationwide, the group has been known to give its organizers long hours at pay bringing them close to the poverty line. The National Labor Relations Board even found that one ACORN affiliate had acted with anti-union animus when it fired several organizers who were trying to unionize the staff.
It might seem odd for a group that fights Wal-Mart and pushes living-wage legislation to fight worker organizing. But there are many groups like ACORN that hold a double standard, and inside the labor movement there is a deep split on the issue of whether union staffers should have their own unions.
(Note to reader: Your correspondent was an active member in his staff union, the Federation of Union Representatives, while employed at Unite Here from 2006 to 2007.)
The case pro-union unionists make is simple: practice what you preach. Unions claim that morale is higher and turnover is lower when workers have a say in their pay and conditions and that they prove essential in winning things for workers such as safety protections, progressive wage increases and other things that make work livable. For a union to suggest otherwise by fighting its staff from unionizing would only validate capitalist propaganda.
While some unions have good relationships their staff unions, others have fought tooth and nail to keep unions out. In a few instances, union leaders have employed the very same union-busting tactics they deplore. Part of the opposition to staff unionism is purely about the bottom line; union leaders want to lower operational costs and have flexibility with its staff. But often it runs deeper.
For example, many question the dedication of union staffers who organize, claiming that they put the staff’s interest before that of the members. This logic is specious at best, especially considering that it falls right in line with the fallacy that public-sector workers shouldn’t have collective-bargaining rights because it’s putting their pay and benefits before the needs of the taxpayers.
Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University, explained that because unions find themselves in a sort of battle mode with employers, they have a tendency to scrap democracy in the same way the United States sacrificed many basic civil liberties in the War on Terror.
“There’s a tendency to say, ‘We can’t play by the same rules, so we can’t have staff unions because we’re in a crisis,’” she said.
That’s a big problem for unions if they want to recruit young and talented people for careers in the labor movement. If that’s the employment strategy unions want, the only people they can recruit are the few people who want sacrifice themselves for that kind of battle, or the kind of young people that will live like that and burn-out quickly.
If they want to be strong, they might want workplaces that have the kind of pay, benefits and opportunity for promotion that encourage bright folks to make the labor movement a real career.
“Employers will keep being employers,” Bronfenbrenner said. “Union staffers at some point have to be able to say, ‘We need decent work conditions.’”
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