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From the Sept/Oct 2003 issue of UDR #148

Student labor activists support union democracy

By Andy Piascik

Meeting at their annual gathering in New York City in August, members of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) voted overwhelmingly to support movements for union democracy. "In a great many unions," the resolution states, "rank 'n file workers are fighting for stronger democratic practices within their organizations....Union democracy activists promote member participation, freedom of speech, and free elections so that union members can shape and steer the direction of their unions. USAS recognizes that the labor movement will be stronger when it is democratically controlled by workers."

The resolution continues: "Therefore we resolve to make efforts to build stronger alliances with those organizations fighting for a more democratic labor movement...such as, but not limited to Teamsters for a Democratic Union, [UAW]New Directions, Labor Notes, the Association for Union Democracy, etc. We will aim to give these and other organizations greater opportunities to participate in USAS conferences and gatherings with the hope of forging lasting bonds between our organization and the union democracy movement."

Members of USAS, a five-year old organization which has had chapters at over 200 colleges, have become more aware of workers problems within unions. Formed by college students in support of workers who produce hats, T-shirts, and other apparel that bear university logos, USAS helped create production standards enforced by an industry monitor. USAS has been involved in living wage campaigns in support of workers on their campuses. Early on, a close relationship was established between USAS, UNITE, and several other unions, notably HERE and SEIU. USAS receives most of its financial support from unions.

The resolution reflects the dissatisfaction of some USAS members with its serving as a recruiting ground for unions with top-down, undemocratic strategies. USAS members are drawn to the labor movement because of their concern for workers rights. But, according to a leading USAS activist at the University of Wisconsin, upon graduation, some USAS members have taken union staff jobs and become apologists for, even participants in, such undemocratic methods. Thus, the union democracy resolution.

The conference included a panel on "Building Democratic Unions." The speakers were rank and file activists: Christine Karatnytsky, a member of AFSCME Local 1930, working for reform in DC 37; Josh Fraidstern, of Rank and File Advocate in TWU Local 100; and Miguel Maldonado, a former SEIU staffer in Philadelphia who was fired after a local trusteeship was imposed by the national union. The panel was the first at a national USAS venue to feature union democracy activists.

A copy of the USAS resolution is available from AUD.

For the USAS website

More resources on the New Unity Partnership of SEIU, UNITE-HERE, LIUNA and the UBCJA:
Local 509 asks questions about democracy in the SEIU
New Unity Partnership:Sweeney Critics would bureaucratize to organize.
Service Employees: Mass. merger in Local 888.
Benson's Union Democracy blog.
Student Labor Activists support union democracy.
SEIU's Unite to Win blog promotes discussion of their Proposals for New Strength, and related issues and plans.
Articles on the Labor Notes site on NUP from various sources.
See UDR articles on the Carpenters (UBCJA) for case studies in merger and bureaucratization.
Several articles on the New Unity Partnership are available on the BC Carpenters website.
Find articles on the consolidation of power in the Carpenters union on the main UDR page.
An exchange on union democracy between Herman Benson and Steve Fraser, on the Laborers.org website (click on Fraser's name for a link to his article)
Links to rank-and-file websites in the NUP unions: Carpenters, Hotel and Restaurant Employees, Laborers, Needle Trades (UNITE), Service Employees (building services, public employees).
Father Haggerty's "Wheel of Fortune" -- the original grand sectoral plan for the IWW.

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