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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Tough Tactics in Campaign Backfire on UAW Dissidents

June 27, 1989|HARRY BERNSTEIN

The ferocity of the attack by a small band of dissidents against leaders of the United Auto Workers at the union's Anaheim convention last week backfired, rallying a large majority of delegates against the rebels' two principal goals.

The result of the raucous UAW dissidents' tactics gives a major boost to campaigns for innovative labor practices and labor-management cooperation in and out of the auto industry.

Also, the loss by the rebels will slow, if not stop, any campaign to change the way officers are elected in the UAW and almost all other unions.

By making highly publicized denunciations of the union leadership, the group of fewer than 200 dissidents angered the other 1,800 convention delegates, who apparently viewed the criticism of the officers as an attack on the union itself.

As a result, previously ambivalent top UAW officers were pushed into a vigorous counterattack and for the first time gave their unequivocal support to labor-management cooperation, cheered on by the overwhelming majority of the delegates.

The virulence of the dissidents--some compared themselves to students killed in Beijing by government troops--united the other delegates so completely that they also rejected another rebel proposal by the same huge margin. The second proposal was for the UAW to adopt as its model an election procedure that a federal court has ordered for the mob-infested Teamsters Union.

The UAW has never been accused of having ties to the underworld, but there is apparently considerable support among its million members for a Teamsters-like plan to elect UAW officers in a nationwide mail ballot referendum.

Like most unions, the UAW now elects officers indirectly through delegates at its conventions.

But reacting to the tactics of the dissidents, many delegates who were expected to back the change did not. Only the dissidents voted for it.

The most bitterly debated question at the convention was the trend toward labor-management cooperation that the rebels charge means union collusion with management against workers.

Before the convention, UAW President Owen Bieber and several other union executives were often reluctant to challenge the rebels' claim that cooperation means helping the companies increase profits at workers' expense.

But Bieber's hesitancy evaporated at the convention when he lashed back at the dissidents.

He said that while the union must always guard against company attempts to use cooperation as a device to abuse workers, the union cannot cling obstinately to traditional adversarial labor-management relations that damage both workers and the companies.

The election issue was not as volatile as the cooperation question, which is, however, a much older one that affects all unions.

That debate is over which election system best protects union members' democratic rights to choose their officers.

Unfortunately, there is no "best way" to make democracy work in any organization, or even in government at the local, state or federal level. Evil people can corrupt almost any system.

Since incumbent union officers usually win reelection at conventions, the UAW dissidents wanted to replace the convention system with a one-person, one-vote referendum.

Actually, incumbent officers in all organizations and institutions have a decided advantage over challengers regardless of the election system used.

In last year's one-person, one-vote elections for Congress, 98% of the incumbent representatives were reelected.

To help ensure union democracy, Congress passed the Landrum-Griffin Act in 1959. Union elections became more rigidly regulated and scrutinized by the government than those in any other type of organization or institution.

By one inexact measuring rod, unions appear to have a large degree of internal democracy.

The Department of Labor reports that nearly 5,000 local and national union elections were held last year, and only 163 complaints were filed with the government alleging that unfair election tactics had frustrated the democratic process.

The government dismissed 106 of those complaints as unfounded. New, closely supervised elections were held in the rest.

Those encouraging figures don't mean that unions have almost perfect internal democracy.

Sometimes the democratic process is abused but no challenge is raised because of membership apathy or because the incumbents' control of the election process is so tight that challengers have no chance of winning. And in a few cases, would-be challengers fear physical or economic retaliation.

A combination of all of these factors have helped corrupt leaders hold office in the giant Teamsters Union for decades, leading the Justice Department to file corruption charges against them and getting the courts to order a national mail ballot vote for new officers in 1991.

The referendum as a rule is not a better system than the customary one used by national unions in which members of local unions elect delegates to a convention and those delegates then elect national officers.

All the same, it will be great if somehow the referendum helps the many honest Teamsters break the grip mob-connected leaders have on that union. However, Ken Paff, head of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, fears that switch alone may not be enough to dump mob-linked officers who benefit from the advantages of incumbency.

Even if the referendum does produce new Teamsters leaders, it will not mean the same costly system should be used by the UAW or other unions that have no taint of corruption.

The failure of the dissidents to get the UAW to adopt the referendum system may submerge that controversy for a few years. But, more importantly, the victory of Bieber and his allies should hasten the day when true labor-management cooperation prevails in all companies.

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