Wednesday, April 30, 2014

There's more to union power than membership numbers

This essay does argue:
- Membership numbers are only a single measurement of union power
- Solely focusing on membership numbers ignores the other ways of measuring union power
- Ignoring other measurements of union power traps unions into a 1-dimensional practice of union power that can be very misleading

This essay does NOT argue
- Membership numbers aren't important
- Let's not measure membership numbers
- Let's ignore membership numbers
- I don't want a powerful union

I wanted to write the above first in order to be upfront about the argument because I'm sure someone will troll/distort what I am going to say. That being said, let's get to the essay!

When AWDU took leadership of UAW 2865 three years ago it vowed to make the union a fighting force for its members and for social justice and public education. It vowed to increase member participation and grassroots democracy. It has done all that. The union looked nothing like it had in the years just before AWDU's leadership.

BUT, membership numbers are in decline statewide.

Therefore AWDU's opponents argue that the union is weaker, no thanks to AWDU.

But are membership numbers the only way to measure a union's power? I say no.

Would we describe as powerful a union that, for example, has 80% membership, but has very low participation - members don't run for offices, they are held by just a few people over a long period of time - where members don't know their rights, where members don't get involved in on-the-ground action, and where the members are afraid or unwilling to strike?

What about a union with lower membership numbers that his high participation, informed members, lots of on the ground activism, and militant strikers? I think we'd say that union has some power.

So the question then isn't about membership numbers high or low (obviously higher is preferable all else being equal), but it is about how we should weigh each of these metrics against each other. The idea of actually weighing it, coming up with some formula, seems ludicrous to me, but I do qualitative sociology, some people might think that was an amazing research question. I think the take away from this thought experiment should not be to come up with some kind of power currency exchange between these metrics, but rather that the issue of union power is a complex one that involves lots of ways of thinking about power and really contextualizing those metrics.

Let's take a more concrete example that is also a thought experiment. Suppose two unions hold a strike vote. One union has higher membership percent but a lower YES vote for the strike. Another union has lower membership percent but higher YES votes for the strike. Which one is more likely to have a more powerful strike? Do absolute numbers make a better strike, or does a higher consensus among members?

The way to think about this is the same. These are two axes of power that should be considered.

The more general measurement of union power will have more axes:

  • membership percent
  • member knowledge of rights 
  • member participation in formal structures of union
  • member on the ground activism
  • member militancy

Again, the idea here is not to quantify and plot a point representing power. Even these metrics need to be qualified and contextualized.

Let's take member on-the-ground activism for example. Different types of activism with same amount of involvement would yield differing amounts, and types, of power. A union that only focuses on electoral campaigns for local political offices will have a different amount and type of power than a union that gets involved in community organizing and social movements (and different community organizing and social movement groups with different levels of power would mean different types and levels of power).

I think at this point my argument is clear, that power is multifaceted or multidimensional, and cannot be quantified, but rather must be examined in its specific contexts and in relation to other possible types or expressions of power so as to understand its strengths and weaknesses. You cannot just give a single number or a single way of thinking about power and say that more or less of that would make the union stronger, or rather that being low (or lower) in a single category means the union is weak.

This is where the point I wrote this article to make comes in.

What should logically follow from this understanding of power then is that when only looking at a single metric or category of power and seeing a decline, one cannot then conclude that the union has only gotten weaker.

A decline in membership then doesn't necessarily imply that the union is now weaker than before the decline. The story isn't that simple. What about the other ways of measuring power? How is the union doing in those areas compared to before the decline? Thats a longer and more complicated, and nuanced, conversation than the story that a simple change in numbers would tell.

Lets consider an example totally unrelated to unions in order to really focus on the more conceptual nuances of this line of thinking.

Suppose a UN report came out saying that country X saw a 30% decline in the incarcerated after a change in government. The new government claims that the old was repressive of civil rights and political dissidents, and that the decline in incarceration rates is due to new freedoms the government has brought.

This is the kind of thing that without more information people from outside the country might believe. However if they were told that this is because the new government engaged is mass executions instead of imprisoning people and that the number of people killed in such a way far outweighs the decline in incarceration rates - meaning less people are in prison because they have been killed and instead of imprisoning new criminals they just kill them, people would have a very different opinion of that government's claim to have brought freedom and rights.

Mere statistics don't ever tell the entire story. In this case freedom and rights need to be measured by more than just incarceration rates. That doesn't mean that incarceration rates aren't important for understanding just how repressive a country is, merely that it needs to be contextualized and compared to other ways of thinking about rights and freedom.

Let's take another example, just because I really want to hit the point home.

Suppose that a local government petitions the federal department of homeland security for a grant because of what they describe as a massive crime wave as shown by an increase in the number of crimes reported that year. Would DHS just give them the money or might they want to know more about the nature of the crimes and the change in population and other factors? If the city passed a law criminalizing something that was a pretty common practice, for example smoking in public places and in bars/restaurants, and then enforced this new rule with zero tolerance, there might be a huge surge in number of reported crimes. If there was a huge influx of a population so the absolute number of crimes increased while the crime rate decreased what then? What if the spike could be explained by not an actual increase of number of crimes committed, but just the number of crimes that were reported due to a public campaign to get people to report common crimes? Is that really a crime wave? It would feel like one to the people working in the court system but not to people living in that locale that experience these crimes. What if the increase was due to a car theft operation being started but there was a drop in violent crimes for some other reason?

So to reiterate, power is a concept that cannot be quantified, nor can it be fully understood with just a single metric. A union might see a decline in membership but become much more powerful overall, or might have a significant increase in membership but decline in overall power.

People who cite a change in a single number, membership percent, are not giving the full story. If this is because they are purposely hiding something, that is obviously a problem. Members should be very critical when their officers simply cite a change in a single number, if an increase is shown they should wonder if their officials are hiding a decline in real power, and if they are told there was a decrease they might be trying to hide a change in overall power in other very tangible ways.

Even more troubling though is when union officers simply cite a change in a single number not because they are hiding something, but because these officers only understand power as one-dimensional.

The fetishization (meaning imbibing with supernatural power) of membership numbers by union officers means that a union can drive itself into the ground without realizing it. It can be relatively powerless yet think its doing a great job, and will then have to rationalize away apparent failures and inabilities. Even more problematic is that these officers would see a challenge to this view of power as wrong headed and they would panic about how if people with a different concept of power took leadership that they would ruin the union. And if these former officers were voted out of power and membership numbers declined they would absolutely run on a platform of "vote us back into power because these people have ruined the union!" and believe it, even if the union had significant gains in other dimensions of power.

This, I believe, is the story of what has been going on in the UAW 2865 over the last few years and explains the current elections and the two caucuses' rhetoric and models of unionism.

I am not going to now analyze the power of our union currently compared to before. I think that's another topic altogether, and that this essay should end here. However I have touched on this before in "Why AWDU's model is winning contract negotiations", and there has been lots of media coverage of us lately, so you can google us and check out what others think as well. (I might add some links later, but its late and I need to get some sleep).

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