We Are the Union
Dana Cloud's book reflects on present-day challenges of labor unions
The recent recall election and challenge to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by unionized workers has taken center stage in the news the last few weeks, as divisive battles over the health and stability of unions in middle-class America and concerns over employment, the economy, and budget cuts continue to ignite passions nationwide.
Contributing to this dialogue is Dana L. Cloud, a professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Texas at Austin, whose recent academic book, "We Are the Union: Democratic Unionism and Dissent at Boeing," provides an insightful case study of collective bargaining and union activism to help explain the current climate in the U.S.
Professor Dana Cloud
The book, which was released in December, contains a chapter co-written by Boeing worker R. Keith Thomas and examines several labor disputes Boeing underwent in the mid-to-late 1990s. The book situates these events in the context of U.S. labor history and of decades-long efforts on the part of rank-and-file workers in many unions to build union democracy.
In the failure of unions in Wisconsin to inspire the electorate to oust Walker in a recall election, Cloud said that union leadership focused on electoral politics instead of on strategies that could promote the interests of workers more directly such as going on strike.
"In the 1930s, workers went on strike for the right to strike and now we are at that square one again," said Cloud. "Union leaders loathe strikes because they think it will cost workers, but in fact the opposite is almost universally historically true – the ability to strike is the strongest lever workers have."
She added that in Wisconsin, calls went out for a general strike during the Capitol occupation, but union leaders instead redirected that movement into a recall election a year later which ultimately lost momentum and did little to improve workers' rights.
"That energy was basically derailed by more conservative union leaders at the top of the union and into a strategy involving election politics," said Cloud.
Cloud said that communication studies is uniquely positioned to study how people have a voice in their own futures among several societal constraints such as wealth, privilege and the mass media.
"The institution of the union is still very important because it gives ordinary people an economic leverage collectively that they can use as a bargaining tool," said Cloud. "Without that leverage, and as we’ve seen in Wisconsin, the more powerful and moneyed interests will prevail."
As the new millennium approached, Cloud spent time with union activists within the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) at Boeing plants in Kansas and Washington state and studied how ordinary working people direct the actions of a labor movement that is sometimes resilient and strong but can also quickly descend into a position of weakness through internal corruption or inactivity.
Topics include Boeing's argument of competitive hardships, union leaders' calls for concessions in the name of job security, and the democratic union reformers' fight for a rank-and-file upsurge against both the company and their own union leaders.
Cloud opens with an overview of historic labor union successes and defeats and uses communication studies and oral histories to document union groups within the IAMAW that led to positive union outcomes when workers strongly participated but fell into disarray when involvement waned.
The study acts as a backdrop to subsequent union battles Boeing workers have endured, including significant challenges only months ago.
Boeing brought national attention again in 2011 when management announced plans to move facilities from near Seattle to South Carolina to a right-to-work state with little union membership.
In response, the machinists' union filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board to halt the relocation. Parties eventually settled their grievances and avoided a change-of-address in December 2011. Despite the decision of the IAMAW to withdraw its charge, many lawmakers chastised and called for penalties against the union.
Cloud's book resonates with the perennial challenges that unions face including threats to job security, contract concessions and bureaucratic red-tape complicated by often cozy relationships between union leadership and corporate decision-makers.
To ameliorate the downward spiral of union activity, Cloud suggests a harder push by a more contentious and democratic labor movement is necessary to reverse a decline in union membership and the perception that unions are fighting a losing battle.
"That is a necessary step for anyone in a union today who wants to see their leadership do the right thing," said Cloud. "That's a huge lesson of what happened in Wisconsin."
Laura Byerley, (512) 471-2182