Reading a post on www.21cpw.com the other day, I was reminded of something said by the eminent anthropologist Margaret Mead, "A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."
John Richards, former APWU Director of Industrial Relations, currently very active retiree delegate to the National Convention and one thoughtful unionist who seems always to make his decisions on principles reflective of his devotion to the cause of labor, remarked about the genesis of APWU. He noted, "The facts are that a majority of Postal workers throughout the nation held views [of being satisfied and having doubt for chances to improve]. That what amounted to a mere handful of us . . . were able to pull the strike off, was truly an amazing epiphany and critical turning point in the history of the Post Office Department, as it was known at that time, and the larger Trade Union Movement. Had we been swayed by the majority at that time, the course of history would have been radically different from that which has transpired."
It could not be more clear. When change is needed, one cannot merely hope for the weight of opinion to reach a majority tipping point. Change is caused - sometimes regardless how well the majority recognizes the need - by the activists. As Brother Richards points out, the 1970 strike was not supported by the majority of postal workers; it was incited and carried out by true unionists who were opposed by some of their own "leaders".
The APWU needs change. Those who have become entrenched in positions of power at the top of this great Union have already changed it, have made it something almost unrecognizable in the top levels of its administration. We now have "leaders" who openly call for the Union to be "run like a business". As I have noted previously, the Union is not a business; the corporate model is not becoming to an organization whose purpose is supposed to be service to its members. Evidence of the corruption of the APWU seems clear enough - It attacks its own bargaining unit employees, seeking to "save money" by taking away job benefits from these workers, also seeking to downsize the workforce by eliminating jobs. It orchestrates the construction of roadblocks to the legitimate interests of its retired members. It pursues salary increases for its top administration office holders on the same theory corporate CEO's employ. It seeks to further insulate national officers by extending the election cycle as well as the Convention cycle. It avoids full disclosure to the members of our financial status by giving contradictory, confusing statements. And, most recently, it seeks to diminish the effectiveness of contract enforcement as if enforcement of contractual rights were not as important as maintaining the financial viability of the administrative top of the organization.
We need change and it will not come from the top - at least the change we truly need will not come from the top.
Unless this Union reinvigorates its democratic roots, it will be crushed under the weight of its top-heavy administration. We need to change the political dynamics of the APWU in order to break up the concentration of power at the top. I have proposed previously that we change some of the parameters of our national officer election process in order to change the political dynamic. One of our major problems is the vast disparity between the incumbents and the challengers in access to the members and more generally in chances of getting (re)elected. The token access represented by the candidates' opportunity to have a tiny article printed in the national magazine is insulting; it accomplishes nothing when compared with the month after month exposure granted incumbents at the expense of the members. The Union should provide the vehicle - at Union expense - for every candidate to have his or her campaign literature delivered directly to every member's home. This would be a national mailing offset by the elimination of one issue of the national magazine.
The political dynamic could also be changed dramatically by allowing present national officers to challenge other incumbents without risking their own present positions. While this may sound, at first blush, counterproductive, I ask that you think about it. Consider the valuable NBA who wants to make a greater contribution at the headquarters level. In the present system, this usually means he or she curries favor at the headquarters level and waits for the opportunity of an appointment, then becoming the new incumbent when the next election rolls around. Or that same officer, choosing instead to take the chance of challenging the sitting incumbent, faces the weight and money of the administration "team". Rare has it been that a true challenger succeeds. I propose two election cycles of four years each; half the national officer structure would be open in the first part of the cycle and, two years later, the other half would be open. In each of these phases, an incumbent whose office was not open could challenge an incumbent without risking the entirety of his or her career service to the Union.
Each of these proposals costs more money than our process now costs. They will be decried as financially irresponsible and that they would bankrupt the Union. Brothers and Sisters, there are a good many ways we can offset the costs of these proposals (starting at the top-heavy administration) in order to afford a genuine increase in the democracy of this Union. What price is too high to pay to have a democratic Union whose officers are truly accountable to the members and whose rank and file members may have a legitimate chance to challenge the present power structure of the Union in the election process?
The change sought by true union activists who fomented the 1970 strike was the acquisition of full-blown collective bargaining rights. Once gained, those rights could only be exercised by full fledged labor unions. In other words, change required structure to implement. And structure costs money. Just as Brother Richards pointed out that the majority of postal workers in 1970 did not specifically support the strike, likewise they would not have readily agreed to contribute the dues money that would become necessary for a full fledged labor union to effectively represent them. Yet that is what we have.
Change to the political dynamics of this Union is essential; it requires structure; and structure costs money. But, the mere fact that a structure costs money, should not be sufficient to prevent us from restoring true democracy to the APWU.
(First published in February 2008)