Sunday, February 19, 2006

A fat bald Friend of P-CRACs favorite new book

Activist argues that unions are corrupt
Reviewed by John Brady
San Francisco Chronicle

Solidarity for Sale
How Corruption Destroyed the Labor Movement and Undermined America's Promise
By Robert Fitch

Should friends of labor devote their time and energy to exposing union corruption?

In his new book, "Solidarity for Sale," writer and union activist Robert Fitch makes the case for answering this question with a resounding yes. Fitch is a lifelong union supporter. He joined the Laborer's Union, Local 5, in Chicago Heights, Ill., as a teenager. He has been a union organizer, and he has written extensively about unions and union organizing for a wide range of newspaper and magazines. He remains a union member.

But since he's such a union supporter, is corruption really the most pressing issue to engage? It's hardly earth-shattering to say that the house of labor sits on a shaky foundation. With a few exceptions, unions have been losing members for decades. The controversy over how to best reverse the decline recently led to a major split within the union movement, with five major unions leaving the AFL-CIO in June to form their own coalition, the Change to Win Coalition. And although unions have poured millions of dollars into national electoral politics (an estimated $250 million in 2004), they have little to show for it in terms of labor-friendly legislation.

Given such a situation, wouldn't it be more helpful to focus on better organizing techniques or more imaginative political strategies instead of on union corruption? Only if one believes, Fitch answers, that corruption is an anomaly in the union movement, the result of a few bad, and in some cases very bad, apples who have managed to tarnish what is basically a sound institution.

In his book's opening chapters Fitch argues that corruption is systemic and has sapped the ability of unions to fight on behalf of their members. From there, he goes on to survey union history and traces corruption back to the union movement's origins. He revisits key moments in union history, including the 1905 Chicago Teamsters strike, which some labor historians have interpreted as an example of union solidarity in action, to highlight the baleful effects of labor racketeering.

The final parts of the book survey the contemporary scene. Concentrating on the case of New York, Fitch tells the story of corrupt locals from the Laborers International Union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees. In the closing chapters, he examines efforts at union reform, including what he considers to be the failure of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union to achieve a clean union.

Running through the book is Fitch's core argument: Corruption is rooted in the very structure of how American unions are organized.


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