The Vision Thing: Keeping Union Reform on Track

A reform administration in the United Teachers Los Angeles promoted civil disobedience to protest layoffs. Reformers can make remarkable changes, but some stumble. What happens? Photo: Kim Turner/UTLA.

Reformers take over at the union hall. They’re sick of seeing management run roughshod over the local, so they put together a slate and a plan to mobilize the members.

When it works, reformers can make remarkable changes, transforming dormant locals into ones with proud members who put management on notice.

But some reformers fail. Either they don’t accomplish much, and they get voted out. Or they do achieve something, and still get booted. Too many don’t know how to step off the path of least resistance, and they slide into the ways of their predecessors. Members don’t notice a difference.

Sometimes these slates come into office divided—not every new officer truly wants to see the members involved or to stand up to the company. Or reformers may have gotten elected simply because members wanted to throw the incumbents out. They don’t have a strong base or a common vision.

They may face opposition from their international and they will certainly take flak from management. The economic and political climate—where “union” is a dirty word—will color everything they do.

What’s almost certain is that they’ll have little experience running a local.

As Don Trementozzi chuckled, “Savor the moment you get elected because it’s downhill from there.” Trementozzi was elected to head Communications Workers Local 1400 in New England in 2003, lost his next election, and regained office in 2008.

We spoke with officers and staffers from a variety of unions and we drew on many conversations over the years with struggling reformers. Some had more regrets and mistakes to report than victories; others are still in office and eager for the next challenge.

Without pretending any of the answers are easy, here are some lessons about how reformers can change the culture and put the union on an organizing footing. (Dealing with management is a whole other story.)


The work begins long before the members vote. Most reformers try to construct a slate whose members are all on the same page, but ego can get in the way.

The top officer is crucial, but reform slates often pick the most conventional politician for the top spot, perhaps because he or she is best known. When that person doesn’t change stripes after the election, reforms are blocked.

Coalitions are necessary to win votes in different segments of the membership. But if all that unites your slate is a desire to beat the incumbents, changing your union will be much harder.

Richard Berg, who headed a slate that took office in Teamsters Local 743 in Chicago in 2008, said, “Many of the best activists in our local were terminated because of management-union collusion or management being against people who were fighters.

“So we had a coalition with some folks we knew had a different vision than us. That group very actively worked to disrupt things when we got into office.”

Berg, who was aligned with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, was maneuvered out of office by the Hoffa administration. Some on the e-board allied with Hoffa and won positions as part of the bargain.

Trementozzi says, “The people you run with, they might be popular and can deliver votes. But they have to have the fundamentals—they need to be a good steward, a leader already. If you cut them slack on something, they have to make up for it somewhere else.”


Unions need not just officers but rank-and-file leaders to build a strong presence on the job. But often that’s the missing piece of a reform program.

“People are so busy with the tasks that are right in front of them that they don’t set up structures to develop new leaders,” said Joel Jordan, who says this was one of his local’s biggest shortcomings. He was part of a reform caucus in the Los Angeles teachers union that won a majority of officer positions in 2005 and 2008.

Most locals have been saddled with a passive culture for decades, so members don’t necessarily leap into action once reformers are elected. When they respond, they may have the servicing model in mind. “Once people found out we were going to do what we said, they were coming out of the woodwork with their problems,” says Gina Alvarez, who had the No. 2 spot in Berg’s local.

In these circumstances, many locals continue the pattern of a tiny super-involved minority of officeholders—albeit “good guys”—and an inactive rank and file. It doesn’t work.

AFSCME Local 3299, blue-collar workers at the University of California, developed leaders beyond the e-board by “shifting the problem-solving method to collective action and away from experts,” said Craig Merrilees, who was director from 1999 to 2006. “It was a bit of a dogma for them when they first started.”


The local’s biggest success was to build Member Action Teams in the workplaces, composed of volunteers who were trained and encouraged to handle problems through collective shop floor action—“instant justice”— which moved problem-solving away from grievances.

That took lots of training, and the local held an annual MAT conference to sharpen shop floor leaders’ skills, such as speaking in front of groups.

To pull the teams together, leaders and staffers went into the workplace and listened rather than talked. Their assignment was to find people who had co-workers’ respect, who could be potential leaders. “People identified the union with the misanthropes and the screw-ups. We wanted to change that,” said Merrilees.

Kathryn Lybarger, a gardener on the UC Berkeley campus, remembers a typical MAT action: When a member was passed over for a promotion, co-workers organized a march on the boss and got an agreement to work with the member to develop his skills. He’s now a lead gardener.

“On a bigger scale, it was member leaders in the MAT structure that were instrumental in building our strike in 2008 and running the picket line,” Lybarger says.

As so often happens, the first reform takeover wasn’t the end of the story. “The MAT structure helped grow a layer of member leaders who helped take over the local a second time,” Lybarger says. The Members First slate headed by Lybarger was elected last year—and its first task was to rebuild the weakened MATs.

The goal is a 1:10 ratio. Members who step up must get signatures from 10 co-workers to show they have support—and the signers must also pledge to support their MAT rep.

“The contract fight we’re heading into,” Lybarger says, “we’re not going to win if we don’t have a strong base of rank-and-file leaders.”


Jason Ide is president of a small local of Teamster movers in New York. He had to get members out of the habit of calling the union office for every grievance. This took intensive training of stewards. “If you have a steward who can handle most discipline and some contract interpretation grievances, that makes an enormous difference,” Ide said.



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Berg, whose local included 11,000 members and 100 contracts, is proud of how they overhauled bargaining and ran contract campaigns. “We took a very dead local where a lot of structures had been sabotaged and were able to involve the members in a way they hadn’t been involved in the past,” he said.

Members joined negotiating committees—a new practice. Officers severely limited sidebars. “People asked us, ‘can we see the contract before you sign it?’ Not even ‘can we vote on it?’” Berg remembers. “Now they had a say in what was going on.”


Training new stewards, putting an obnoxious boss back in line: that can be the fun stuff. But the qualities that make a good organizer don’t necessarily translate into the nuts and bolts of administration. And the administrative aspects of the job can’t be underestimated.

Successful reformers have brought in experienced mentors for the transition. Those who’ve trod this road before can help with strategic planning (even before you take office), setting up education for the new officers, and getting out a newsletter right away.

Over the months, access to a reform group helps. Mark Bass, president of Longshoremen’s Local 1410 in Mobile, Alabama, says belonging to the Longshore Workers Coalition has helped both to win changes from the international and to learn from other locals. “I have guys that network with people in other ports to find out their work rules,” Bass said.

But choose mentors carefully: Any outside help you inherit is probably going to slide you back into the well-worn grooves of business unionism. “Fire your lawyer!” says Tim Sylvester, president of a New York local at UPS.

Being an administrator means being a boss. How do union troublemakers do there? Not well, apparently. They all say later that they wish they’d moved quickly to remove staffers who were undermining the program.

“None of the old guard staff made the shift,” says Merrilees. “Our biggest mistake was usually waiting too long to fire someone. Rarely do you say to yourself, ‘I didn’t give them enough of a chance.’”

“We did a poor job of setting up policies and work rules,” says Berg. “Our staff was being paid with members’ dues money and when they don’t carry out their responsibility there have to be clear work rules and a clear message about what will happen.”

It’s not that staffers hired under the old regime are necessarily antagonistic—though some will be. But they came up in a different culture. “We had a staff some of whom were into organizing, but most of them were satisfied to do grievances,” says Jordan. Plus, the old union culture probably didn’t reward organizing—but it sure would punish staff for missing a grievance deadline.


Reformers who want to recruit new leaders for the long haul will need to stretch members’ horizons, to inspire them with a vision that’s more than winning the next grievance, as necessary as that is. How can leaders move their locals into the wider world at the same time they’re doing everything else?

In Teamsters 743, Latinos are about a third of the local. The new administration made sure to communicate in both Spanish and English and sometimes in Polish, too. The local marched every May Day for worker and immigrant rights and took buses to protest at the 2008 Republican Convention.

Alvarez recalls, “At some of my companies the Latinos were not afraid to speak up anymore.” Some members went from hardly knowing they were in a union to finding a part in the immigrant rights movement.

CWA Local 1400 mobilized members to fight for Vermont’s new single-payer law, based on the principle of health care for all rather than just defense of their own. One caucus in the LA teachers union organizes with parents to save their schools from privatization; they’ve been the leading edge in protests against layoffs that would balloon class sizes, and scores have been arrested.

Ide’s local has formed a tight alliance with Occupy Wall Street to fight a nine-month lockout by Sotheby’s art house, putting the art handlers into the thick of Occupy’s debates over corporate power, the role of government, and how to win sweeping change.


When veterans of a reform movement inside the Puerto Rico Teachers Federation (FMPR) took office in 2003, its leaders, Rafael Feliciano and Maria Melendez, emphasized the importance of a long-term perspective. Shortcuts, they said, would backfire.

They led a 10-day island-wide strike, survived decertification and revocation of dues check-off by an anti-union governor, and turned aside a raid by SEIU, all with far fewer resources than most unions.

How did they do it? “Sometimes your enemy attacks you because they want you to concentrate your resources at the top,” Feliciano said. “But most of our energy in every point of the process was in the locals.”

The caucus did not even run for office for many years. Instead members fought for a bylaws change to create local structures of 500 members, and then spent years strengthening those.

“If we put most of our energy into the top, then in the long run we lose,” Feliciano said.

Leaders have a choice of doing the work themselves or doing it the hard way: by training and trusting others, hashing out a division of labor. It’s easier said than done. “We would often look at each other and say, ‘We’re taking shortcuts,’” Jordan said.


Activists who are not in power can pick their issues. When you’re in power, the issues pick you. Often leaders feel “picked” by things right in front of their faces, from fixing the leak in the union hall roof to the squeaky-wheel member who wants his overtime grievance resolved. Questions of the institution that must be maintained can quickly take priority over questions of the movement.

The daily bureaucratic blob, along with the sheer crush of work—our interviewees spoke of 12- and 14-hour days—can swallow the vision that caused reformers to run in the first place, and finish off the ability to strategize and plan.

“It’s tough to get away from putting out day-to-day fires and pay attention to the longer picture,” says Ide, “but it’s the only thing that that will let us stand up to capital. They have a long-term plan, we need a long-term plan.”

Jordan recalls when the local announced a one-day strike to protest layoffs. When the school district got an injunction, leaders called the strike off.

“We were simply not prepared for, jeez, what if they do get an injunction?” Jordan said. “How do we prepare people to break it if we’re going to break it? Or that we’re not? We weren’t thinking down the road about eventualities that would happen as we set things in motion.”

Ide’s local holds a leadership retreat each year and spends a lot of time during the year assessing and reassessing whether what they’re doing is effective. The plan for 2011 included improving dues collection, organizing the non-union competition, training in arbitrations and corporate research, training stewards, and connecting with other unions.

Only one item on the list didn’t get done: training in time management.

Mark Brenner and Mischa Gaus contributed to this article.

For much more on running a local successfully, see A Troublemaker’s Handbook 2, Democracy Is Power (a handbook for getting members involved), and Labor Notes’ newest publication: The Steward’s Toolbox: Skills and Strategies for Winning at Work, available in May. And attend the Lessons for Reformers workshop at the May 4-6 Labor Notes Conference.