By Phinneas Gage
Miguel was charismatic. Middle aged yet still handsome, a principled family man, an open communist and refugee from Chile. He was part of the left, of the left, of the left, those who desperately argued that the working class had to defend themselves even as Allende their socialist President was dragged away and shot in a basement. As an entire generation was exterminated or disappeared, buried beneath soccer stadiums and dropped into Volcanoes Miguel managed to make it to Canada, like an entire generation of Chileans he vowed not to give up the fight. He was a survivor, a militant and a leader.
So a leader is what my union decided to make him. When Miguel was on the floor he held more power than any of the bosses. I remember being a nervous inexperienced shop steward dealing with a possible firing; the stakes were high- the sister in question had gotten into an accident, her third in the last month. Three accidents for drivers in a year is enough to get someone fired, and on top of all this she was still a temp and nowhere near the end of her probation, and as one supervisor recently found out she was pregnant. I asked for Miguel to help me represent the sister as the stakes were just too high for me to responsibly handle on my own.
To say we came out on top in that interview would be an understatement. Miguel simply walked into the room, beaming, and sat down leaning far back in his chair. The two young supervisors were obviously caught off guard, they were visibly nervous. There’s a stereotype of what the labour militant should look like, yelling at the boss, defiant, a person who lives and breathes direct action. No doubt there were times when Miguel was exactly this. However, the quiet power he held was stronger. In this case he merely told the supervisors that if they fired this sister it would be an injustice that cannot be overlooked by the workers. He never once mentioned the union all he said was the workers would not tolerate this injustice.
That quiet power, the leadership in that man and his skills as an organizer did not come from him alone. Those supervisors did not fear Miguel, they feared the respect he had from his peers, the bosses feared the workers ability under Miguel’s leadership, to make their lives miserable. Miguel believed in his coworkers and his coworkers believed in him.
A union officer does not need to have the backing of the workers on the floor. He - and it's usually he - only needs to have backing of the workers who bother to turn out to vote. A working class leader can only exist with the tacit support of the workers. The problem is the relation that the officer has to the workers they represent and used to work next to. This is why a union officer is not necessarily a working class leader.
When leadership comes from the floor there is very little distance between a working class leader and her supporters. Quiet chiding and maybe a bit of teasing about status going to their head can bring the leader in line if they are acting out of step with the workers. This discipline by the workers on their leadership is part of the normal work environment.
When one is a union leader one “visits the workfloor.” You are no longer at home on the job; you are a guest in the workers own space. This creates a distance, a relationship that makes officers likely to view their role as a professional one, as an expert who comes in from the outside. Even the most progressive unions while in one instance saying “you are the union” to the membership say in another that we must “service our members”. These two conceptions of workplace activism are fundamentally at odds with each other. In fact the idea that “˜the membership is the union’ acts a smokescreen for the union turning itself into a third party above and beyond the workers own self activity on the job. Much like employers try to call workgroups teams or subordinates “˜partners’ unions mask their bureaucracy by conflating the ability to mobilize and inspire with the position in the union hierarchy.
Two years earlier Miguel was president of the local; he served two terms before returning to work in the plant. During a wildcat action in his former workplace Miguel was stuck in a tough position. Stopping the mail often gets people fired, but the workers were incensed. Against his own previous practice (Miguel had already been fired once for leading a job action himself several years earlier) he advised the workers to return to work. He was afraid someone might loose their job as had almost happened to him.
No doubt some people keep their militancy up while in office. There are courageous labour leaders and I’ve met my fair share. Miguel definitely was one of them. But again it isn’t enough that a leader is brave and principled. The important question is why was Miguel willing to incite job actions to the point of getting fired when it was his risk to take but advised others not to take the same risk. The reason is his relationship to the struggle, and to the workers he was leading had changed.
This relationship is destroyed by institutionally removing the leadership from the workplace and placing them in an office, the pronoun changes from “˜we’ to “˜you’. The means of disciplining the leadership then becomes voting them out, in effect saying that when you screw up your punishment is to become just another worker. The focus of activity is no longer at work but rather at the union office. A good militant who would be perfectly willing to stick their own neck out on an action with their co-workers is afraid to have others take that risk. Their instinct is a noble one; they want to protect their people.
The desire to not incite others to take big risks, even if one would take those risks themselves is a good quality in a person. The problem is not with the caliber of working class leadership the problem is with the leadership’s relation to the rank and file. The key is to build working class leadership that can stay on the job. This means organizing in a manner that does not rob the rank and file of on the job leadership and organizing without full time paid leaders. True leadership is not an office or a title but the ability to move people. This way when we decide to take risks and take on a fight we do it in full knowledge of what we are getting into without asking others to take risks we ourselves are not taking as well.