Unlikely Sources for Union-Bashing

It's no shocker to say unions have been weakened by hard-nosed anti-union employers, their political allies like Ronald Reagan and George Bush and even--often understandably--by dissidents within their own ranks.

But it is surprising that some of the most telling blows against unions are being dealt by a few brilliant film producers and writers who, paradoxically, are not against unions and are sympathetic to workers.

These talented people are siding with workers who are victims of corporate cruelties perpetrated by executives in their pursuit of profits.

And the producers and writers of some remarkable films and books also say that unions are urgently needed, and should be far stronger than they are.

However, their criticisms add to the force of union bashing by wrongly suggesting or alleging that unions are no good because almost all of their leaders are ineffective, complacent or on the take.

How many non-union workers who see these films and books are going to recognize any value in organizations led by the men and women depicted?

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is Barbara Kopple's award-winning documentary "American Dream," a dramatic film on the bitter strike against a Hormel plant in Austin, Minn.

Despite their shortcomings and inadequacies--which are at least no worse than their counterparts in business--most labor leaders, unlike most corporate executives, are in the forefront of the struggles for social justice in and out of unions.

Also, almost all of them are fighting with varying degrees of effectiveness to counter the blows inflicted on workers who are being ruthlessly laid off as companies are "restructured" and plants moved abroad.

But some film producers and writers ignore those positives and concentrate on the theory that today's labor officials are inadequate because they are failing to lead their members into knock-down, drag-out battles with management.

The truth is that leadership usually involves close judgment calls. Should leaders recommend a strike regardless of the odds that always favor management to some degree?

And more fundamentally, should labor leaders relentlessly pursue the old adversarial labor-management relationships, or try the more rational route of seeking to cooperate with employers and share in corporate decision-making?

While these intellectuals are showing what are perceived as negatives about labor leaders, they show union dissidents as heroes. Some of the rebels are courageous and deserve credit, like those in the Teamsters for a Democratic Union who helped spark a cleanup of the corruption at the top of that union.

But the wisdom, or effectiveness, of dissidents is not always so clear. They usually are the ones who mistakenly advocate continuing the old adversarial system, although their courage is often great, as evidenced in Kopple's "American Dream."

It is an exciting drama that captures the tragic conflicts in the strike, and Kopple rightly shows no sympathy with the company that is determined to cut wages despite high profits.

William Wynn, the United Food and Commercial Workers president, is seen as a pro-company traitor to the local union when he finally orders an end to the 25-week walkout after workers braved the Minnesota snows on picket lines, sullen glares of defiance from strikebreakers and the hardships of trying to live on $40 weekly strike benefits.

The strike was broken, but even viewers not sympathetic to unions must be moved by that struggle by workers in one of the most dangerous jobs in the country: slaughtering and butchering animals.

However, Kopple doesn't suggest that the strikers could have won if the top union leaders had refused to surrender to Hormel. It was a difficult decision, and perhaps Wynn and others made a mistake.

Yet instead of clearly documenting the dilemma Wynn and other top UFCW leaders faced, the film is structured so they appear as opportunists interested only in themselves and not as leaders who may--or may not--have made a mistake.

Behind much of the dissension in unions and attacks on their leaders by outside intellectuals is the increasingly furious argument over labor-management cooperation.

Most dissidents view cooperation as a sellout to management, as in "American Dream." The dissidents' cause was helped enormously by cold-blooded management at Hormel and by recent actions of General Motors, which, unlike Hormel, is in economic trouble.

GM talks enthusiastically about cooperation even as it slashes employment by moving jobs to Mexico and closes efficient plants where workers have been among the most active participants in what is called the "team concept."

Bruce Lee, the UAW's western regional director, is under fire for his support of cooperation and faces strong opposition in his bid for reelection.

Lee says the union was "betrayed" by GM executives who recently announced that they will close the company's Van Nuys plant after promising to keep it open. That and other such actions by GM damage the trust so essential to cooperation.

But Lee sensibly concludes that "we cannot give up on cooperation even though there are dangers in it because, in the long run, it makes sense for everyone. Workers must be major players in deciding how companies operate, although we must always be on guard against further betrayals."

Lee is right. No one is helped when workers and managers bash one another as they did at Hormel and are doing at GM. An alternative is badly needed and must be sought even if management usually blocks the way.

Maybe true labor-management cooperation is just a dream, and the reality is a struggle like the one at Hormel and the larger one at GM. But union leaders striving to achieve that achievable dream should not be viewed as enemies of workers.

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