When I read about dis-organized labor’s feud that has now erupted into full-blown gang warfare my first thought - a symptom of desperate escapism, I suppose - was, where is Constantine the Great when you need him?
In 325 A.D., immersed in a doctrinal controversy that threatened to tear apart the church and, of more intense concern to the emperor, the state, Constantine called an urgent staff meeting of high-level operatives to say he wished them to negotiate some workable agreement. Given that Constantine was the kind of CEO capable of permanently relieving even family members from worldly existence, his wishes tended to carry some weight.
Before the meeting he put his displeasure in a memo. To the principal troublemakers he wrote, “This contention has not arisen respecting any important command of the law, nor has any new opinion been introduced…. It is thought to be not only indecorous, but altogether unlawful, that so numerous a people of God should be governed and directed at your pleasure, while you are thus [jealously] contending with each other, and quarrelling about small and very trifling matters.” Here was perspective at work.
In the end there were gracious concessions, an accord prevailed and the crisis passed, even though honest debate continued. But above all there was peace. There was agreement to hang together rather than fall apart - a divided house can’t stand and all that. Sensible men had followed the advice proffered by the wise, from Constantine to Lyndon Johnson: “Come let us reason together.”
It is therefore sad that mere labor leaders - those with less than the world’s future in their hands and less to work with every passing day - have been unable to do the same.
The recent defections from the AFL-CIO show what the absence of leadership and presence of inflexibility can do. What should be manageable bickering escalates into major bickering. Internal squabbling then overshadows the external and actual threat - in this case the efficiently organized right, intent on a union-less society wherein dog-eat-dog anarchy reigns at the bottom and a disciplined plutocracy laughs from atop. And make no mistake: that is precisely what it’s doing right now.
In addressing the divided AFL-CIO convention delegates, Jesse Jackson speechified on the incredibly obvious. “We must turn to each other, not on each other.” The alternative accomplished by selfish insurgents and uncreative incumbents leaves “so much blood on the field that you cannot compete” against “anti-civil-rights, anti-labor-rights Republicans.”
Those unionists close - perhaps too close - to this battle will dutifully list their complaints for anyone willing to listen, protesting that lack of satisfaction justified the break. Great care is given by each side in highlighting its propriety on all counts.
But here’s the thing, dear union leaders. Those of us on the outside who still see unionization as one of the few, last hopes for averting permanent plutocracy don’t really give a damn what your complaints are and don’t care that your internal opponents upset you. We do, however, very much care about the bigger picture and deserved your attention to it as a fundamental matter of solidarity.
And you blew it. As a result every dollar of union dues from this day forward is devalued; organizing is yet further harmed; progressive politicians must now compete for competing endorsements; critical get-out-the-vote efforts are less coordinated; and the vulturine right will now pick at the bones of your weakened membership.
Thanks a lot, guys. I’m sure you had good reasons - and the reactionary right is cheering each and every one.
Seventeen centuries ago Emperor Constantine described his frustration with internal disputes fomented by shortsighted factions: “They bring me more grief than anything else.” He overcame them - but then again, he wasn’t dealing with today’s labor leaders.