In most mainstream media outlets, newspapers or otherwise, writers will almost always use one of two terms when speaking about the leadership of labor unions: “labor boss” or “union boss.” It is so common that the writers don’t seem to understand that the very term is problematic. Regardless of the writers intention, use of these terms bring one thing to mind- that the union is run by the dictatorship of one individual over the entire organization.
You must understand how a union works, to see why these terms are biased and unhelpful. Unions are built from the ground up. At the base there’s a “local union” that individual workers join. The local is responsible for issues that affect workers in a specific workplace, industry or geographical location. Local unions’ leaders are elected by the members of the local.
Above the local union is usually a regional or district body that represents a certain area or state. It may be a body that joins together several local unions in the same geographic area, negotiates contracts and provides representational assistance to members, or it may help mainly to coordinate certain common interests, such as legislative or electoral activity. The leaders of the district or region are elected by the members of several local unions which are in the district or region.
There is also a national or international union, which is composed of the local unions. The national or international holds a convention normally every three or four years where the leadership is chosen and major decisions are made. The convention is made up of delegates chosen by and from the local unions based on their membership. The larger the local membership, the greater number of delegates a local union will hold at the convention.
The leadership of a union on all levels is chosen through an election by individual members. What is important to understand is that as opposed to a corporation, union leadership is elected and there is membership engagement in the process. For this reason the term union or labor “boss” is not useful and is, in effect defamatory, it disregards the basic fact that there’s an electoral process within unions.
Sections of the mainstream media, along with right-wing opponents of unions have used these terms to paint all union leaders as “labor bosses”. Ironically, one rarely hears employers described in the media as “corporate bosses” or other such terms, they are normally referred to as “chief executive officer”,” president” or “chairman of the board of directors”, despite the fact that corporations do not even put up the pretense of being a democratic organization.
The term “union or labor boss” is a way of dismissively describing union workers as insignificant. It also seeks to portray union leaders as dictators. The goal is to make people believe that unions are a mindless organization, except for a manipulative leader directing a faceless mass of people.
The next time you hear these terms referring to democratically elected union leaders, remember union leaders are elected by the members and that unions are a democratic organization whose policies and goals are voted on by the members. UNIONS ARE AN ORGANIZATION OF WORKERS, NOT A DICTATORSHIP RUN BY “UNION BOSSES”.
Sincerely, Ben Lofton