On May 8th, hundreds of security guards rallied in Mid-town Manhattan to demand a living wage, affordable health benefits, proper training, and above all, respect. It was the latest action in the SEIU 32BJ attempt to organize New York City’s 60,000 security guards—a campaign that deserves the support, material and moral, of anyone concerned with social justice. It was loud, energetic, and optimistic; I know—I was working directly across the street at a high-end steak house.
As the known radical and ardently pro-union person at work (even by management, which is a funny dynamic), everyone came up to me to ask what was going on. Of course, I had gone outside to take a look, and I already had some understanding of the on-going struggle. When I explained to my co-workers what they were rallying for, all were sympathetic, except for some snide comments by a few managers. There was even the occasional, "I wish we had a union."
When the rally had finished, one of my managers came and notified me that ten people from the rally had just come in to eat. She followed by saying, "they must not be doing that bad." I immediately thought to myself that it must be the union officials and the various religious leaders that had spoke in support at the rally. Without ado, they came strolling in and sat down at their table. My stomach started turning, but I was not surprised.
Obviously, the security guards themselves could not afford to come and eat. They are highly underpaid, which is why it is such an important struggle. Just to put this into a clearer context, the average Price Per Person (PPA) at my restaurant hovers around $80-90 for dinner. The price range for entrees alone is $30-55. Then factor in side offerings, salads, soups, drinks, etc. You can see how the bill gets up there.
There was not any "excess," (if that is possible at a restaurant that has a thousands bottles of wine and 22oz steaks) as in ordering fancy bottles of wine, and such. And I am almost positive that the bill was paid by one of the Christian ministers that was in attendance and not by the union. However, there are still many things wrong with this picture.
First, even if the money to pay for the dinner did not come from the union but from a supporter, couldn’t that money have been used to help the rank-and-filers putting their asses on the line? Instead, it was used to feed the bellies of their officials.
Second, we could give them a break and assume they were celebrating a good action, and that they were merely treating themselves to a once in a while fancy dinner; but that still doesn’t get them off the hook. They walked directly across the street into a upscale restaurant, immediately following the rally. Do they not think that their membership did not see them do so? More likely is much of the membership and the struggling hopefully union to-be security guards saw them enter. What effect does this have on morale, trust, and credibility? Hundreds of people came out to unite and fight for basic human rights, and the people who are supposed to be the leaders of this struggle decide to quite openly eat a place where corporate executives and power brokers frequent daily. To do so right in front those struggling should be taken as a slap in the face. Furthermore, the rally attendees and the security guards organizing are overwhelmingly people of color, and the majority are black. In New York City, almost half of black men are unemployed, and with the worsening economic situation, this could become even more of a pandemic. So, not only were the union officials and friends alienating themselves from and insulting their rank-and-filers, it was compounded by the fact that those who they claim to represent are disproportionately affected by our exploitative system.
Finally, it is moves like this that are partly responsible for the state of the labor movement. I work in a non-union restaurant; however, much of the workforce is favorable to the idea of a union. Though I cannot disclose details on efforts to unionize at my restaurant (whether they exist or not), it does the situation no good when my co-workers see union leaders and supporters come in and eat after I just told them that the security guards the spoke in favor of barely make more than minimum wage. In a way it was good to expose the downfalls of union bureaucracy, but it also serves to make workers cynical. They are not stupid. It doesn’t take much to see the hypocrisy of union leaders railing against greedy corporate executives one minute and then literally eating a the table next to them, ten minutes later. I’m sure the workers at the rally were quick to make the same association.
I do not know much about those who sat at that table. They could very well be doing a good job in the current campaign, and they could have done so in the past, also. However, it does not excuse their actions that day. At best, they made an ill-calculated celebration dinner decision, which may have disheartened their rank-and file, as well as mine. At worst, and what seems to be the norm these days, it was emblematic of a greater problem in the labor movement: the disconnect between the interests of professionalized union officials and the rank-and file workers. A problem that can only be solved by the emergence of a rank-and file self-managed labor movement.
Hopefully, the security guards can realize their own collective strength and use their union as a tool to realize their potential and win their demands in a way that empowers them for long term struggle; rather than get cut short by a leadership whose interests aren’t necessarily the same as the workers. At the same time, we can only hope that I caught the union officials and supporters on a bad day. I think I’ll take my chances and put my hope in the workers.
John J. Cronan Jr. lives in New York City, where he is restaurant worker and and organizer. He organizes with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), as well as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) Food and Allied Workers Union I.U. 460/640. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .