Lessons for San Diego Labor in the Wake of Mickey Kasparian’s Fall

by on January 7, 2019 · 0 comments

in Labor, San Diego, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

One of the last bits of big local political news towards the end of 2018 was the resounding defeat of United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 135 President Mickey Kasparian along with his entire slate in their union election on the heels of two years of internal and external conflict.

After refusing to step down from his position as President of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council in the wake of multiple workplace and sexual harassment allegations in 2016, Kasparian split the labor movement, sought to divide local progressives, and fought a scorched earth campaign against his perceived enemies.

All of it ended badly with lots of damage being done along the way.

Mickey Kasparian

Rather than establishing a new power base, Kasparian’s rogue Working Families Council did little other than weaken labor as a whole in San Diego and divide the progressive community.  I have written extensively about the split in the past , but what strikes me in the immediate aftermath is that there are lessons here for San Diego labor – and all labor for that matter –  that are relevant well beyond this particular sad affair.

Here are some of the central ones:

It’s Not About You, It’s About Us: Cults of personality, narcissism, and petty in-group/out-group politics need to go.  Leave that garbage in high school and think about what matters most in the big picture.  It should always be about principle rather than ego, “we” rather than “me.” No individual leader or politician is more important than the collective good.

Top-Down Business Unionism Sucks: The labor movement has been most effective when it has been led by the rank and file, promoted social justice-unionism, and fought for the betterment of ALL workers rather than the wishes of an insulated leadership or the bread and butter interests of a small group instead of the entire working class.  Top-down business unionism simply borrows the worst sins of corporate culture and applies them to labor unions. When the average worker feels like they have no say or control over the process, it hurts the labor movement and can lead to corruption. Sadly, this lesson is surely something that applies to many unions and progressive organizations.

Factionalism is the Original Sin of the Left:  There is always a lot of personal, political, and social harm that comes with nasty factional disputes.  Very rarely do splits end well or produce a better outcome than doing the sometimes hard work of maintaining unity in the movement.  We should be more about redemption than revenge.

Community-Labor Solidarity Matters: In the end, when labor shuts its doors to the community and operates in a bunker, everyone loses.  Doing things that alienate women and communities of color or other potential allies is unwise for labor, particularly in this current moment of deep peril.   In the wake of the last thirty years of assaults on labor and declining union density, it is centrally important to find and nurture relationships with the community.  If labor doesn’t do this, it will die. And if labor dies, the entire progressive community will suffer and be left permanently weaker.

History Matters: When you don’t pay attention to your history, you do stupid things.  Anyone who knows the recent history of the AFL-CIO/Change to Win split knows that there was a pretty good test case of how effective a divided movement would be: NOT VERY EFFECTIVE AT ALL.  Understanding this, the vulnerability of labor post-Janus, and the needs of American workers in the age of Trump given what has happened under similar kinds of political leadership at the state level in Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere should guide labor’s course going forward.

Solidarity Means More than Personal Loyalty:  There is an old saying in labor: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”  That simple but profound statement should be the guiding light for labor—the realization that, as Martin Luther King used to say, all of our futures are “inextricably bound.”  That doesn’t mean personal loyalty to a particular labor leader or politician, it means being committed to an ideal of solidarity that commits one to a larger sense of self, to a vision of a beloved community that won’t be satisfied until there is indeed justice for all.  In these dark times, nothing is more important.

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