Learning How to Lead

Views from the Board

Volume CVIII, No. 2February, 2008

Executive Board members Ethan Fein, Andy Schwartz and Maxine Roach are in the process of attending a two-year program in union leadership from the Cornell Industrial and Labor Relations School. Below, Fein and Schwartz give their impressions of one of the program’s three-day seminars last September.


We had exercises in internal mobilization and external mobilization, and lessons in how to motivate union members to act in their own self-interest. All of the different aspects of the weekend were interesting, but as usual in this course, the most interesting part is meeting with the other labor leaders from many different unions who are also in the class.

For me, one of the most interesting ideas came from a woman with Local 1180 of the Communication Workers of America, who suggested that since there are so many well-organized unions in New York City, we should concentrate on trying to influence the politics of the city. This seems to me to be something that can be achieved realistically, if all the unions can agree on various policies.

What was also interesting for me was a description of the way unions after World War II adopted a style of operation which mimicked that of large corporations. Unions became service providers. Our class is looking to change that culture, and create unions which encourage active member participation in day-to-day activities.


The session was an opportunity to further our labor education by delving deeper into matters of leadership and organizing.

In our first weeklong session back in July, the new class of ‘08 slowly became acquainted and spoke tentatively about the issues confronting labor. Many were uncertain about just what the program would have in store for them and how — as individuals from diverse unions — we would mesh.

This time around we were more vocal, capable of asserting ourselves and willing to challenge the ideas and theories put forth by the faculty. We developed a mutually supportive team spirit. The social interaction between the classmates proved to be even more of a bonding experience than one would expect: good friendships were made that we all have hopes of maintaining between sessions this coming year and beyond.

A point that seemed to be made frequently by attendees was the opportunity this training was giving us to look beyond our own unions’ borders and find a commonality in the difficulties facing our modern labor unions.

Clearly much energy will have to be expended to revitalize the labor movement in this country.

Our classes at Cornell are well designed to provide an incubator for new leadership and serve as a think-tank for conceptualizing a much-needed fresh approach to overcoming the political and economic obstacles facing America’s workers.