By Erin Sherbert
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By Kate Conger
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By Rachel Swan
Last week, a luminary in the labor movement died in an airport on his way to the bedside of a dying daughter. Victor Van Bourg was a 68-year-old labor attorney who represented more than a million union members in locals stretching from Arizona to Alaska. A legend in his field, Van Bourg was a firebrand from a bygone age when the labor movement carried more clout than it does today. He was part of the movement's institutional memory, but more than that, his efforts, which continued until the day he died, had a major impact on workers throughout the western United States. Van Bourg's law firm played a part in every aspect of union business, from contract negotiations to project labor agreements. Union leadership set the policy for the movement, but it was up to Van Bourg to close the deal.
I had been working on an extended, in-depth article on Van Bourg and his influence, and met with him just a few weeks before he died. We ate breakfast at a coffee shop on the bottom floor of the Emeryville Holiday Inn. Though I had heard the man was large, I was surprised by his size. He was immense, weighing at least 300 pounds. Not quite the sinewy Lion of the Left I had imagined. He ordered soft-boiled eggs and a triple helping of bacon, and when his food arrived he meticulously tore his unbuttered toast into tiny pieces over the broken yolks. When the waitress brought him his cafe au lait, he gingerly licked the cream off the top of the mug.
By way of reportorial ingratiation, I told Van Bourg that my grandfather had come from Poland and spent his life as a communist organizer in Detroit and the greater Midwest. This seemed to please the attorney, who sprang from Russian immigrant roots. "Did you get a chance to know him? Did you get to love him?" he asked. "Because if you respect his views, you are very enriched. Most people involved in politics don't have that."
He proceeded to tell me how he had watched the labor movement change over the years. "I am totally unreconstructed," he said with pride. "That may be a strength, that may be a weakness."
If life were simpler, I could go on to describe how Van Bourg fought the good fight throughout his life. It's a story we've become accustomed to hearing, here in the union capital of the West. But Van Bourg's story -- indeed, labor's story -- is more complicated than that. The truth is that the labor movement closed ranks during the 1970s and 1980s and began caring at least as much about protecting its top-down power structure as it cared about improving the lives of its members. Since then, trade unions have increasingly begun to resemble employment agencies rather than militant advocacy groups for the working class. Among other things, they have taken on the role of policing dissent within their own memberships. For unions throughout this region, Van Bourg was the legal muscle hired to enforce law and order.
Over the past three decades, almost any reformer, dissident, or revolutionary challenging a West Coast union's authority has run straight into the imposing figure of Victor Van Bourg. As counsel for the unions, Van Bourg was paid to take on any and all comers, whether they were management heavies or union ne'er-do-wells. Thus, while Van Bourg has represented Cesar Chavez's National Farm Workers Organizing Committee, he has also quashed random rank-and-file attempts to clean up mismanaged unions. As he has fought for the right for public employees to engage in strikes, he has also represented union officials accused of corruption, placing himself in positions that appeared to represent obvious conflicts of interest.
I believed Van Bourg when he said that he had remained "unreconstructed" in his loyalty to the union cause. He seemed steadfast in his belief that "the worst union, no matter how bad it is, is better than the best boss, no matter how wonderful he is."
Still, I can't help but wonder if Van Bourg's cause betrayed him, just as communism collapsed and betrayed my grandfather. The labor movement has changed drastically since Van Bourg's youth; he would be the first to tell you that. I wish he had been given the time to tell me whether he believed in his heart that smashing little guys who complained about union leadership was good for the labor movement, or whether, when he participated in the smashing, he saw himself as nothing more than the unions' hammer.
Van Bourg took pride in his early involvement in the labor movement, before passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, a bill that limited labor's ability to mass picket, prohibited secondary boycotts, and restricted unions from making direct political contributions. To him, Taft-Hartley was the dividing line between the old world and the new. No one born after the inception of that nasty law, he believed, could possibly appreciate the full scope of the labor movement.
He also placed great value on his upbringing in a tightknit community of Russian immigrants in Los Angeles during the 1930s. He described it as an Old World communal setting, held together by a common language and culture. He remembered sleeping in the union cloakroom while his parents, both active in union politics, joined in political discussions with his neighbors. "I became what I am from that experience," he said. "The foundation for my beliefs began there: that labor was noble, that the relationship between workers and their employers was adversarial."