At Northwest, Both Labor Federations Are Failing Test of Strike Solidarity
by Steve Early
    Having two labor federations, instead of one, is not a new idea in
America--or necessarily a negative development.
     Prior to the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and
Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), union competition was more often
the norm in the U.S. than not.  As a result, workers often had a wider range of
options when they decided to organize or became dissatisfied with their
existing union representation.
    In the 1880s and '90s, for example, fledgling AFL building trades unions
wooed members away from the more loosely-organized and less practical-minded
Knights of Labor. During the first two decades of the 20th century, the radical
Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) challenged the then-dominant AFL by
recruiting unskilled factory workers ignored by the building trades.
      Between 1935 and 1955, craft and industrial unions were again bitter
foes. But their political and workplace conflict provided millions of workers
with a clear choice between the continuing conservatism of the AFL and the
left-leaning militancy of the CIO.
    Unfortunately, the current split between the AFL-CIO and its new rival,
the Change To Win Coalition (CTWC), did not emerge from any transformative
grassroots movement--of the kind that has made unions a more progressive force in
the past.
    The CTWC's break with the AFL-CIO developed out of inside-the-Beltway
bureaucratic squabbles that union members have little interest in and no say
about. The AFL-CIO and its defectors don't have radically  different workplace
organizing or political agendas.  Unlike the Knights of Labor, IWW, or early CIO,
no labor grouping today is projecting an alternative vision of how the
economy should be re-structured to aid and empower America workers.
    Most revealing of all, both the AFL-CIO and its former affiliates in the
CTWC are currently failing a fundamental test of labor solidarity. At
Northwest Airlines and other carriers, thousands of mechanics have formed an
independent union, the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association (AMFA). AMFA is now
striking against  massive job cuts and contract concessions at Northwest.
     Rather than recognizing everyone's stake in the outcome of this fight,
top labor officials are ignoring AMFA's pleas for help, because its members
have voted out unions affiliated with both the AFL-CIO and CTWC.  (Some have at
least discouraged members and staffers from flying on Northwest.) At the
national level, organized labor is thus repeating its terrible mistake in 1981 when
air traffic controllers walked out and were similarly rebuffed--in that case,
because of their prior support for Ronald Reagan (the president who then fired
and replaced them!).
    Fortunately,  union members in many cities are rallying behind AMFA, just
as they did around PATCO. If the future of unions is going to be any less
bleak than their recent past, we need more such examples of bottom-up solidarity
and rank-and-file initiative. What makes labor a real movement is not the
machinations of its national bureaucracies--whether they're merging or splitting
up.  Effective unionism is rooted in the collective activity of workers on the
job and in their communities. Now, as in the past, that's the only reliable
source of mutual aid and protection for all working people.

(Steve Early is part of a Jobs With Justice Solidarity Committee aiding Northwest strikers in Boston.)