Discussion On the Future Of the American Labor Movement

Labor Advocate Online

First Take On the Split
by Bill Onasch

When the AFL-CIO executive council met a few days after Bush’s reelection SEIU president Andy Stern issued a public ultimatum: if the federation didn’t adopt the proposals of what was then called the New Unity Partnership, and if they failed to replace the present executive officers, beginning with president John Sweeney, then SEIU and its allies would leave the "house of labor" and start a whole new subdivision of their own.

Eight months later, on the eve of the fed convention, Stern showed he wasn’t bluffing. As this is written (July 26) SEIU, along with the Teamsters, UFCW, and UNITE HERE, have formally withdrawn from the AFL-CIO. Two additional affiliates, the Laborers and United Farm Workers, are expected to do the same soon. These six unions are joined by the Carpenters, who left the federation four years ago, to form what is, for now, designated as a "coalition," Change to Win.

When Stern crossed the Rubicon last November he also issued a call for a great debate over labor’s future. Clearly such a discussion is urgently needed–and not just about union "density." Working class standards of living are on the decline. Anxiety about job security is on everyone’s mind. Workers worry about access to health care, whether they can count on pension promises, how they can possibly pay for their kid’s education. The environment is going to hell. And, above all else, is a war with no end in sight.

Stern established a web site, Unite to Win, dedicated to the worthy objective of discussion. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of local union officials, radicals, and some rank-and-file workers did submit comments on a wide range of topics to a section of that site–so many in fact that they quickly became unwieldy and very difficult to follow. But most of the site’s focus was on Stern’s personal blog, along with occasional official statements by SEIU and their allies. Soon, the Sweeney leadership established a similar format on the AFL-CIO web site. The fed’s effort was primarily given over to weighty comments by various "international" union presidents.

It soon became clear that the debate, the goals, of two warring factions in the AFL-CIO had little to do with the issues of great concern to America’s workers. Stern proved adept at leveraging discontent against incumbent leaders–including his one-time mentor, John Sweeney. But this student challenging his master conflict was really about the survival of their species–a union bureaucracy based on collaboration with the employers and toadying to the bosses’ politicians.

Stern is concerned that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy has not responded to the changing economy. Too many small affiliates, too many local unions, needless central labor councils, money wasted on educational projects-- too much deadwood in their eroding forest. The changers want to see resources concentrated in a few maga-unions focused on a few strategically selected industries.

Actually, Stern is a bit of a late convert to this consolidate to win approach. His allies in the Carpenters and UFCW have been far out in front in terms of merging and eliminating local unions to assert even more control from the very highest echelons. But SEIU has been frantically playing catch-up. For example, all SEIU members in Kansas City are now part of a "local" union based in Chicago.

At one time, the changers probably had some hope that they might prevail in the struggle for control of the federation. Once it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen they lost interest in "debate." They chose instead to show their contempt by boycotting the convention, instead organizing pep rallies of those who went to Chicago ostensibly to be delegates.

Sweeney didn’t hesitate to try to embarrass the Stern & Co. no-show. "It is a shame that these unions will not come argue for their ideas and listen to others about how to improve the lives of workers," he said in a statement. "That's how democracies work." Yes, that’s how democracy works but there are few unions in the U.S. that have operated in such a manner within living memory. Most union conventions are staged events, called together to applaud decisions reached out of sight and sound of delegates. This year’s event on Navy Pier was no different.

What can we expect to happen after this split? If the surviving majority at the fed convention was sincerely interested in unity of the movement they would say something along these lines to the changers: We’re sorry you feel you have to leave us. We hope we can be reunited soon. In the meantime let’s try to collaborate where we can to advance the interests of American workers.

While it’s still early there has been little evidence of such a fraternal approach. When Linda Chavez-Thompson spoke at the Sweeney camp’s pre-convention rally she ran off a litany of labor’s enemies, including George W Bush, the Right to Work Committee, Chamber of Commerce–and Change to Win. Moves are afoot to drive the splitters out of central labor councils, and the various trades and industries councils. Raids are certainly a good possibility.

Since the split means the fed will lose more than a third of its per capita dues base further cuts in federation staff are a certainty. You can kiss goodbye what’s left of health & safety and other training and research programs–and probably a lot more.

Will Change to Win succeed in salvaging a bigger and more prosperous union bureaucracy? I don’t know–and frankly I don’t care. I do know that the union movement has been seriously weakened by this unprincipled split. It will embolden the bosses to sharpen their attacks. It will weaken organized labor’s already marginal political influence.

And, to the extent that Change to Win implements its plan for internal restructuring we will see less opportunity for the rank-and-file to participate in making the decisions that affect our lives so much.

Both camps will undoubtedly be conducting organizing and strike campaigns that deserve our support. But neither camp deserves our confidence.

And we still, more than ever, need a real debate about labor’s future. We have to figure out how we can gain power in the workplace through our unions and how we can build a labor party to advance our interests politically.


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