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Labor Day Special

Gaining Density Through Merger, Consolidation, Organizing—The New Unity Partnership

Union officials don’t like to be called bureaucrats. But the term is not merely a pejorative. One dictionary defines bureaucracy as "Management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures." Who could deny that is an accurate description of the mainstream union movement today? For decades the self declared "service model" has dominated organized labor in the United States.

Historically, the union bureaucracy has done a reasonably good job in routine administration. Most union office holders and staff are honest and competent and achieve a level of efficiency on a par with what you find in corporate or government bureaucracy. Most are generously compensated by their "clients" for their administrative skills.

This service approach is inherently conservative in outlook. Administrators strive for stability and abhor big changes. This makes them slow to recognize when change is required. Even, today, when they are confronted with the urgent need to change gears, most seek solutions that can be the basis for new hierarchal layers, and fixed protocols, that can once again lead to stability.

In 1996 the AFL-CIO was shaken up by an unprecedented successful challenge to the top elected leadership. John Sweeney, former president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), led a current that promised to reverse the decline of organized labor by emphasizing two things: massive organizing of the unorganized and bulking up labor’s political muscle.

Considerable resources were devoted to organizing with some modest success. But between labor law that greatly aids the bosses in fighting organizing drives, and, above all, the continued massive elimination of jobs in long unionized workplaces, union membership still falls.

On the political front the Sweeney leadership did a good job of putting together effective political machines to mobilize votes in the community and found creative ways to raise and contribute record millions to politicians, most of them Democrats. Yet the actual political influence of labor has never been lower since the 1920s.

Sweeney’s failure to deliver on the expectations he raised inspired a new insurgent group within the upper echelons of the AFL-CIO—the New Unity Partnership (NUP). The first public mention of the NUP came a year ago in a Business Week article. Samizdat networks within the labor movement began publishing internal drafts and memos circulating among the NUP initiators.

Five international union presidents were identified: Service Employees Union (President Andy Stern), the Hotel and Restaurant Employees (John Wilhelm), UNITE (Bruce Raynor), the Laborers Union (Terence O’Sullivan), and the Carpenters Union (Doug McCarron). Since then HERE and UNITE have merged. All but the Carpenters are major players in AFL-CIO top circles. The Carpenters bolted the federation three years ago as a result of disputes over raiding other unions.

Politically they are a diverse lot. Stern’s SEIU has shown interest at times in the Labor Party, though it has never formally affiliated. SEIU has also at other times supported Republicans, such as New York Governor Pataki. McCarron has not hidden his admiration for Bush and NUP has been rumored to have taken meetings with Bush chief-of-staff Karl Rove. Stern and McCarron each, in their own very different way, has revealed discomfort with the servile support of Democrats by the Sweeney administration.

These disparate partners find their unity in organizing strategy. They place primary emphasis on the question of union "density"—the percentage of workers with bargaining rights in any given sector of the workforce. They are especially alarmed—as they should be—about the collapse of density in the private sector.

More than that, they are particularly concerned with density in industries that are not so vulnerable to threats of cheap labor alternatives offshore, as is the case in the traditional manufacturing base. Jobs in construction, transportation, retail sales, many services, and health care can’t run away. Such industries are also where most workers are now employed.

Nearly all union officials see the need for union mergers, and there have been a number of them. NUP, however, is critical of marriages of small unions of unrelated jurisdictions. They propose concentrating all of labor’s forces in a few mega-unions that would aim to bargain for millions in a given industry. Also targeted for consolidation would be local unions merged into districts, and central labor and state feds that would become administrative bodies, appointed from higher up the chain.

It’s interesting to note that the one merger that NUP has engaged in—UNITE-HERE—brought together forces from two quite different industries. Clearly a lot of their strategy is based on thinking out loud, and reacting to perceived opportunities, rather than firmed up principles.

It is not yet clear just how far NUP will go in their opposition to the current AFL-CIO leadership. They say, "The AFL-CIO isn't the problem-but it isn't the solution either." They seem to be prepared to take initiatives outside the federation; indeed McCarron’s Carpenters have been totally outside for the last three years. But formally splitting and forming a rival labor federation would be a big, and risky, step.

Last year Labor Notes published a bootlegged draft of NUP’s strategic outlook—Three Steps To Reorganizing And Rebuilding The Labor Movement, by Stephen Lerner, building services director of SEIU. It is a most interesting document worthy of serious study and discussion—certainly much more than can be done in one article.

Lerner attempts to inject some social vision, even some perspective for social struggle, into what otherwise is a bureaucratic response to crisis focusing on structural solutions. There is talk of "a national campaign with an overarching moral theme." Most likely this would be around health care, an issue SEIU is gearing up for.

Certainly NUP at this time is fraught with weaknesses, even dangers. These include:

• Ignoring the relevance of global issues, trying to side step them by essentially writing off manufacturing.

• Failing to recognize the need for independent working class politics. Maneuvering back and forth between Democrats and Republicans will be no more successful than Sweeney’s pathetic loyalty to Democrats.

• Sweeping organizational consolidation could further erode the already far too limited membership democracy.

Nevertheless, we can only welcome the NUP initiative for opening the door to a far ranging discussion about the future of the American labor movement. Labor activists should not hesitate to put in our two cents as well.

Some worthwhile commentary already available include: A Rank and File Perspective on the New Unity Partnership by John H. Hovis, General President United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America; The New Unity Partnership: Sweeney critics would bureaucratize to organize by Herman Benson, leader of the Association for Union Democracy; and New Unity Partnership: Five Union Presidents Launch Bid to 'Revolutionize' AFL-CIO by William Johnson and Chris Kutalik, editors of Labor Notes.

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