Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The Labor Split

I don't have too much original to say about it all, so instead I'll provide you a few links to some journalists and organizers more articulate than I:

Molly Ivins: Solidarity Later: Andy Stern and CWC Challenge AFL Power Base

To oversimplify, Sweeney pretty much bet his wad on the Democrats on the theory that labor will never come back unless it gets a level playing field. Setting aside the spinelessness and incompetence of the Democratic Party (I think Democrats who voted for the bankruptcy bill alone should be run out of the party), it sure looks like a losing strategy. Labor skates with the Change to Win Coalition cite the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. To oversimplify again, the CWC wants to move all the artillery over to grass-roots organizing.

It may take some arrogance to think your union would do better outside the AFL-CIO, but the CWC has some record on its side. In this debate, you should know that the word "arrogance" is code for Andy Stern, head of the SEIU, who is one impressive guy and also has the nerve to think he knows how to organize better than the leadership of the AFL-CIO. Stern is leading the walkout faction.

Stern's claim to fame is that SEIU has successfully organized the "unorganizable" -- some of the poorest, most powerless people in our society, the people who push mops, clean toilets and never voted in their lives. Credit is due to a superb new generation of organizers. (Obligatory disclosure: A few years ago, I addressed an SEIU convention, but had them donate my fee to charity. My most vivid memory is how proud they are of their children in military service.)

The CWC wants reorganization. They especially think the smaller unions should be merged because each has its own administrative apparatus. Their payrolls eat up dues that should be going to organizing, as do some useless central labor councils. The CWC unions, freed from AFL dues, can hire more organizers and make more progress
Andy Stern, SEIU: Unions Reinvented
But unions, overall, continue to decline. And the AFL-CIO — the national labor federation for the last half-century — has failed to make the hard decisions and take the necessary steps to make the union movement grow again. For months, a group of major unions has been talking to the AFL-CIO leadership on how to reorder priorities and modernize the federation's strategy and structure. But to no avail.

That's why we at the SEIU and three other major unions declared over the weekend that we would not participate in the AFL-CIO national convention in Chicago this week. And on Monday our union — with 1.8 million members — along with the 1.4-million-member Teamsters announced we would withdraw from the federation, effective immediately.
Nathan Newman: Not Such a Big Deal
In the end, the effects of the disaffiliations will be that we'll see some experiments, probably now in both the remaining AFL-CIO unions as well as in CtW, on different organizing strategies. There may be some gains from some healthy competition and maybe some losses from repetition and wasted resources, but this is not some epic divide in the labor movement, like the old AFL v. Knights of Labor, AFL v. IWW, or AFL v. CIO fights.

This will be something a bit different. I'm not sure what yet, but people who criticize it for lacking the drama and vision of past splits are probably right. But if it yields some real coordination among the CtW unions on some serious organizing drives against Wal-Mart or some other global companies, then the move to withdraw their money from the AFL-CIO to concentrate it on those drives may be worthwhile.
Bill Fletcher: Why This Split Is A Big Deal
My larger concerns revolve around potential raiding among unions, as well as the ignoring or obscuring of the larger issues that haunt organized labor. Yes, i am glad that people are talking about Wal-Mart, but what about non-union auto parts companies in the South; steel mini-mills in rural areas; or, on a different level, growing African American unemployment in the cities. In the absence of an analysis, it becomes hit & miss. In other words, we do not develop a strategy, but instead a series of tactical initiatives.

My final point: the great Un-debate showed an amazing capacity to ignore the rank & file, and particularly to ignore the issues and involvement of trade unionists of color. i find this especially damning for those labor leaders who have positioned themselves as visionaries. If the base is not in the vision, except as the object of the work of 'great leaders,' what sort of movement are we building?
Harold Meyerson: Labor's Big Split: Pain Before Gain

In planning to build a new federation with some organizing capacity of its own, the dissidents are harking back to the old CIO, which, with Lewis at its helm, roared out of the old AFL determined to unionize America's industrial workers. The economic and political environment is decidedly more hostile to organizing now than it was then, but Stern, Hoffa and their allies recognize that they will have to win victories on a CIO-like scale to justify their split. No one can say whether the birth of this new labor movement will lead to a desperately needed reversal in fortune for America's workers. Some stars, after all, burn most brightly just before they altogether flicker out.
David Moberg: The fractured state of these unions
The odd twist is that for 10 years Sweeney has exhorted unions to spend more on organizing, tried to help unions develop their ability to organize and urged unions to focus on organizing strategically in a few core industries, not simply to organize indiscriminately.

But as president he has little power, except over his staff. The AFL-CIO is a voluntary federation; individual unions can go their own way on most issues with impunity. Sweeney has followed a tradition - which fits well with his own low-key style - of seeking consensus among the 57 member unions and not forcing issues.

Ironically, many of the unions now backing Sweeney have resisted the program he has advocated. And to add to the irony, some of the unions on the other side are among the most general of unions - organizing anybody and everybody.

Teamsters Union president Jim Hoffa, one dissident, insists that the Teamsters will remain an extremely diverse union, but his proposal for dues rebates would give the Teamsters more money and indirectly pressure small unions that wouldn't qualify for a rebate to seek mergers, possibly with the Teamsters.

In response to the challengers, Sweeney has adopted scaled-back versions of many Change to Win proposals. But the opponents think that he isn't changing the AFL-CIO enough, and the Service Employees Union is quite likely to leave, possibly to be joined by the Teamsters, the United Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE HERE (textile and hotel workers), along with the already departed Carpenters. Change to Win - surely with a new name - could become an alternative federation.

David Bacon:Reconnecting Labor with Its Radical Roots
It's important for unions to start an honest discussion of why the gains have been so limited, and what political direction is best for US workers. While the current debate over structure makes important points, there are deeper issues that need to be resolved. Simply changing the AFL-CIO's structure is not enough.

In the current debate, almost all proposals put the issue of stopping the slide in members and power-the problem of organizing-in center stage. This is not a bad place for discussion to start, so long as it takes a deeper look at why this is such a hard area for unions to make progress. Organizing large numbers of workers will not just help unions. Wages rise under the pressure of union drives, especially among nonunion workers. Stronger unions will force politicians to recognize universal healthcare, secure jobs, and free education after high school, not as pie-in-the-sky dreams, but as the legitimate demands of millions of people.


Raising the percentage of organized workers in the United States from just 10 to 11 percent would mean organizing over a million people. Only a social movement can organize people on this scale. In addition to examining structural reforms that can make unions more effective and concentrate their power, the labor movement needs a program which can inspire people to organize on their own, one which is unafraid to put forward radical demands, and rejects the constant argument that any proposal that can't get through Congress next year is not worth fighting for.

As much as people need a raise, the promise of one is not enough to inspire them to face the certain dangers they know too well await them. Working families need the promise of a better world. Over and over, for more than a century, workers have shown that they will struggle for the future of their children and their communities, even when their own future seems in doubt. But only a new, radical social vision can inspire the wave of commitment, idealism, and activity necessary to rebuild the labor movement.
Tim Nesbitt: Searching for ‘a more perfect union’
What happens on the local level is more complicated, but also more likely to be resolved in a cooperative fashion. Both Hoffa and Stern said that their unions will continue to make payments to central labor councils and state federations, even though the current rules of the AFL-CIO do not allow non-AFL-CIO unions to be formal members of these state and local organizations. Still, where there’s the will, there’s a way. And if the “Change to Win” unions say they want to participate in local organizations with AFL-CIO unions, we’ll have every incentive to find creative ways to accomplish that.

As I reminded reporters in Oregon today, we’ll still have the same number of unions with the same number of union members and the same resources after this convention. We may have to restructure our efforts, but we have a long tradition of working together in broad-based labor coalitions and campaigns of the kind that raised Oregon’s minimum wage in 2002 and produced a pro-worker majority in our State Senate in 2004. This is one area where we’ve learned what works for working families, and we’re committed to expanding, improving and continuing it.
The Nation: Debating Labor's Future
Stern vs. McEntee vs. Cohen vs. Wilhelm vs. Sweeney vs. Hoffa

Thanks to Nathan Newman and LabourStartfor some of these links. For many more, check out Nathan's column in the House of Labor and LabourStart here.