“Restoring the American Dream: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement that Can Win,” the platform released by UNITE HERE, SEIU, the Laborers, and the Teamsters on Monday, is on-line here. Its Agenda for Worker Strength has five points, the first of which, “Uniting Workers for Economic Strength,” articulates the structural proposals which have been at the center of the controversy over the future of the AFL-CIO. It calls for the federation to:

Use incentives to focus unions on uniting workers in core industries.More of the national labor movement’s resources must be directly devoted to the task of bringing millions of new workers into the labor movement. The AFL-CIO budget must be used to create incentives for unions to increase their organizing and focus on uniting workers in their core industries in order to maintain and build bargaining power. We believe that half of what unions now pay to the AFL-CIO should be rebated to unions that have a strategic plan and commitment to organizing in their core industries based on the formula outlined in the Teamster proposal.

Actively support mergers that unite workers by industry. Many AFL-CIO affiliates do not have the resources or strength or effectively take on large employers that are driving standards in their industries or to help workers organize on a large enough scale in their industries…The AFL-CIO should play an active and direct role in working with affiliated unions to facilitate mergers – subject to approval by the affected members – that lead to increased power for workers in the same or complimentary industries…

As this platform recognizes, the responsibility of a single national labor federation, if we are to have one in this country, is to grow the labor movement by protecting the right to organize and providing resources and facilitating coordination for organizing. In an era of declining union density and increasing corporate consolidation, coordination within industries is crucial to turning the tide, and mergers – when they are strategically savvy and democratically supported – are a powerful tool for building power and solidarity. And most of all, as John Sweeney himself has repeated over the past decade, the straits in which working Americans find themselves today make it imperative to organize or die. The unions bringing forward this proposal are right to recognize that spurring organizing requires more than rhetorical leadership from the AFL-CIO. The reason they represent a significant fraction of the membership of the federation is that they have prioritized an aggressive organizing program over the past decade, and in so doing have realized the right to collective bargaining for millions out of the more than half of American workers who say in polls that they want union representation at a time when only one in twelve in the private sector has it. Because union membership is a source of greater strength when greater numbers of workers are in unions, it is not only justifiable but crucial for a federation funded and supported by fifty-some internationals to use its resources to push each of those unions to grow. Remitting a portion of those dues to those unions committed to spending money to directly grow the density of the movement is directly in the service of the broader movement. If the AFL-CIO is kept from aggressively push greater organizing and coordinated action, it risks being reduced over time to little more than an occasional media and turnout apparatus of decreasing usefulness. The document continues:

Strategically leverage labor’s existing bases of industry strength…It means identifying lead and dominant unions by sector, industry, employer, market, and where appropriate, craft, along with the responsibilities that go with it. It means that industry or area bargaining standards need to be made central to the inter-union dispute process and central to labor’s efforts to focus resources…rules must be updated and revised to reflect the pressing need for organized labor to deter the “race to the bottom” caused by employers seeking to use one affiliate as a means of protection from another, and to encourage unions to devote precious resources to building power in core industries and coordinate bargaining. Where multiple unions have members in the same industry, industry in a market, or employer, the AFL-CIO will facilitate coordinated bargaining. Affiliates undercutting standards should suffer penalties.

I’m not sure yet what to make of the assignment of dominant unions in each sector, but the need for clear and unyielding standards in bargaining is inarguable. As long as weaker unions cut deals with employers to keep out stronger unions, the labor movement is shooting itself in the back and it is those workers who most need effective representation who suffer. Critics of the New Unity Partnership are right to remind us that the absolute right of a worker to join a union of her choosing is not to be compromised. No one wants to see workers shoehorned into pre-selected unions based on negotiations in which they have no part. But the fundamental economic freedom of union representation is not served when weak unions take on the role of the company unions of the pre-Wagner era and push out internationals which threaten an employer because they have the power to win real gains. The only way I can see to empower workers to organize and to win is through the formation and standards and the facilitation of negotiation, and the reformers are right to identify a role for the AFL-CIO, as a voluntary union federation, to play here in maximizing the effectiveness of its member unions in growing and serving the ranks of its member workers. Too often, this issue is discussed as a matter of big unions versus small unions. But the assumptions that small unions are always more democratic and that that big unions are always more effective are both misguided, and neither is borne out by history. Much more salient is the division between those unions which prioritize organizing and industrial democracy and those which do not. Somewhat less controversial is the next proposal:

Make the AFL-CIO the strategic center for a permanent campaign to take on powerful anti-worker employers and help workers unite their strength in new growth sectors.…Well-funded, movement-wide campaigns are required to make low-road employer respect their workers’ freedom to form unions…We support the creation of a dedicated fund of $25 million out of the current AFL-CIO to finance large, multi-union movement-wide campaigns directed at reversing the Wal-Marting of our jobs and out communities by large low-road employers.

Fortunately, after years of unsuccessful and largely unnoticed and uninspiring organizing attempts by the UFCW at Wal-Mart, there’s a growing awareness that the viral expansion of Wal-Mart and its noxious business model will mean diminishing returns for the entire movement until we take it on head-on, and that organizing Wal-Mart represents a momentous challenge which cannot be overcome by a single union alone. As John Wilhelm wrote to John Sweeney last year, however the November election went there would have been no greater priority for the American labor movement in its wake than winning a robust right to organize for millions of Wal-Mart workers. As we saw in the supermarket strikes in LA, as long as Wal-Mart pushes forward a race to the bottom at an unprecedented rate, all working people lose. And it will take the commitment of the whole federation to reverse that trend.

Make growth and worker power our political focus…To empower workers politically we must have a growth agenda to build larger, stronger and more effective workplace organizations. Increased political spending without a program for growth will not lead to either increased power for workers in the workplace or in politics…Our program must be workplace-centered, worker-oriented, and independent of any party or candidate. Our purpose is to be the voice of workers in the political process, not the voice of politicians or parties to the workers…The AFL-CIO’s political program at the local, state, and national levels should have as its highest priority encouraging public officials to actively support workers who are trying to form unions, as well as to support the maintenance and growth of union jobs…those politicians of either party who support the union-busting agenda of the Right to Work Committee, the Associated Builders and Contractors, or any other similar organization should face rebuke from all unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO regardless of their stand on other issues. The AFL-CIO needs to develop a strategic growth and political plan focused on critical swing states that will make the difference in changing the direction of our nation, and to which state and local bodies and affiliates are held accountable…an increase in union density in the State of Ohio, for example, from 16% to 26% would have put John Kerry in the White House.

This document is absolutely right to recognize the failures of the AFL-CIO in holding accountable Democrats who cast anti-labor votes, in forcing the right to organize onto the national political agenda, and in using the political system to protect and further workers’ rights. I think the problem has much more to do with the federation’s treatment of anti-labor Democrats than of pro-labor Republicans – in fact I’d say too often labor has bent over backwards to bestow the pro-labor Republican label for the appearance of a bipartisan pro-labor consensus of the kind we have yet to create. And the reformers are right that a resurgence in labor’s political clout cannot come without a resurgence of union organizing. Here labor and the Democrats should have a shared interest in creating more union members, given that union membership is the only thing that makes white men with guns who go to church vote Democratic; would that the Democrats put as much effort into trying to multiply the ranks of union members as the Republicans are into trying to create more investors. Putting the right to organize front and center would help Democrats doubly by creating more union members and by giving them more reason to vote Democratic; this platform attests to the ways the AFL-CIO has to go in pushing for politicians to do so. The legal right to organize cannot itself be labor’s entire political agenda however; while this paragraph almost reads as if it is, the platform later devotes entire sections to coalition-building around healthcare and global trade. The line later on refering to “social issues” as outside of the purview of labor is as unsettling as it is intentionally ambiguous. It certainly doesn’t represent the approach that’s yielded success for SEIU and UNITE HERE over the past decade. A path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and freedom from discrimination for women, workers of color, and queer workers, are fundamental issues of workers’ rights, and any labor federation which shies away from them does so to its own detriment and that of this country’s most marginalized workers. A recognition of the urgency of broadening the movement is more clear in the sections on diversity within the AFL-CIO and international solidarity.

New Standards of Accountability and Governance…If labor as a whole is to grow the AFL-CIO must be the movement’s strategic growth center…democratic change requires the creation of a streamlined Executive Committee comprised of the largest unions that represent most AFL-CIO members and are responsible for uniting workers in the major sectors of the economy, with several additional rotating seats to ensure diversity…Financial and organizational accountability and openness must be the operating principal of a new AFL-CIO. Ongoing senior level staff meetings between unions on issues of AFL-CIO policy must take place between meetings of principals…The AFL-CIO must establish and enforce standards in such areas as bargaining, strategic industry plans and results; political fundraising and participation by members and their families, workplace organization, among others.

I’m not sure what structural arrangement best serves the ends of openness and representativeness within the AFL-CIO. But inter-union dialogue is certainly a must, as is transparency in decision-making and accountability in producing results. This accountability must apply both to the federation’s leadership and to its member unions. The AFL-CIO is, after all, a voluntary compact, and affiliation should signify a commitment to organizing and building the movement.

These proposals, all the more so when taken together with the other four points of the platform (focused on representation, strategic use of union money and purchasing power, global solidarity, and healthcare and retirement security), represent a blue-print with at least the potential to bring real change to a federation in deep need of it. I support its broad vision, including the final point of that first section:

Leadership Committed to Building a Movement that Can Win. The AFL-CIO needs leadership that is committed to the kind of fundamental restructuring of the federation that we are proposing.

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25 thoughts on “

  1. Josh –

    I agree with you for the most part, and I’ve grown closer and closer to Stern et al’s vision as the months go by.

    But one issue I think you missed: Size of unions does play a role in industrial focus, because the organizing game will always be played on the basis of risk and return. Pipe workers might fit well into the “dominant” SEIU umbrella of building services, but SEIU won’t focus on pipe trades — they’ll focus where we all think they should: on Walmart, janitors, healthcare, etc. So mergers like that, despite SEIU’s organizing focus and “democratic” tradition, won’t result in more leverage for pipe trades. It certainly didn’t result in more leverage for my sister as a childcare worker in SEIU 925’s Childcare Guild. Every day I wish she’d been organized by an AFT or NEA affiliate. Or that they had pursued an independent contract.

    Anyway, there’s more of a critique here than I think you’ve acknowledged. But Stern, Wilhelm, etc. are the only ones in a position to pursue a program with ambition equal to the height of the stakes.

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