AFL-CIO SECRETARY TREASURER: “YOUTH FACE AN ABYSS NOW”

Here’s my Nation interview with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler on the challenges facing youth and the labor movement:

Do you see the attack on public workers as a consequence of the decline in private sector unionization?

Definitely. The density question is the biggest and most important challenge we have in front of us. How do we grow? And we’re basically in a defensive posture in every state. It’s not only attacks on the public sector and collective bargaining – it’s prevailing wage laws, it’s voting rights, it’s everything you can think of being thrown at us.

Check it out.

DOCK MANAGEMENT SUES OVER SOLIDARITY SHUTDOWN – IS SETTLEMENT IN THE WORKS?

My reported piece breaking news about the employers’ lawsuit against ILWU Local 10 is up on Working in These Times:

April 4 saw hundreds of solidarity actions across the United States, but only one reported work stoppage. On the national day of “We Are One” actions defending the right to collective bargaining, thousands of longshoremen shut down the ports of San Francisco and Oakland for 24 hours by not showing up to work.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which comprises the longshoremen’s employers, responded by filing a federal lawsuit against those workers’ union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Workers union (ILWU) Local 10. Now, only a month after filing their lawsuit, the employers have reportedly reached out to the union to discuss dropping their charges.

Check it out. I’ll be posting updates as the story develops.

BEYOND BUSH AND TANCREDO

Catching up on the immigration debate that broke out amongst some of my co-bloggers over at Campus Progress while I was out of the country, I think it exemplifies an unfortunate trend in the contemporary debate: conflating the questions of how immigration should be regulated and of what rights immigrants should have in this country. Every issue has some pundit out there convinced that there are not two sides but three or seven or nineteen, but the immigration question is actually one where there are three camps – counting not the number of potentially coherent ideologies out there but the number of discrete large-scale positions people are visibly lobbying for – which can’t be placed along along a single spectrum without losing a good deal of meaning.

The position which has gotten the most colorful press coverage recently is the one advocated by Tom Tancredo (R-CA) and the Minutemen vigilantes who’ve taken it on themselves the patrol the border and chase down people who look to them like immigrants. Tancredo wants to cut immigration to this country (drastically) by building a wall and wants to curtail the rights of immigrants here (drastically) by denying their children birthright citizenship. It’s a position which resonates with a significant swath of the Republican base, as well as some traditionally Democratic-voting folks. It’s the position of the National Review. Shamefully, it used to be (roughly) the official position of the AFL-CIO (arguably that position would have fit better in a fourth quadrant – fewer immigrants but more rights for them – which I’ll leave out here because it lacks many advocates).

The position which has unfortunately been the primary alternative portrayed in the media is the cluster of policy proposals represented by George W. Bush: more legal immigration but fewer rights for immigrants. That would be the consequence of the crypto-bracero program he offered two years ago, under which undocumented immigrants are invited to come out of the shadows and into the trust of their employers, who can sponsor them for as long as they see fit but are given no reason not to have them deported if they do something the boss doesn’t like. This is the position of the Wall Street Journal and the Cato foundation and the business elites they’re looking out for.

There’s a progressive position in this debate, but it isn’t either of these. It’s the position for which immigrants, advocates, and allies rode from around the country to Flushing Meadows Park for two years ago: open our country to more legal immigration and protect the rights of everyone who lives here. It’s the position of the national labor movement, the NAACP, and the National Council of La Raza, and it’s the one reflected in the principles of the New American Opportunity Campaign: offer a path to citizenship, reunite families, protect civil liberties, and safeguard the right to organize and bargain collectively for everyone who lives and works here. That’s the goal towards which the legislation offered by senators Kennedy and McCain is a crucial step.

Conservatives reap the benefits from any debate which pits low-income workers against each other based on race or gender or citizenship – even when such a debate makes cracks in their electoral coalition in the short term. Building a progressive movement in this country depends on bringing together working people across such divisions to confront shared challenges and opponents with common cause. It’s a task which ostensibly progressive organizations too often have failed – to their own detriment. A two-tiered workforce is bad for workers, and it’s bad for America. But the right answer to that challenge, on the immigration question as on the race question and the gender question, is to welcome new workers and ensure that they have the same rights as old ones, so that they can organize and bargain together to raise their standard of living. Pushing marginalized workers out of the workforce was the wrong position then, and it’s the wrong one now. It consigns more men and women to die crossing the border, and it endangers our security by perpetuating a system in which millions of people needlessly live outside of the law. And it denies the historical promise and dynamism of this country.

GOOD LABOR NEWS

In the spirit of the holiday, three pieces of good recent labor news with good long-term implications as well:

The same week Wal-Mart announced its lowest profits in years, the launch of Robert Greenwald’s film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” with thousands of showings nationwide was a huge success, as was WalmartWatch’s coordinated “Higher Expectations Week.” Last week showed definitively that just as battling the Wal-Marting of our economy has become a top priority of the labor movement, it’s moved into a position of prominence on the national radar as well. This issue is finally coming to be understood for what it is: the frontline in the struggle over whether democratic majorities or corporate ultimatums will shape our economy. And its potential to bring together feminists, environmentalists, unionists, trade activists, anti-sprawl activists, and immigrant rights activists is finally being realized in a way it hasn’t before. The foundations for a truly effective targeted international campaign are finally being laid. Also, my Mom is telling everyone she knows to shop at CostCo instead of Wal-Mart.

The AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition announced a tentative compromise on the issue of non-AFL-CIO local participation in country and state labor federations. This was the first serious test of the ability of an American labor movement split for the first time in half a century between two competing federations to lay the groundwork to work together on common challenges at the local level. A compromise here – like the SEIU/ AFSCME anti-raiding agreement – bodes well for a future in which each federation pursues different national organizing strategies while pushing their locals to work together to push for progressive change and hold the line against anti-labor candidates, initiatives, and employers.

And Histadrut Head Amir Peretz unseated Shimon Peres as Head of Israel’s Labor Party. Much of the analysis in the wake of that election has understandably focused on its role in prompting Peres and Ariel Sharon to bolt from Labor and Likud, respectively, to form a “centrist” party of their own (it’ll be interesting to see what this means for Labor’s relationship the left-of-left-of-center Meretz Yachad party, itself the result of a recent merger). But Peretz’s ascension is historic in its own right, as it represents the reclamation of the Labor Party by Israel’s foremost Israeli labor leader. Peretz won by doing what few Israeli politicians have done much of recently: talking about issues beyond hamatzav (the situation, i.e., the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). That includes mounting unemployment, extreme poverty, and severe economic inequality largely mapped along lines of race and immigration status. These issues have only worsened from neglect, and Peretz’s ascension to head of Labor offers a real chance to put them back on the national agenda – and offers Labor a chance to pull impoverished voters away from more conservative parties, like Shas.

Happy Thanksgiving.

SOLIDARITY CHARTERS

Two weeks ago, John Sweeney made a partial concession to local organizers’ and officials’ widespread resistance to his bid to bar those Change to Win unions which have left the AFL-CIO from participating in any state and county labor groups it supports. Under Sweeney’s proposal, SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, and Carpenters locals could seek “Solidarity Charters” to participate in the local groups on a few conditions. The first, at least in theory (I’m not in a position to crunch the numbers) seems fair: Given that these locals’ dues to their international unions are no longer contributing to the funds the AFL-CIO contributes to support local alliances, locals which participate in such groups under these charters should pay extra dues to offset the AFL-CIO’s contribution. Other stipulations, though, are more problematic: Members of Change to Win unions currently in leadership roles in local groups would have to publically disavow their own unions’ decision to leave the AFL-CIO in order to keep their jobs. No member of one of these unions, no matter what they said, would be eligible for election to leadership in a local group in the future. And, more ambiguously, Change to Win unions participating in these groups would be “bound by whatever actions or decisions of the [AFL-CIO] that are binding on all affiliated local unions” – whatever those may be. What Sweeney’s offering now isn’t a dignified partnership – it’s a subordinate relationship which isn’t justified by the check the AFL-CIO sends groups like the LA County Federation of Labor and doesn’t speak to the facts on the ground those groups are facing.

The Change to Win unions’ response, shown in this letter from Andy Stern to SEIU locals, has been a rejection of each of the stipulations, including the extra fees (which Stern unfairly calls “discriminatory”). Meanwhile, a group of state and local labor leaders have written to Sweeney praising his “good faith” effort to find a way to work together while voicing sympathy for unspecified “objections” to its specifics.

It remains to be seen whether a compromise, or at least a counter-offer, will emerge. If not, we may see unions and community allies shifting resources out of these state and local groups and into new ones which could set their relationships to the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win Coalition on new terms. Lest we forget the stakes, this week’s strike at Northwest is a telling demonstration, as Jonathan Tasini argues, both of why labor needs the kind of reform Change to Win is fighting for and of the potential costs if the movement fails to maintain solidarity in the wake of the split.

LABOR ROUND-UP ROUND-UP

Are we meta, or what?

Nathan Newman’s labor news round-up brings together stories on the implications of the AFL-CIO split, its local impact, future organizing opportunities, state law, and the international movement.

The Bellman’s zwichenzug followed up that round-up with a labor blogging round-up of his own, bringing together a range of views on issues from the historical meaning of the split to open-source unionism to the UAW’s endorsement (this site makes it in there too).

Now that the cries of the people (both of them) have brought the reign of the ubiquitous block-quotes to an end on this site, I’ll just plead with you, kind reader, to follow those links.

FROM CHICAGO TO WASHINGTON

One of the contentions which largely cuts across the AFL-CIO/ Change to Win divide is a recognition that the labor movement has yet to match the power of its Electon Day turnout operation with an effective mechanism for holding accountable the politicians it helps elect. Still more controversial is the recognition that a winning agenda for the movement demands a broad conception of the interests of working people and a more comprehensive social vision.

Yesterday, the AFL-CIO followed progressive unions like SEIU in passing a strong anti-war resolution condemning the impact of the war on working families and urging that civil rights be strengthened in Iraq and that the troops be brought home “rapidly.” Clearly, we’ve come a long way from the days when they used to half-jokingly call it the AFL-CIA. We’re not in Kirkland-Land anymore…

And Monday, as SEIU and the Teamsters were leaving the federation, the two unions’ presidents joined the presidents of eighteen other unions, AFL-CIO and Change to Win Coalition alike, in sending a strongly-worded letter to the Democratic leadership rightly condemning the party’s refusal to put its full force behind defeating CAFTA (David Sirota offers a good overview of the damage CAFTA could do if approved tonight by the House).

Good signs, in the wake of Monday’s split, for a more muscular movement. Here’s hoping John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson, who were re-elected without opposition this afternoon, will be driven further in this direction, and can find a way to facilitate – rather than block – the co-operation with the Change to Win folks necessary to make it happen.

A HOPEFUL SIGN

Jonathan Tasini, who’s been providing excellent convention coverage from Chicago on his blog, reports that if John Sweeney really wants to see Change to Win unions which leave the federation driven out of local and state labor groups, he may have a fight on his hands – from the AFL-CIO folks who run them:

I chatted with my buddy Mark McKenzie, a firefighter and long-time president of the New Hampshire AFL-CIO. He said that he has 5,000 SEIU members in New Hampshire, about 25 percent of his per capita payments. “It would be an enormous loss. I don’t know what we’re going to do. I think SEIU wants to work with us. This is a fight that’s happening at the national level. This is not our fight.”…The Maine state federation secretary-treasurer is from SEIU–would it make sense to force such an important player from the state fed just as a life-or-death struggle begins in Maine over union rights?…the head of a big city central labor council wandered by. He was pretty adamant–“It’s the national’s fight. It’s going to be up to them to make me throw anyone out of my council. And I talked to a lot of other big city council presidents and with only one or two exceptions, all of them said they are not going to throw SEIU or Teamsters or anyone else that leave the Federation out of their council.”

In his Keynote Address yesterday, after accusing Andy Stern of disgracing the memory of the first SEIU members, John Sweeney pledged to “overcome my own anger and disappointment and and do everything in my power to bring us back where we belong – and that’s together.” Here’s hoping his conception of bringing the labor movement together is broader than just trying to get the folks who disaffiliated to change their minds. The responsibility for working constructively together falls on both sides, of course. Which is why I was heartened yesterday to see Andy Stern and Jimmy Hoffa emphasize their desire to see the AFL-CIO win and their commitment to working together to support mutual goals. Stern is right to cite the failure to support the non-affiliated PATCO strikers as a mortal error for the movement. The movement has already had more mistakes like that than working people can afford.

IT’S OFFICIAL

After much anticipation, Andy Stern announces SEIU’s disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO:

I want to stress that this was not an easy or happy decision. In itself, it represents not an accomplishment, but simply an enormous opportunity, and a recognition that we are in the midst of the most rapid transformative moment in economic history, and workers are suffering…We believe in very fundamental change, not incremental reform. We believe in accountability, not what ‘should’ happen but what “shall” happen. We believe we can and will succeed based on our own efforts – not a rescue by others…the future of American workers is not a matter of chance but a matter of choice. Today, SEIU is respectfully making a choice to go in a different direction that we believe will work for working people. We wish the AFL-CIO well, and hope they are successful…Our goal is not to divide the labor movement, but to rebuild it — so working people can once again achieve the American Dream.

Jimmy Hoffa announces that the Teamsters are leaving as well:

In our view, we must have more union members in order to change the political climate that is undermining workers’ rights in this country. The AFL-CIO has chosen the opposite approach…Striking workers, no matter what union they belong to, can always count on the Teamsters for support and assistance. That is our history and tradition and we will never waiver from our proud role as defenders of America’s working families. We will continue to work with our brothers and sisters in the Building Trades, in State Federations and Central Labor Councils to achieve justice for all working people. But let me be clear, our coalition will not allow corporate America to pit one union against another to the detriment of our members and their families. We wish our brothers and sisters that remain in the AFL-CIO the best of luck in their efforts.

AFL-CIO SPLIT IMMINENT

Saturday, the United Farmworkers announced that they’re joining the Change to Win Coalition. Yesterday SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Teamsters, and the UFCW voted to boycott the AFL-CIO’s convention which began this morning. Today, several sources are reporting that after failed last-minute negotiations, SEIU and the Teamsters, at a minimum, are on the verge of announcing a split from the federation. What other Change to Win Coalition members will do remains unclear – the UFCW seems closest to following, while the Laborers, who are attending this week’s convention, seem the least likely.

The Change to Win Coalition has a compelling vision based on strategies which unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE have used effectively to broaden the labor movement and increase its efficacy at a time when the story for the movement has too often been one of dashed hopes and diminished returns. There’s good reason to be concerned that a split could divert resources into unnecessary competition. But in the face of a uniquely hostile government and economy and a series of costly failures, I think there’s even more reason to hope that a split can reinvigorate the movement by spurring both groups to more effective organizing and more importantly, by making it possible to apply a winning model on more of the fronts where we need desperately to win.

One of the Key choices now facing John Sweeney is whether to encourage, or at least condone, cooperation where possible between two federations. His message to Central Labor Councils hasn’t been encouraging on this front. Neither is this:

Before 2,000 Sweeney supporters, Linda Chavez-Thompson, Mr. Sweeney’s running mate for executive vice president, laid into several entities that she said had sought to weaken labor – the Bush administration, the United States Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart – and then she surprised her audience by adding, “the Change to Win Coalition.”

A QUIET CONVENTION AFTER ALL?

The latest from the Change to Win Coalition is that there’s apparently a good chance that all six internationals will skip Monday’s AFL-CIO convention entirely. One leader told Harold Meyerson:

What’s the point of going when clearly there’s a majority that feels that they don’t want to make fundamental changes? We don’t want to fight with them. Why have a big fight?”

Thing is, they do want a fight over the future of the labor movement, and it’s a fight that’s sorely needed. It’s the Change to Win dissidents who’ve rightly been arguing to this point that contentious soul-searching, not superficial unity, is what the federation needs right now. So seems to me like showing up to the Chicago convention to argue for their ammendments and their vision is worth the trip, even if the deck is stacked against them We’ll see whether that happens.

Meanwhile, John Wilhelm has resigned as head of the AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee, a post from which he built a unanimous consensus, in the face of strong initial opposition, behind the federation’s historic reversal in favor of the rights of undocumented immigrants. That change, which started out of vision and necessity in progressive locals around the country, has been and will be critical to the future of the movement. Wilhelm’s role in it demonstrates that one can and must fight for reform within the movement and for empowerment of the movement within society at the same time. His letter of resignation is here; John Sweeney responds here.

And yesterday, the Executive Board of the Teamsters voted unanimously to follow SEIU, UNITE HERE, and the Laborers in authorizing their leaders to leave the AFL-CIO:

The General President and the Presidents of the other CTWC Unions have been discussing these issues with the AFL-CIO and those discussions are continuing. It is apparent, however, that, without dramatic change in structure and leadership, the Federation and its affiliated Unions will be unable to accelerate the organizing necessary to reverse the downward trend in union membership and will be unable to protect existing contract standards that establish fair wages and working conditions for our members and the members of other responsible Unions.

If there is not substantial change at the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters must chart its own, independent course, must work with the like-minded Unions that are part of the Change To Win Coalition, and must pursue our own programs to accelerate organizing, increase Union density in our core industries, rebuild the labor movement and insure a better future for workers and their families.

I’m headed off for the weekend to a libertarian seminar (no, I haven’t gone over to the dark side – I’m just willing to accept free room and board and senior essay fodder from them) – more on all this once I escape from Hayek-ville…

MAGIC NUMBERS

Bill Fletcher argues that Change to Win’s supporters haven’t taken Buffenbarger’s point to heart:

On balance, the ChangeToWin suggestions are not bad. But are they splitting points? In other words, do they so differ from what Sweeney, et.al. are suggesting so as to justify a split? I think that the answer continues to be that they are not splitting differences. But more to the point, when i posed the Buffenbarger letter the other day it was really to suggest that we have to be quite clear as to what our strategic objectives are as a movement. In other words, if we understand that there is a qualitative point for the changing of power relations, we should identify it so that we know when we have reached it. It also becomes quite relevant in terms of structural changes. For instance, if we need to get 50% union density in 10 years, what are the structural implications not only for the AFL-CIO, but for those unions advocating restructuring? Also, what are the political, work-process and other obstacles that will need to be overcome in order to reach that goal?

I think we’d all agree that winning requires setting and holding ourselves to clear goals and workable plans to achieve them. And the goals and the plans should certainly be related. But that said, how differently would we really approach a goal of, say, 50% density in 10 years (from his mouth to God’s ears) from a goal of 60% density in 15 years? It seems likely to me that, as Jo-Ann Mort suggests, 8% private sector density is so far below the magic number that the path to get there isn’t so different whether it’s 35% or 51%.

I’m not sure what it means to say that we should identify “a qualitative point for the changing of power relations” “so that we know when we have reached it.” Won’t we know when we’ve reached the point where power relations change by noticing major change in power relations? Again, I’m all for setting goals for the sake of motivation and, more importantly, accountability. But it seems that our guess from this vantage point about what percentage of the workforce needs to successfully exercise its collective bargaining rights before we transform the relationship between labor and capital is likely less accurate than our observations down the line will be as (God willing) the numbers climb again about how much change has taken place.

For the moment, sadly, we may not know what winning looks like numerically, but we know all too well what losing looks like: declining numbers. So the question, at least as much as how high do those numbers have to go, is how do we get them to start increasing again. And Sweeney’s term, not because he didn’t try hard, but precisely because he did most of what he could within the confines of the AFL-CIO today, suggests to me that turning around that decline requires either significant change in the way the AFL-CIO works or a new vehichle to empower workers to take control over their lives. We’ll see how the former option fares in ten days in Chicago.