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.

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.

After several months of widening tension between John Sweeney and union leaders calling for a more aggressive, broader-based organizing vision more like the one that’s been winning in from Los Angeles to New Haven, Andy Stern and Bruce Raynor yesterday explicitly ruled out another term with Sweeney at the helm of the AFL-CIO as an acceptable vehicle for change:

Asserting that sweeping change was needed to revive the labor movement, the union leader, Andrew L. Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said Mr. Sweeney was not the person to bring about bold change. “We need to make far-reaching changes and have a leader committed to such changes, and that leader is not John Sweeney,” said Mr. Stern, whose union represents more than 1.7 million workers…Yesterday, Mr. Stern joined the leaders of four other major unions – the Teamsters, the laborers, the food and commercial workers, and the hotel, restaurant and apparel workers union, Unite Here – in endorsing a platform that calls for overhauling the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The platform proposes nearly tripling the amount that the 13-million-member federation spends on unionization efforts…

In an interview, Mr. Stern indicated that his union would stay in the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if labor leaders elected a challenger committed to broad changes to help unions grow…Saying he is the best candidate to push labor forward and unite it, Mr. Sweeney has said he has no intention of being pressured into retiring. “At a moment when workers are under severe attack, it’s time to work together as never before to build and strengthen our movement,” he said in a statement. “It’s certainly no time for ultimatums.” Mr. Stern said he would support John W. Wilhelm, president of Unite Here’s hospitality division, if he challenged Mr. Sweeney. But Mr. Wilhelm has voiced doubts about running because unions with only 35 percent of the federation’s membership support him. Several Wilhelm supporters said that if he declined to run, they would support Terence O’Sullivan, the laborers’ president.

The New York Times Magazine gives all-too rare front-page coverage to Andy Stern’s push to reform the AFL-CIO:

”Our movement is going out of existence, and yet too many labor leaders go and shake their heads and say they’ll do something, and then they go back and do the same thing the next day,” Stern told me recently. He is a lean, compact man with thinning white hair, and when he reclines in the purple chair in his Washington office and crosses one leg over the other, he could easily pass for a psychiatrist or a math professor. He added, ”I don’t have a lot of time to mince words, because I don’t think workers in our country have a lot of time left if we don’t change.”

A week after the election in November, Stern delivered a proposal to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that sounded more like an ultimatum. He demanded that the federation, the umbrella organization of the labor movement, embrace a top-to-bottom reform, beginning with a plan to merge its 58 unions into 20, for the purpose of consolidating power. If the other bosses wouldn’t budge, Stern threatened to take his 1.8 million members and bolt the federation — effectively blowing up the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on the eve of its 50th anniversary. Stern’s critics say all of this is simply an excuse to grab power. ”What Andy’s doing now with his compadres is what Vladimir Putin is trying to do to the former Communist bloc countries,” says Tom Buffenbarger, president of the union that represents machinists and aerospace workers. ”He’s trying to implement dictatorial rule.” Stern says he is done caring what the other bosses think. ”If I don’t have the courage to do what my members put me here to do, then how do I ask a janitor or a child-care worker to go in and see a private-sector employer and say, ‘We want to have a union in this place’?” Stern asks. ”What’s my risk? That some people won’t like me? Their risk is that they lose their jobs.”

Good news is, the Times is highlighting something going on in the labor movement, and in a way that may challenge some of its readers’ conceptions of labor as so 19th-century. Bad news, as Nathan ably argues, is that Matt Bai insists on divorcing Stern from the larger movement he’s part of, framing him instead as a lone brave dissenter from a ubiquitous orthodoxy of inertia. As Nathan writes:

The author repeatedly refers to “union bosses”, the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can’t fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It’s ultimately a phrase that is used to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: workers get a vote in a union. Yet nowhere in the piece is any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other unions’ leaders are mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely Anna Burger, who is described as Andy Stern’s “political aide”, ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography. Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York’s 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office’s control, or Sal Roselli, leader of California’s nursing local…

Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlour game among union activists. John Sweeney won election as AFL-CIO leader in 1995 centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership. And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade, and a host of other changes were made. All Andy Stern is arguing is that not enough was done. But he’s continuing an argument that’s decades old, which is why other unions could easily contribute alternative proposals for change. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily sets up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical “old union” resister to change.

Wal-Mart Watch: SEIU’s Fight for the Future Blog, maintained by President Andy Stern, has engaged an admirable and urgent project: an extended discussion across the web and beyond on the challenge Wal-Mart and Wal-Martization pose to good jobs, and the strategies and coalitions neccesary to fight them. Over spring break, I had the pleasure of a very-late-night multi-hour discussion about what such a strategy would look like with some amazing organizers from different parts of the country. I’m hoping to contribute something soon; should you, fair reader, wish to do so, e-mail your thoughts, or a link to them, to blog@seiu.org. Meanwhile, some highlights from Andy’s posts this week:

Monday:

Some people think we should follow the “Wal-Mart only” strategy — Wal-Mart is making the global business rules, and so changing their business practices changes everything. But others say we have to tackle more than just Wal-Mart. Why?

1) Wal-Mart is the trendsetter, affecting how other corporations do business. Tomorrow, we’re going to hear from a worker about how Intel’s been following in Wal-Mart’s footsteps. So we need to start telling and spotlighting the wrong behavior of more companies and send a message we won’t take Wal-Mart as an excuse anymore.

2) The “Wal-Mart plus” strategy proposal says that Wal-Mart is the toughest nut to crack. Campaigns need victories along the way — victories that don’t just stop a company but actually change its and others’ behavior. If we only take on Wal-Mart, it’s hard to see how we’ll sustain our enthusiasm to keep going.

The “Wal-Mart only” strategy says that the world’s largest corporation is making the global business rules, and changing their business practices changes everything.

Tuesday:

Wal-Mart, Target, and other corporations now use subcontractors for janitorial services. And just like global outsourcing, they squeeze these subcontractors to bid lower and lower to get the subcontracted work. To stay competitive, honest subcontractors are often forced to drop their wages and benefits to poverty levels. Dishonest contractors don?t let minimum wage or overtime law stand in the way. When these subcontractors get caught, Wal-Mart and other rogue corporations pass the buck…

Our first strategy in this campaign is challenging corporations to adopt the Justice at Work Principles for responsible subcontracting. By signing the principles, companies agree that they and their subcontractors will provide decent wages, health and retirement coverage, and working conditions. They also pledge to respect workers? right to form unions to win a voice on the job. To ensure these commitments are carried out, companies will give independent organizations the authority to interview workers and audit payroll records.
Wednesday:

With a little self-organizing, if we figure it out right, we could help folks crank up the activism as mutual fund shareholders, big time. We can challenge Wall Street right at the heart of their business ? supposedly working in the interest of shareholders. We can force the giant banks and financial service companies that run mutual funds to take a long-term view of the companies they invest in, to reward companies that treat workers well, and to punish those, like Wal-Mart, that cut wages and benefits to the bone.

Today:

…why don’t more workers fight back in court? Partly because workers fear that filing a lawsuit could get them fired. But the other problem — the one we can help solve right now — is that it takes a lot of work to find a lawyer who will take these kinds of cases.

So, SEIU wants to help. Working with law firms and legal centers, we’ll develop a state-by-state strategy for helping workers get in touch with lawyers when their rights have been violated. What do you think about a nationwide Wal-Mart Justice at Work legal network of volunteer and paid lawyers…

Lawsuits aren’t a long-term solution. Ultimately, workers need a direct voice on the job through a union so they can defend themselves every day. But as a first step on that road, we can help workers use the legal system to ensure that corporations treat them with at least the minimal respect they are due under the law.

Also, check-out previous editions of the LWB Wal-Mart Watch here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

I agree with most of what Alyssa has to say here:

There is simply no precedent for the outpacing of C.E.O. compensation and other corporate profits in comparison to what the people who actually make companies run earn as it happens in America today. It’s telling that in the wake of major corporate scandals, rather than condemn Tyco executives, for example, for their terrible, destructive greed, jurors in their corruption trials dismiss accounts of profit gone mad as a waste of time. Our views on fair compensation, respect for employees, and the value of organized labor are vastly off-kilter.

…Unions will always have limited power if their strength is confined to the workplace, where they can fight employers, but lack the ability to define some of the structural constraints, like the minimum wage, that affect their members. It is vital that unions be organized well enough so they can make their members’ voices heard in both the workplace and the voting booth, and make sure that they are united behind strong, progressive policies.

I do have a couple points of disagreement or, at least, of divergent emphasis. First, I think Alyssa inadvertently minimizes the significance of the two moments she highlights which we agree offer new hope for American labor, the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides and the HERE – UNITE merger:

The former represents a willingness to be flexible in the face of party re-alignment and a recognition of the progress of globalization. The second represents a committment to getting leaner and meaner, and an understanding that you need both money and killer organizing to beat a strong resurgence of anti-union sentiment.

While there’s certainly a good deal of truth in the argument that the merger represented a union with members but no money and a union with money but no members joining forces, I think there’s a much broader point here, one that I’ve mentioned on this site before: Labor has to be as well organized and as unified as management, and as labor organizes across boundaries between nations, we must organize across boundaries between unions, something most folks who were watching and have the freedom to say so agree didn’t take place effectively in California. Nathan Newman has argued recently that union competition marked labor’s most effective period by providing a spur to all sides to organize; unfortunately, union competition also marked one of labor’s most tragic moments, its divided and self-destructive response to the growing Red Scare, in which all too often those very union competitions eased the process of conservative unions siding with Uncle Sam against their more radical counterparts. Among the biggest losers there, not surprisingly, were the workers of color whom only the left-wing unions of the CIO were effectively organizing. Of course there are good reasons for the AFL-CIO to be composed of different unions divided in some cases by job type, in others by region, in others by organizing strategy – but too often those barriers are arbitrary and costly. As has played out on Andy Stern’s blog and in its comments, finding innovative ways to foster broader strategic alliances while maintaining and building industrial democracy and democratic leadership on the local level is key (David Moberg explores this further in this week’s The Nation in an article which isn’t yet on-line). So the UNITE HERE merger, bringing together one union which launders the second union’s uniforms and a second union which serves the first union food at lunch hour, bringing together two unions with a proven commitment to progressive organizing, is an urgent model – although it may not have been carried out in a way consonant with the best values of these unions.

Speaking of progressive organizing, I think that to articulate the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides as a response to a shifting national and international landscape both understates their significance and lets labor off to easily for a historically (up to the mid-90’s) anti-immigrant stance that at no time was in the big picture interests of union members. Daivided labor markets – be the axis of divison race, religion, gender, or immigration status – have always been lucrative for employers, who’ve proven all to eager to exploit a vulnerable group’s marginal position in society (and too often in the labor movement as well) to drive down their wages and benefits, and to use the threat of that group’s therefore cheaper labor costs to drive down everyone else wages and benefits and pit natural allies against each other in an ugly race to the bottom. Historical examples of course abound; here in Philadelphia, a union movement which had succesfully organized and won the ten-hour day screeched to a halt as first-generation Catholic immigrants and second-generation Protestants in different trades started killing each other in the Kensington riots. Organizing the unorganized workers, rather than engaging in a futile campaign to stop them from working is the only morally defensible and genuinely pragmatic approach. God bless John Wilhelm, Maria Elena Durazo, and the unrecognized others who brought the AFL-CIO around.

The other area where my perspective may differ from Alyssa’s somewhat is on the role of unions in politics. I’m a major proponent of the New Unity Partnership, which would enshrine organizing in the workplace and political organizing as unions’ major functions and major expenditures. But while Alyssa urges unions

picking politically viable candidates and proving that they can turn out large numbers of supporters for them…severe layoffs, a slowdown in organizing, and bad choices of candidates have made unions look less credible politically than they did in 2000…

let’s not forget what the Democratic party, after the Clinton years, which on the one hand brought the Family and Medical Leave Act and an increased minimum wage, and on the other wrought NAFTA and Welfare Reform, has to prove to American workers and American labor. Labor has been most effective in this country not by letting its support be taken for granted by Democrats but by organizing so powerfully that the Democrats (read: FDR) feared that if they didn’t find enough to offer labor it would sink them. I’m glad Kerry wants a Labor Secretary from the “House of Labor.” I’d like to hear more about this legislation on the campaign trail though.

That said, I’m stoked for SEIU to make history by devoting its resources this election not into soft-money TV ads but by getting thousands of its members leaves of absence to organize their neighbors to vote Bush out of office, and to hold our national leadership accountable through November and beyond. The party machines could learn a lot from them; today’s New York Times suggests they’ve begun to already.