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.

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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.

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.”

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.

CHANGE TO WIN ROUND-UP

On Thursday, the Change to Win unions released twenty resolutions they’re submitting for votes at the AFL-CIO’s convention at the end of this month. Echoing the dissidents’ May platform, these amendments would commit the Federation to rebate dues to unions prioritizing new organizing, empower it to demand accountability from unions which aren’t and facilitate strategic mergers, and strengthen the power of the most populous unions with the AFL-CIO’s decision-making structure. They would commit the federation to aggressively promote internal diversity, international solidarity, and responsible budgeting. They would commit the federation to foster cooperation and the maintenance of bargaining standards within industries and solidarity across the movement in fighting for retirement security, universal healthcare, and global justice. And in defiance of the threats Sweeney’s issued should the dissidents split off, one of their resolutions would open central labor councils to the participation of non-AFL-CIO unions.

Given that Sweeney has the votes locked down for re-election (though a few are speculating he could still be pressured into bowing out), the debate and voting over these resolutions is likely to be the greatest flashpoint for controversy at the federation’s most contentious convention in a decade. And what happens to these resolutions will be crucial to determining whether the dissidents continue to pursue their agenda for change through the federation or whether they make a break.

As the Change to Win unions consider their next move, they’ve been joined last week by the Carpenters, who formally affiliated with Change to Win four years after themselves splitting off from the AFL-CIO over similar concerns. The Change to Win dissidents have played a key role in keeping the pressure on to stop Sweeney from forcing the Carpenters out of participation in the federation’s Building and Construction Trades Department, and the Carpenters were players in the New Unity Partnership as well. Their affiliation is no surprise, but it does help to further swell the new coalition and puts front and center the model of a union which has experienced success since breaking away from the AFL-CIO. The real coup for the dissidents would be pulling in the National Education Association (NEA).

All of this friction, though certainly tense, has the potential to transform a movement and a set of organizations sorely in need of it, and turn around the decline in American union membership which has steadily pulled the efficacy of the broader left down with it. But don’t take it from me – take it from the prestigious anti-union law firm Morgan Lewis:

If the Coalition’s members follow through on their threats to disaffiliate from the Federation later this year, employers can expect an increased interest in union organizing. This could be especially true for the nation’s largest non-union employers. For employers with existing unionized workforces, this means increased pressure to execute some form of neutrality and card-check recognition agreement. For employers with unions from both competing factions at their facilities, competition for better wages, benefits and other terms and conditions of employment is likely…the raiding between AFL and CIO constituent unions that occurred prior to 1955 will now play out between Coalition’s members and those remaining loyal to the Federation. The last several years have seen a significant increase in the amount of collaboration between U.S.-based unions and their international counterparts. That collaboration could increase significantly. Finally, more union mergers should be forthcoming.

Bad news for those of us who’ve been rooting for new leadership at the AFL-CIO, as the UAW, one of the crucial remaining swing votes, yesterday endorsed John Sweeney for another term. This leaves little chance of a change in leadership this time around, as Thomas Edsall writes, and is prompting a shift in focus to the next choice the reformers have to make – should they stay or should they go:

While Sweeney, 71, now appears certain to win, the nation’s largest union, the Service Employees International Union, is more likely to follow through on threats to bolt from the AFL-CIO. “The challenge here is to make sure we have a labor movement that can change people’s lives,” said SEIU President Andrew L. Stern, noting that all of his union’s locals are voting on a proposal that would authorize the union to sever its ties to the labor federation…The dissident unions, calling themselves the “Change to Win” coalition, had been counting on the UAW to give them new momentum, and lift the collective membership of their unions to well over 5 million. There are about 13 million members in the 58 unions that make up the AFL-CIO, so it takes unions with a total of 6.5 million members or more to win a leadership fight. At the moment, the dissident unions have just under 5 million members. Stern said beating Sweeney had been a long-shot proposition from the beginning. “It’s always been hard to imagine defeating an incumbent leader,” Stern said. “John Sweeney has probably always had the votes.” Unite Here President John Wilhelm, who was widely viewed as the most likely person to run against Sweeney, contends that winning majority support for restructuring will precede any leadership change. He said he has spent his “entire life in the House of Labor,” but he did not rule out joining Stern and leaving the AFL-CIO.

This a sad development for Americann workers, and it’s a shame that for now, an AFL-CIO guided by a reformist vision of what was the New Unity Partnership and by more inspired leadership has become a much more distant possibility. Hopefully John Sweeney will continue to feel and respond to the pressure to build a federation which leads its member unions to revived power by prioritizing aggressive organizing facilitating effective cooperation, and encouraging tactics which work.

The AFL-CIO, unfortunately, has not been working for a long time, in part because too often its approach has looked more like the narrow approach of the old AFL than the agressive broad-based approach of the CIO. There’s plenty to fear about a potential breakaway from the federation. The kind of union raiding which the reformers have identified as a challenge to labor’s effectiveness could become uglier were some or all of these unions to move outside of the structure of the AFL-CIO. And the red-baiting and purging of early post-war period can be pinned in part on the division between the AFL and the CIO. But that said, the same competition between the federations also sparked a great deal of tremendous organizing which, if not for the CIO’s existence as an independent organization, might very well never have taken place. Unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE have a model which is working, though certainly imperfectly, and it’s a model which has has achieved some impressive successes despite the failure of the federation to effectively serve the functions they’ve rightfully called for it to execute. If pulling out means a renewed ability to marshall resources for maximum efficacy in organizing, to build stronger coalitions with other progressive organizations with shared worldview, to more effectively hold politicians accountable (good cop, bad cop, et al), and to press the AFL-CIO from the outside to reform, it could be more than worthwhile.

The narrow lense through which this has all been read in the Times and Post and such, unfortunately, is “Labor = Democratic Turnout Machine” and ergo “Division in labor = peril for Democrats.” This slant is both short-sighted and wrong-headed. What the Democratic party needs, and should be doing much more to foster, is a reversal of the decline in American union membership. Any change that leads to more effective organizing broadens the Democratic constituency. Internal debate about how to make that happen is certainly healthy; if a split is effective in making union membership a reality for the millions of Americans who want it, then that spells great things for the Democratic party. If it can’t accomplish that, then it’s already a terrible move. But there’s no reason to assume that two federations would be fatally less effective at political turnout than one. The Democratic politicians who really have a reason to be afraid are the ones coasting on their partisan affiliation without keeping promises to American workers. If these newspapers are committed to assessing what a split would mean for the Democratic party, first they’ll need to engage the conversation on what it means for the labor movement.