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.

Today’s press release from Change to Win, the dissident unions’ alternative vehicle for their agenda to revive the American labor movement:

At a meeting this morning with 50 top officials from the unions, the Coalition approved a Constitution and Bylaws that would promote the coordination, cooperation and collective action of their affiliated organizations to boost union strength and improve workers’ lives. “Our goal is to empower the tens of millions of American workers who face the daily challenge of making ends meet and whose voice has been silenced by the overwhelming power of large global corporations and their representatives in Washington,” the five Presidents said in a joint statement. “The basic principle that brings us here today is that American workers cannot win a better life unless more workers belong to unions, and unless those unions have the focus, strategy, and resources to unite workers in their industry and raise standards for pay, health care, pensions, and working conditions,” they continued.

While the founding unions hope their proposals are passed by the delegates to the AFL-CIO Convention, it will put them into practice immediately through the structure and activities of the Change to Win Coalition. Regardless of the agenda adopted in Chicago by the AFL-CIO, the Coalition will move forward with its reform program after the Convention. The union leaders said today that they welcome other labor organizations into the Coalition. They said, “In the Constitution and Bylaws we adopted today, we pledged mutual support and solidarity, no raiding, and no retaliation for those who may choose to leave the AFL-CIO. We seek to change the face not only of what organized labor does, but how it does it.” The Coalition unions have pioneered new organizing techniques. Each member union is contributing funds to the Coalition to take those techniques to a new level by cooperatively organizing non-union workers in key areas of the private sector.

Whether this portends a split or simply a consolidation of the dissidents’ power within the AFL-CIO remains to be seen. Either way, they have a program that works at a time when the federation isn’t working, and they’re right, as they were back when they formed the New Unity Partnership, to work together to push that vision forward aggressively. And they’re right, even as they push the AFL-CIO, not to wait for the AFL-CIO.

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.

“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.

Steven Greenhouse reports on the success of HERE Local 226 in organizing a largely minority and immigrant culinary workforce and fighting in solidarity to seize middle class status:

In most other cities, these workers live near the poverty line. But thanks in large part to the Culinary, in Las Vegas these workers often own homes and have Rolls-Royce health coverage, a solid pension plan and three weeks of vacation a year. The Culinary’s extraordinary success at delivering for its 48,000 members beckons newcomers from far and wide. By many measures, the Culinary is the nation’s most successful union local; its membership has nearly tripled from 18,000 in the late 1980’s, even as the rest of the labor movement has shrunk. The Culinary is such a force that one in 10 people here is covered by its health plan, and more than 90 percent of the hotel workers on the Strip belong to the union. The union is also unusual because it is a rainbow coalition, 65 percent nonwhite and 70 percent female. It includes immigrants from Central America, refugees from the Balkan wars and blacks from the Deep South.

The Culinary’s success cannot be separated from the industry’s wealth. With the profits rolling in, the casinos have decided to be relatively magnanimous to their workers to ensure labor peace and a happy work force. “When you’re in the service business, the first contact our guests have is with the guest-room attendants or the food and beverage servers, and if that person’s unhappy, that comes across to the guests very quickly,” said J. Terrence Lanni, chairman of the MGM Mirage, which owns the MGM Grand, the world’s largest hotel, with 5,000 rooms and 8,200 employees. “These are people who are generally happy. Is it perfect? No. But it’s as good as I’ve seen anywhere.”

Under the Culinary’s master contract, waiters are guaranteed $10.14 an hour before tips, the highest rate in the nation. In Las Vegas, unionized hotel housekeepers generally earn $11.95 an hour, 50 percent more than in nonunion Reno. The Culinary contract guarantees workers 40 hours’ pay each week, meaning housekeepers earn at least $478 a week, while in other cities housekeepers often work 30 hours and earn just $240. The Culinary’s workers pay no premiums for health care, and they often pay just $10 for a dentist’s visit, while nonunion workers often pay upwards of $150. “Our wages are higher, the medical benefits are great, and we have a guaranteed 40-hour week,” said Marianne Singer, a waitress at the unionized MGM Grand. “Thanks to all that, I have a beautiful 2,000-square-foot home with a three-car garage.”

…”In Las Vegas, more so than any place in the country, the hospitality industry and the union have realized it is not mere rhetoric to say, ‘We’re all in this together,’ ” said John W. Wilhelm, president of the Culinary’s parent union, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union.

The article identifies some of the key strategies which will define twenty-first century unionism: Mobilizing resources for a tremendously threatening corporate campaign when necessary to pressure management, working cooperatively to marshall human and political resources when possible for goals shared with management, aggressively pursuing card-check neutrality, and most fundamentally, focusing on organizing and empowering formerly disenfranchised workers to achieve tangible results.

And in another article, Greenhouse profiles one of those workers:

Ms. Diaz arrived illegally, but she eventually obtained a green card and citizenship through her father, who had been granted amnesty. For years, he had worked at a carwash in Los Angeles. Today, her whole family – parents, two sisters and five brothers – lives in Los Angeles. Once in Las Vegas, Ms. Diaz took a series of nonunion housekeeping jobs that she did not love, at a Best Western hotel, at Binion’s Horseshoe Casino, and finally at the luxurious Venetian. “In the hotels, the hardest job is housekeeping,” Ms. Diaz said. “It’s really hard when you come, and you don’t know the language. You want to be somebody, but it’s very hard.”

Two years ago, Ms. Diaz learned from the wife of one of her husband’s co-workers that there were unionized restaurant openings at the Luxor. Weary of making hotel beds and cleaning bathrooms, she landed a job busing tables at La Salsa. It paid $9.24 an hour, plus about $4 an hour in tips. The health plan was so good that she paid no premiums and made only modest co-payments. But Ms. Diaz had greater ambitions. After she passed the Culinary Training Academy course, she was immediately promoted to waitress. Now she is responsible for a half-dozen tables in the ocher-colored restaurant, which has the music of a Mexican crooner piped in. She greets customers with her big smile and tentative English, often recommending her favorite dish, the fajita salad.

As her status at La Salsa has risen, so has her pay. Las Vegas’s unionized busboys and waiters make the same base salary – $10.14 an hour, the highest rate in the nation. (By comparison, most waiters in New York City make $3.30 an hour before tips.) But waiters make much more from tips than busboys, who must be content with the often-meager amounts that waiters share with them.

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.

This issue of In These Times includes compelling pieces by Andy Stern and Gerald McEntee, Presidents of the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the two largest unions in the AFL-CIO. SEIU and AFSCME, the leading private and public sector unions respectively in the US, surprised many pundits who view them as rivals when they together endorsed Howard Dean a few months back. Stern argues rightly that the Democratic party cannot survive without the labor movement:

At our best, unions are one of the few institutions with progressive values that have millions of members, multimillion dollar budgets and the ability to do grassroots organizing on a large enough scale to counter the power of today’s corporations.

The 2000 presidential election clearly showed the difference unions can make.

* Bush won in nonunion households by 8 points, but lost in union households by 37 points.
* He won nonunion white men by 41 points, but lost union white men by 24 points.
* He won nonunion gun owners by 39 points, but lost union gun owners by 21 points.
* He did 16 points better among nonunion people of color than among union people of color.

So if more workers in Florida, Missouri, Ohio and other states that went narrowly for Bush had been union members, the past three years in this country would have been very different.

He offers three priorities for organized labor: legal defense of the right to organize as a human right, alliance across movements and communities in fighting for just causes, and prioritizing organizing. The latter two are arguably what accounted for the historic success of the CIO before and during the New Deal period, and are central to the New Unity Partnership Stern is spearheading with the Presidents of HERE, UNITE, the Laborers, and the Carpenters. The decline in the first, from the Taft-Hartley Act (which only Dennis Kucinich among the Democratic candidates has promised to repeal) to Reagan’s crackdown on the Air Traffic Controllers, is at the centerpiece of the counter-revolution against the labor movement over the past decades. And Bush, as McEntee argues, has pushed that counter-revolution further:

Indeed, at no other time during my 44 years in labor have I seen members of my union-the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)-nor the House of Labor, more dedicated to getting one person out of office.

And we all know why. Three million jobs lost in three years-the most since the Great Depression: 66 million Americans with inadequate healthcare coverage or no healthcare coverage at all; a median household income that has fallen for three straight years; 3 million Americans who slipped into poverty in 2001; ergonomic rules scrapped; overtime regulations attacked. The list goes on and on…the Bush administration invoked the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act-an action that hadn’t been taken in 25 years and never in a lockout. President Bush’s shameful use of Taft-Hartley sent a message to other employers: When the going gets rough at the bargaining table, the federal government can always step in-to help the boss.

But McEntee’s central argument, which Stern alludes to as well, is that getting a Democratic President into office is not and never has been enough to protect the rights of working people. Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed a National Labor Relations Act to bring labor into his coalition and into the Democratic establishment becuase it was clear that otherwise the labor movement could have torn his Presidency apart. Real economic change in this country won’t be accomplished by a Clintonite who sees organized labor as a special interest equivalent to big business to be kept at bay with moderate reforms and kept out of corrupting the political process. As McEntee argues:

It is clear that we must defeat George W. Bush. But we must also grow our unions. And whomever the Democratic Party selects as its nominee-AFSCME hopes it is Howard Dean-we must insist that he support a comprehensive social justice agenda, job creation, quality and affordable healthcare for all, the preservation of Medicare and Social Security, civil rights and much more.

And the House of Labor must insist that the next president support an aggressive agenda for worker rights, including real penalties for violators of labor laws, creating a law that will make employers recognize their workers’ desire to form a union, establishing first contract arbitration and giving the National Labor Relations Board the power to enforce laws that
protect workers.