Had a great weekend in New York, and got to see several friends (including this one) in various parts of the city, thanks in no small part to the hard work of the MTA employees who make the subway run every day. My sense is that Steven Greenhouse is largely right in his assessment that the deal represents a real victory for the Transport Workers’ Union. The biggest concession made by the union, its agreement to have workers pay a small portion of healthcare costss, is a real and unfortunate one. But it managed to hold the line on pensions and dramatically retroactively improve the the pensions of many workers while winning maternity leave and an MLK Day holiday. And the union routed the MTA on the issue likely to have the greatest long-term significance: the MTA’s bid to create a two-tiered workforce by convincing current workers to sell out the men and women who will do their jobs in the future by consigning them to inferior contracts.
That transit workers were derided as selfish for striking to protect the benefits of future workers is one of the bitter ironies of this strike (there are others, like the absence from the press of mention that the MTA’s insistence on pension concessions was as illegal as the union’s strike). But evaluating the nobility of choices based on whether they are in the self-interest of those who take them is a bankrupt approach anyway. These workers made the difficult choice to strike their jobs and picket in the face of freezing weather and hostile media to secure better livelihoods for themselves and their current and future co-workers. And then they went back to work at a job few of the perpetually aghast conservatives heaping racialized insults on them could imagine doing.
It’s a shame it had to come to a strike. This contract could have been signed a month ago if George Pataki had wanted it. The last minute worsening of the MTA’s contract suggests that what he wanted is a strike, and he got it. In terms of public opinion, however, things didn’t quite go the way he planned.
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.