Fortunately, there’s a peaceful solution the Yale – New Haven Hospital could agree to tomorrow: card-check neutrality. Let’s keep in mind it was MLK who warned us against seeking “a negative peace which is the absence of tension” rather than “a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also said: “You see, no labor is really menial unless you’re not getting adequate wages…if you’re getting a good wage, as I know that through some unions they’ve brought it up…that isn’t menial labor. What makes it menial is the income, the wages.”
He wrote the first quote in jail in Birmingham. He said the second one at a rally for SEIU 1199 – his “favorite union” – in 1968.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.