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.
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.”
What’s the point of going when clearly there’s a majority that feels that they don’t want to make fundamental changes? We don’t want to fight with them. Why have a big fight?”
Thing is, they do want a fight over the future of the labor movement, and it’s a fight that’s sorely needed. It’s the Change to Win dissidents who’ve rightly been arguing to this point that contentious soul-searching, not superficial unity, is what the federation needs right now. So seems to me like showing up to the Chicago convention to argue for their ammendments and their vision is worth the trip, even if the deck is stacked against them We’ll see whether that happens.
Meanwhile, John Wilhelm has resigned as head of the AFL-CIO’s Immigration Committee, a post from which he built a unanimous consensus, in the face of strong initial opposition, behind the federation’s historic reversal in favor of the rights of undocumented immigrants. That change, which started out of vision and necessity in progressive locals around the country, has been and will be critical to the future of the movement. Wilhelm’s role in it demonstrates that one can and must fight for reform within the movement and for empowerment of the movement within society at the same time. His letter of resignation is here; John Sweeney responds here.
And yesterday, the Executive Board of the Teamsters voted unanimously to follow SEIU, UNITE HERE, and the Laborers in authorizing their leaders to leave the AFL-CIO:
The General President and the Presidents of the other CTWC Unions have been discussing these issues with the AFL-CIO and those discussions are continuing. It is apparent, however, that, without dramatic change in structure and leadership, the Federation and its affiliated Unions will be unable to accelerate the organizing necessary to reverse the downward trend in union membership and will be unable to protect existing contract standards that establish fair wages and working conditions for our members and the members of other responsible Unions.
If there is not substantial change at the AFL-CIO, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters must chart its own, independent course, must work with the like-minded Unions that are part of the Change To Win Coalition, and must pursue our own programs to accelerate organizing, increase Union density in our core industries, rebuild the labor movement and insure a better future for workers and their families.
I’m headed off for the weekend to a libertarian seminar (no, I haven’t gone over to the dark side – I’m just willing to accept free room and board and senior essay fodder from them) – more on all this once I escape from Hayek-ville…
A week ago, TPMCafe opened its House of Labor, a collaborative blog on the future of the Labor Movement with the likes of Nathan Newman, Bill Fletcher, and Jo-Ann Mort, and the discussion has remained unusually articulate, informed, and relevant ever since. Over the past few days the contributors have been debating the organizing agenda of the Change to Win Coalition (now chaired by Anna Burger), a topic on which there’s been all-too little discussion in the blogosphere and the media in general.
Tuesday Bill Fletcher considered a letter from Machinists President Tom Buffenbarger making the case that the AFL-CIO under Sweeney has done the best it could under the circumstances – a position Fletcher, like me, rejects – and that those circumstances deserve a more serious examination in this debate. Fletcher writes that
His argument is that the workforce has jumped in size dramatically and events, such as the 9/11 terrorist attacks (and other problems such as deindustrialization) have been devastating to organized labor. These issues, he asserts, are not being discussed. He is basically right: they are not being discussed in any serious way. Further, he asks what percentage of the workforce should we be trying to organize. What is interesting about this question is that i cannot remember anyone EVER attempting to answer it. The implicit question here is what percentage of the workforce needs to be organized such that there is a QUALITATIVE improvement in the power relation between labor and capital…What has largely been missing from the debate, as i asserted in an earlier blog, is a real analysis of the objective conditions facing workers generally and unions specifically. It is, for instance, very unclear in the debates what people actually mean by “power” for workers outside of bargaining power…while the debate has focused on the AFL-CIO, the reality is that it is the individual unions that have the major resources AND RESPONSIBILITY for organizing, yet this seems to have been largely ignored in most of the discussion.
Yesterday, Nathan Newman took up Bill Fletcher’s challenge to engage with Buffenbarger’s argument, agreeing that we need better ways to evaluate where we stand and how to get back on track than just comparing density percentages. One key, he suggests, is density within industries, and a more promising approach to building density is what distinguishes the Change to Win dissidents from the team that Buffenbarger is defending. He cites a piece from Justice for Janitors head Stephen Lerner which, as he summarizes
Lerner first argued that the key was dramatic comprehensive organizing, not incremental work by unions…He laid out the argument for consolidation around sectors where such strategic organizing would have the resources to make dramatic changes…He specifically argued that there is a critical point where the combination of density and militant action by unions makes employer opposition too costly; that is the point where employer resistance fades and unions make dramatic gains in a sector..The problem was that most unions were too diffuse in their organizing to achieve that critical mass in any particular sector, so they made small organizing gains that failed to counterbalance other losses. And he argued that unions had failed to grapple with changes in the global economy that made these diffuse organizing efforts even less effective…his steps to rebuilding the labor movement involved both a social vision and reorganization of the union structures…The key, he argued, was to exponentially expand the resources spent on organizing, not incrementally but in dramatic ways. In a sense, Lerner completely agreed with Buffenbarger that the problem was not in the AFL-CIO itself but in the international unions responsible for organizing…The solution was to set concrete goals…with a whole range of other resource and political commitments, from achieving legalization for undocumented immigrants to punishing anti-worker companies as examples to other employers.
While criticizing Lerner’s lack of emphasis on union democracy or racial equality, Nathan argues that the broad strategy he laid out was right then, and that the Change to Win unions are right to push the same one three years later.
Jo-Ann Mort echoes Nathan’s argument that the Change to Win approach to building density offers more hope of reversing the decline in union membership, and she suggests that that decline has brought us so far down that Buffenbarger’s question of “how much is enough” becomes an academic one:
SEIU and Unite-HERE, to name two unions, have strategies, it seems to me, on how to build critical mass in key industries and therefore increase bargaining power. These unions have even been willing to trade members in a particular industry so that their membership is more homogenous, and they can build strength within a certain industry or company. Sectors–both domestic and global matter more today than overall numbers, in a certain sense, but numbers also do matter. The fact is that with organized labor’s numbers having sunk below 10%, it makes it difficult not only to organize new workers, but also to advocate for new laws regarding union organizing, labor law, workers’ rights, etc.–let alone elect a union-friendly politician. Today, it’s a too rare occurance when someone even engages with a member of a union. There are whole regions of the country where labor members are nearly completely scarce. This makes it impossible for labor to build any kind of public support. No matter how you cut it, there is a crisis in labor, a crisis which the Buffenbarger letter doesn’t seem to acknowledge.
Responding today to readers’ comments, Nathan acknowledges that manufacturing unions have faced more hostile organizing conditions than the service unions who’ve been Sweeney’s strongest critics. But like the service unions, he argues, they have strategies available to respond – and they parallel the Change to Win approach:
I’d suggest four possibilities- (1) Abandon new manufacturing and organize associated services; (2) leverage their existing density more strategically; (3) organize the world; (4) organize Wal-Mart, the largest manufacturing company in the world…Given the fact that such a large part of employment in the US is in services — many of them not subject to easy overseas outsourcing in almost any scenario — why not concentrate all of the union movement’s extra resources on the “low hanging” fruit of local services, especially those services most related to a union’s core industry? In a sense, that’s what UNITE’s been doing for a number of years, shifting its organizing focus from garment manufacturing, which has been decimated by global competition, over to related industries like the industrial laundries who wash the clothes UNITE workers once sewed…Unlike the garment industry, a lot of big manufacturing like autos are still building factories in the US– often non-union as with the Japanese transplants — but the industry isn’t disappearing. And the UAW for example, as Frank no doubt knows better than me, is getting smarter at using its incumbent power at the Big Three to leverage new organizing through contract agreements– whether going after parts suppliers or through Chrysler negotiations to get agreements at Mercedes…If unions are stronger in developing nations, companies will only move plants there if it’s really more efficient– not just because they’re running to a non-union environment. And the reality is that US unions could help fund a hell of a lot of organizers in those countries precisely because wages and the cost of living are so much lower– and with more global allies, it would help keep the pressure on the manufacturers across the world…Organize Wal-Mart, which is far more than a retailer, but really the global headquarters directing the operations of thousands upon thousands of manufacturing subcontractors who produce what and when Wal-Mart tells them. Get a handle on Wal-Mart and the union movement could get a handle on organizing a heck of lot of manufacturing companies, both domestically and globally. And that’s a goal both the service and manufacturing unions can share.
UNITE HERE and SEIU absolutely were dealt a better hand as unions in industries where fewer jobs can move overseas. But the organizing victories they have to show from it would have been impossible if they hadn’t played those hands much better than most by prioritizing strategic organizing of the unorganized, including marginalized Americans, and strong community-based coalition-building. And, contrary to Buffenbarger’s implication, this is not a specialized strategy for the service industry.
As Nathan reminds us, while differences between industries are certainly something, they aren’t everything. The aggressive organizing strategy which made Detroit a city where auto workers join the middle-class and the one which made Las Vegas a city where hotel workers do have essential similarities we’d do well to recognize. So do the challenge of choosing interracial solidarity over union-backed racism in an earlier generation and the modern challenge of organizing across lines of citizenship and borders.
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.