AFL-CIO SPLIT IMMINENT

Saturday, the United Farmworkers announced that they’re joining the Change to Win Coalition. Yesterday SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Teamsters, and the UFCW voted to boycott the AFL-CIO’s convention which began this morning. Today, several sources are reporting that after failed last-minute negotiations, SEIU and the Teamsters, at a minimum, are on the verge of announcing a split from the federation. What other Change to Win Coalition members will do remains unclear – the UFCW seems closest to following, while the Laborers, who are attending this week’s convention, seem the least likely.

The Change to Win Coalition has a compelling vision based on strategies which unions like SEIU and UNITE HERE have used effectively to broaden the labor movement and increase its efficacy at a time when the story for the movement has too often been one of dashed hopes and diminished returns. There’s good reason to be concerned that a split could divert resources into unnecessary competition. But in the face of a uniquely hostile government and economy and a series of costly failures, I think there’s even more reason to hope that a split can reinvigorate the movement by spurring both groups to more effective organizing and more importantly, by making it possible to apply a winning model on more of the fronts where we need desperately to win.

One of the Key choices now facing John Sweeney is whether to encourage, or at least condone, cooperation where possible between two federations. His message to Central Labor Councils hasn’t been encouraging on this front. Neither is this:

Before 2,000 Sweeney supporters, Linda Chavez-Thompson, Mr. Sweeney’s running mate for executive vice president, laid into several entities that she said had sought to weaken labor – the Bush administration, the United States Chamber of Commerce, Wal-Mart – and then she surprised her audience by adding, “the Change to Win Coalition.”

A QUIET CONVENTION AFTER ALL?

The latest from the Change to Win Coalition is that there’s apparently a good chance that all six internationals will skip Monday’s AFL-CIO convention entirely. One leader told Harold Meyerson:

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…

GETTING DENSE AGAIN

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.

The New York Times Magazine gives all-too rare front-page coverage to Andy Stern’s push to reform the AFL-CIO:

”Our movement is going out of existence, and yet too many labor leaders go and shake their heads and say they’ll do something, and then they go back and do the same thing the next day,” Stern told me recently. He is a lean, compact man with thinning white hair, and when he reclines in the purple chair in his Washington office and crosses one leg over the other, he could easily pass for a psychiatrist or a math professor. He added, ”I don’t have a lot of time to mince words, because I don’t think workers in our country have a lot of time left if we don’t change.”

A week after the election in November, Stern delivered a proposal to the A.F.L.-C.I.O. that sounded more like an ultimatum. He demanded that the federation, the umbrella organization of the labor movement, embrace a top-to-bottom reform, beginning with a plan to merge its 58 unions into 20, for the purpose of consolidating power. If the other bosses wouldn’t budge, Stern threatened to take his 1.8 million members and bolt the federation — effectively blowing up the A.F.L.-C.I.O. on the eve of its 50th anniversary. Stern’s critics say all of this is simply an excuse to grab power. ”What Andy’s doing now with his compadres is what Vladimir Putin is trying to do to the former Communist bloc countries,” says Tom Buffenbarger, president of the union that represents machinists and aerospace workers. ”He’s trying to implement dictatorial rule.” Stern says he is done caring what the other bosses think. ”If I don’t have the courage to do what my members put me here to do, then how do I ask a janitor or a child-care worker to go in and see a private-sector employer and say, ‘We want to have a union in this place’?” Stern asks. ”What’s my risk? That some people won’t like me? Their risk is that they lose their jobs.”

Good news is, the Times is highlighting something going on in the labor movement, and in a way that may challenge some of its readers’ conceptions of labor as so 19th-century. Bad news, as Nathan ably argues, is that Matt Bai insists on divorcing Stern from the larger movement he’s part of, framing him instead as a lone brave dissenter from a ubiquitous orthodoxy of inertia. As Nathan writes:

The author repeatedly refers to “union bosses”, the old cliche that tries to compare union leaders to corporate executives. Except a top union leader can’t fire members or force them to go on strike or approve a contract. It’s ultimately a phrase that is used to ignore the crucial difference in the role of workers in unions versus corporations: workers get a vote in a union. Yet nowhere in the piece is any internal life of unions acknowledged. In fact, in a massive piece, other unions’ leaders are mentioned but only one other union official in all of SEIU is mentioned, namely Anna Burger, who is described as Andy Stern’s “political aide”, ignoring her position as a separately elected top official of the union with a quite independent biography. Nowhere mentioned are key local SEIU leaders like Dennis Rivera, head of New York’s 200,000-member SEIU 1199, which is notoriously outside of the national office’s control, or Sal Roselli, leader of California’s nursing local…

Navel-gazing and blaming various union leaders for failures of the union movement is a daily parlour game among union activists. John Sweeney won election as AFL-CIO leader in 1995 centered on exactly such criticisms of business-as-usual in the union leadership. And serious changes were made. New resources were devoted to organizing, AFL-CIO foreign relations were completely remade, and a host of other changes were made. All Andy Stern is arguing is that not enough was done. But he’s continuing an argument that’s decades old, which is why other unions could easily contribute alternative proposals for change. Instead of emphasizing the substance of differences over where the labor movement needs to go, the magazine piece lazily sets up Tom Buffenbarger, leader of the Machinists union, as a stereotypical “old union” resister to change.

Frequent readers (thanks, Dad) know that I’m an advocate of broad-based progressive moments as the only effective instrument of progressive change. In particular, I’ve used this space to argue that in support of moves within the labor movement towards a broader conception of what it means to sdvocate for the interests of workers, be it native and immigrant workers standing together in the Immigrant Worker Freedom Rides, partnership between healthcare workers and patients calling for universal coverage, or SEIU’s strong stance against the Federal Marriage Ammendment as an assault on the rights of its members. As was declared at the first union event I ever attended in New Haven, in response to President Levin’s intimations that Yale’s unions have a broader agenda, “You bet we have a broader agenda.” I’ve also criticized those movements locally and nationally when the broader agenda has proved not as broad as one would hope.

This is a debate that must take place in every progressive movement committed to winning over the next years. The environmentalist movement, as Randy Shaw argued compellingly in his Activist Handbook, is a prime example as well. Looks like former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach agrees:

For example, I’ve been trying to tell my friends at the Sierra Club that the most important battle for the Sierra Club and the next two years might be over public education. That is the battle line over collective activity, interdependence, the values we care about — much more so than the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. That’s a skirmish along the way that’s not strategic. It’s way off to the side.

Via Ralph Taylor at Nathan’s site, who also points back to Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s “The Death of Environmentalism”:

The truth is that for the vast majority of Americans, the environment never makes it into their top ten list of things to worry about. Protecting the environment is indeed supported by a large majority — it’s just not supported very strongly. Once you understand this, it’s much easier to understand why it’s been so easy for anti-environmental interests to gut 30 years of environmental protections…Whereas neocons make proposals using their core values as a strategy for building a political majority, liberals, especially environmentalists, try to win on one issue at a time….The serial losses on Rio, Kyoto, CAFE, and McCain-Lieberman were not framed in ways that increase the environmental community’s power through each successive defeat. That’s because, when those proposals were crafted, environmentalists weren’t thinking about what we get out of each defeat. We were only thinking about what we get out of them if they succeed. It’s this mentality that must be overthrown if we are to craft proposals that generate the power we need to succeed at a legislative level.

…There is no better example of how environmental categories sabotage environmental politics than CAFE. When it was crafted in 1975, it was done so as a way to save the American auto industry, not to save the environment. That was the right framing then and has been the right framing ever since. Yet the environmental movement, in all of its literal-sclerosis, not only felt the need to brand CAFE as an “environmental” proposal, it failed to find a solution that also worked for industry and labor. By thinking only of their own narrowly defined interests, environmental groups don’t concern themselves with the needs of either unions or the industry. As a consequence, we miss major opportunities for alliance building. Consider the fact that the biggest threat to the American auto industry appears to have nothing to do with “the environment.” The high cost of health care for its retired employees is a big part of what hurts the competitiveness of American companies…Because Japan has national health care, its auto companies aren’t stuck with the bill for its retirees. And yet if you were to propose that environmental groups should have a strategy for lowering the costs of health care for the auto industry, perhaps in exchange for higher mileage standards, you’d likely be laughed out of the room, or scolded by your colleagues because, “Health care is not an environmental issue.”…Let’s go for the massive expansion of wind in the Midwest — make it part of the farm bill and not the energy bill. Let’s highlight the jobs and farmers behind it. But bring about this sea-change in the way the environmental movement thinks and operates isn’t going to be easy. For nearly every environmental leader we spoke to, the job creation benefits of things like retrofitting every home and building in America were, at best, afterthoughts.

We all have a lot of work to do.