by Bill Onash / June 2005 issue of Socialist Action
“Is Labor Headed for Splitsville?” was the title of a Business Week article about the Las Vegas gathering of a dissident faction in the AFL-CIO last month. The top dogs in the SEIU, Teamsters, UFCW, UNITE-HERE, and the
Laborers had hoped they would have won enough support to announce a challenge to John Sweeney’s reelection as president at the federation’s convention in July. Clearly, they don’t have that and are unlikely to pick
up enough additional backing.
This has renewed implied threats of split by these unions, representing about 40 percent of AFL-CIO members. If they go, they can count on being joined by
the Carpenters, who bolted the federation a few years ago. This would make their camp nearly as numerically strong as the remnants of the “house of labor.”
Historically, there have been two major splits from the AFL. In 1905 the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was launched because of widespread
dissatisfaction with the conservative, class-collaborationist policies of the AFL craft unions. The IWW took the crafts on by organizing on an industrial basis.
They won, at least on a temporary basis, some impressive initial victories in textile, wood and paper, Great Lakes ports, and among farm labor. They
also fought significant battles for free speech and used the arts to make an indelible imprint on working-class culture. But a combination of factional
divisions among socialist and syndicalist currents, a weak structure incapable of consolidating organizing and strike victories, and—above all—relentless
persecution by the government and vigilantes, ultimately reduced them to a tiny current.
The second split had a much greater impact—the Committee (later to become Congress) of Industrial Organizations (CIO), launched in 1935. Like today, the
AFL at the time was floundering, and the leadership seemed incapable of responding to the challenges of the times. Unlike today, there were the beginnings of important local fights, under radical leadership, winning victories here and there.
Some of the more far-sighted AFL leaders, such as John L. Lewis of the Mine Workers, saw the need to promote—and control—these promising developments. The CIO, as a federation independent of, and partially in
competition with the AFL, had great success in organizing mass-production industries such as auto, steel, electrical, rubber, chemical, and meat packing—areas where the conservative craft unions had been unsuccessful or uninterested in making gains. Twenty years later, after the craft unions had made their peace with industrial forms of organization—and with the Cold War waning of radical influence in the unions—the rival federations merged into the present AFL-CIO.
In both of these examples the “splitters” had compelling arguments for striking out on their own, for testing in struggle fundamentally different strategies. One suffered an honorable defeat in battle. The other won huge gains for the working class before succumbing to a bureaucratized reunification with their former adversaries.
Today’s dissidents threatening split have not the slightest resemblance to these two prior movements. They are not based on an upsurge of worker struggles being ignored by the federation leadership. And they certainly are not radicals, nor do they have much sympathy for radicalism of any kind. They in fact have few differences with the other camp in regards to basic principles or strategy.
While offering pabulum about great social issues, indistinguishable from the Sweeney wing, they focus on bureaucratic preoccupation with dues and structure. Their pressure pushed Sweeney into making ill-advised cuts in federation staff—but they demand much more. This week [of May 22] the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists is also meeting in Las Vegas. They are
justifiably concerned about the impact of the rival business plans of the two warring factions on Black leaders and members, and other “constituency” groups.
The Black Commentator wrote, “Even as unions struggle to respond to forces bent on their annihilation, they remain deformed by racism—the same plague that has crippled the U.S. labor movement at every stage in its history. Black workers, the most enthusiastic ‘joiners’ and activists, also face the most dire
consequences of labor’s historical weaknesses. Yet, too often, their white comrades—including those who proudly consider themselves ‘progressives’—seek ‘solutions’ to labor’s problems at Black workers’ institutional expense.”
Business Week can hardly conceal their glee at the prospect of a split in the federation: “A splintered labor movement would be a boon to Corporate America and the GOP. While unions continue to shrink as a share of the U.S. workforce, they still sign up hundreds of thousands of new members every year. Warring camps could undercut those efforts if unions raid each other for members, as officials on both sides threaten to do.
“A breakup would also undermine labor’s vaunted political machine. Its ability to bring millions of union voters to the polls in recent elections has been one of Sweeney’s chief successes. Already the unhappy unions have demanded that the AFL-CIO remove their members from its master list of names, which has been crucial to labor’s mammoth get-out-the-vote election drives.”
It is true that “labor’s vaunted political machine” has not produced much of worth—and will not as long as it’s tied to the Democrats. But the dissidents are not talking about putting this great potential power behind the Labor Party. Some of them—especially the Carpenters and Teamsters—are quite open to trying their luck with the Republicans.
Sometimes splits around great divisions of principles are necessary and ultimately beneficial. The unprincipled split threatened by today’s dissidents
would make a bad situation much worse. The labor movement needs to continue a great debate while maintaining organizational unity at the present.