by Bill Onasch / August 2005 issue of Socialist Action
CHICAGO—In 1955 two rival union federations came together here to form the AFL-CIO. Fifty years later, in the same city, this Golden Anniversary became the occasion for a new split. It was not unexpected.
When the AFL-CIO executive council met a few days after Bush’s reelection, SEIU President Andy Stern issued a public ultimatum: if the federation didn’t
adopt the proposals of what was then called the New Unity Partnership, and if they failed to replace the present executive officers, beginning with President John Sweeney, then SEIU and its allies would leave the “house of labor” and start a whole new subdivision of their own.
Eight months later, on the eve of the fed convention, Stern showed he wasn’t bluffing. As this is written (July 29), SEIU, along with the Teamsters, have
formally withdrawn from the AFL-CIO. UFCW, and UNITE HERE, joined them in boycotting the convention and in declining federation offices, and are good as gone as well.
Two additional affiliates, the Laborers and United Farm Workers, attended the convention while declaring their solidarity with the Stern/Hoffa faction. These six unions are joined by the Carpenters, who left the federation four years ago, to form what is, for now, designated as a “coalition,” Change to Win.
When Stern crossed the Rubicon last November, he also issued a call for a great debate over labor’s future. Clearly such a discussion is urgently needed—and not just about union “density.” Working-class standards of
living are on the decline. Anxiety about job security is on everyone’s mind. Workers worry about access to health care, whether they can count on pension promises, how they can possibly pay for their kid’s education. The environment is going to hell. And, above all else, is a war with no end in sight.
Stern established a website, Unite to Win, dedicated to the worthy objective of discussion. Dozens of local union officials, radicals, and some rank-and-file workers did submit comments on a wide range of topics to a section of that site—so many in fact that they quickly became unwieldy and very difficult to follow.
But most of the site’s focus was on Stern’s personal blog, along with occasional official statements by SEIU and their allies. Soon, the Sweeney leadership established a similar format on the AFL-CIO web site.
The fed’s effort was primarily given over to weighty comments by various “international” union presidents. It soon became clear that the debate, the goals, of the two warring factions in the AFL-CIO had little to do with the issues of great concern to America’s workers. Stern proved adept at leveraging discontent against incumbent leaders—including his one-time
mentor, John Sweeney.
But this challenge of the student toward the master was really less concerned about the needs of the working class than it was about alarm over the very
survival of their species—a union bureaucracy long based on collaboration with the employers and toadying to the bosses’ politicians.
Stern is concerned that the AFL-CIO bureaucracy has not evolved to respond to the changing economy. In his view there are too many small affiliates, too many local unions, needless central labor councils, money wasted on educational projects—too much deadwood in their eroding habitat. The changers want to see resources concentrated in a few mega-unions focused on a few strategically selected industries.
Actually, in some respects Stern is a bit of a late convert to this consolidate-to-win approach. His allies in the Carpenters and UFCW have been far out in
front in terms of merging and eliminating local unions to assert even more control from the very highest echelons. But SEIU has been frantically playing
catch-up. For example, all SEIU members in Kansas City are now part of a “local” union based in Chicago.
At one time, the changers probably had some hope that they might prevail in the struggle for control of the federation. Once it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen, they lost interest in “debate.” They chose instead to show their contempt by boycotting the convention, organizing pep rallies of those who went to Chicago ostensibly to be delegates. If you can’t win to change, then change to win.
Politicians are welcome guests
Sweeney didn’t hesitate to try to embarrass the Stern & Co. no-show. “It is a shame that these unions will not come argue for their ideas and listen to others about how to improve the lives of workers,” he said in a statement. “That’s how democracies work.” Yes, that’s how democracy works but there are few unions in the U.S. that have operated in such a manner within living memory. Most union conventions are staged events, called together to applaud decisions reached out of sight and sound of delegates. This
year’s conclave on Navy Pier was no different—with one important exception.
For example, there was no real discussion of the political crisis facing organized labor. Clearly, despite the expenditure of $400 million in the 2004
election cycle, union political influence is completely irrelevant. Their nose was rubbed in this mess once again during the convention when 15 Democrat “friends,” defying a last-minute threat from the fed, ensured victory for CAFTA.
Far from any self-criticism, the convention took their political marching orders from numerous exalted guest speakers, including Senators Barack Obama, Arlen Specter, Richard Durbin, Harry Reid, and Edward Kennedy; Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Peter King; Chicago Mayor Richard Daley; Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich; and former Senator and hopeful for the
Democrat presidential nod in 2008, John Edwards. Mostly Democrats but with a couple of good Republicans mixed in.
The delegates approved, with hardly a murmur, a proposal to devote even more money to such labor “friends.”
Change to Win cynically opposed this “throwing more money at politicians” but offered no political alternative. As a matter of fact, they too are big
spenders in this area. But some of them are more inclined to try their luck with the GOP.
The Hoffa family, of course, has close ties to the Republicans, going back to Nixon. The Carpenters have a cozy relationship with Karl Rove. Even the
“progressive” SEIU was the single biggest contributor to a Republican governor’s PAC. Both the Sweeney and Stern factions have remained completely silent about the Labor Party project.
The “enemies” list
What can we expect to happen after this split? If the surviving majority at the fed convention was sincerely interested in unity of the movement they would say something along these lines to the changers: We’re sorry you feel you have to leave us. We hope we can be reunited soon. In the meantime, let’s try to collaborate where we can to advance the interests of American workers. Clearly this was the sentiment of most delegates from local levels, where polished shoes must occasionally touch the ground.
There has been little evidence of such a fraternal approach on high, however. When Linda Chavez-Thompson spoke at the Sweeney camp’s pre-convention rally, she ran off a litany of labor’s enemies, including George
W. Bush, the Right to Work Committee, Chamber of Commerce—and Change to Win. Before adjournment, central labor bodies and trades councils were instructed to purge the splitters. Raids are certainly a good possibility.
(Parenthetically, the departure of the Teamsters will probably clear the way for the return of the United Transportation Union to the AFL-CIO. New UTU
leaders—replacing those, now incarcerated, who had carried out an ill-advised split a few years ago—had their application for reaffiliation vetoed by the Teamsters, who recently absorbed long-time UTU rival, the BLE.)
Since the split means the fed will lose more than a third of its per capita dues base, further cuts in federation staff are a certainty. You can kiss goodbye
what’s left of health and safety and other training and research programs—and probably a lot more.
Will Change to Win succeed in salvaging a prosperous wing of an endangered union bureaucracy? I don’t know—and frankly I don’t care. I do know that the union movement has been seriously weakened by this
unprincipled split. It will embolden the bosses to sharpen their attacks. It will weaken organized labor’s already marginal political influence.
And, to the extent that Change to Win implements its plan for internal restructuring we will see even less opportunity for the rank and file to participate in making the decisions that affect our lives so much. Both camps will undoubtedly be conducting organizing and strike campaigns that deserve our support. But neither camp deserves our confidence.
And we still, more than ever, need a real debate about labor’s future. We have to figure out how we can gain power in the workplace through our unions and how we can build a labor party to advance our interests politically.