by Michael Winship
The last time I was a delegate to the AFL-CIO convention, nearly 14 years ago, I remember staring up at the multitiered dais and thinking, "There's the problem with organized labor."
It looked like the members of the Soviet Presidium lined up on top of Lenin's Tomb. Or a casting call for "Grumpy Old White Men."
That has changed -- not much or enough -- but some. The slowness and inadequacy of the change is central to the problems faced by the AFL-CIO and organized labor in general as they fight to rebuild power and relevance.
Heading into this year's convention, the AFL had a full-scale rebellion on its hands. Several of its 56 member unions, including the Teamsters, the Food and Commercial Workers, UNITE Here (hotel, restaurant and garment workers) and the affiliation's largest and fastest growing, the 1.8 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), formed a rival Change to Win Coalition.
The convention was held at Chicago's Navy Pier, jutting into Lake Michigan, an appropriate location for what promised to be some serious walking of the plank. Barring a negotiated, 11th hour truce, floor fights and a reelection challenge to AFL President John Sweeney were anticipated.
But as we took our seats last Monday morning (I was a representative of the Writers Guild of America, East), four unions had already taken a walk, boycotting the meeting. Two of them -- the Teamsters and SEIU -- formally disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO (the Food and Commercial Workers followed suit on Friday). This cuts the affiliation's 13-million membership by nearly a third and its budget by $25 million in dues.
At issue is what the fundamental priority of organized labor should be. The Coalition, which accuses the AFL of fostering a foot-dragging, bloated bureaucracy, believes labor's primary emphasis should be grass roots organizing. In turn, the AFL-CIO accuses the Coalition of undermining solidarity, raiding other unions for members and other assorted perfidies. Its position has been that labor's number one goal should be revitalizing its once legendary political clout.
In the convention hall, John Sweeney managed to adopt a tone that was alternately irate and conciliatory (some would say resigned). "I believe our members and all working people are ready to stand with us and fight with us if we're ready to lead them," he said in his keynote. "They know that something big, something chilling is going on in our country, and it isn't something good for them. They are frustrated and disappointed and disgusted... Let us disagree about how we build our power. But let us come together and never forget that we seek it because of our shared commitment to overcoming injustice."
In fact, with the main melodrama already acted out offstage, most of the angry oratory was directed at big business, the White House and Congress. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told the convention, "At a time when we're fighting for quality jobs, workers' pensions and higher wages, they're cutting taxes for an elite few and granting favors to their special interest friends... It's an abuse of power to have the ability to help American workers, but choose to do nothing instead."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared, "We will not tolerate a President or his Republican Congress turning a blind eye as people have lost their life savings -- savings they were promised by their employers -- while executives of those very same companies get huge payouts."
NAACP Chair Julian Bond: "They're practicing trickle-down economics, and I'm tired of it tricking down on me." Ted Kennedy: "Since late 2001, worker productivity and employee wages have both grown. But here's the rub. Labor's productivity has grown 53 times faster than labor's wages. How can anyone possibly call that fair? Wal-Mart wants you to believe that's just the way it is. But we know the truth. All your hard work on the shop floor is going straight into the executive suite. Corporate profits have soared by an astonishing 70 percent since 2001 -- 70 percent. The suits at the top are raking it in."
Red meat rhetoric preached to the choir. Not everyone was as focused on rabblerousing. Illinois Senator Barack Obama warned the crowd, "The question is not how we stop globalization but how we respond to it... The labor movement must squarely confront the fact that the economy is changing. The old ways of doing business are going to have to change with it. We have to have a strategy that meets these newer challenges."
That's the crux of it. In the last decade, the nation has lost 2.8 million manufacturing jobs, mostly to Asia and Latin America. Only 13 percent of the American workforce is union, down from 25 percent in the seventies.
To outsourcing woes and current trade policies, add factories moved to right-to-work states, the shift to a service economy and pro-business, anti-union activism. Under the Bush White House, the Labor Department and National Labor Relations Board have dedicated themselves to slowly pecking unions to death with often-arcane interpretations of rules and regs.
Hence the union movement's conflict: organizing and recruiting versus pumping up political influence. In truth, labor can't accomplish either without the other. Electoral power only can be achieved by strength in numbers. But to effectively organize requires a conducive political atmosphere (or conditions as heinous as Upton Sinclair's Jungle).
Unfortunately, the struggle between the two factions is not purely one of preferred strategies and what's best for labor. Hubris, ambition, ego and humiliation are factors as well (some would say there's even a certain Oedipal element at play -- Andy Stern, head of the SEIU and leader of the revolt, was once John Sweeney's protege when Sweeney headed that union).
By most accounts, Sweeney did his damnedest to come up with an acceptable compromise, including a greater emphasis on recruitment. And, to be fair, many of labor's woes are due to economic circumstances beyond the AFL-CIO's control. But Stern wasn't buying.
Nonetheless, however impure some of the motivation, the debate is invaluable. It has forced the AFL-CIO into some much needed organizational changes and reforms that could reinvigorate the organization. Change is good and far from uncommon in the tumultuous history of organized labor.
And Stern's core premise is a valid one: that, as described by Thomas Edsall in Saturday's Washington Post, "the demands of a rapidly changing global economy require a consolidation by labor... the loose affiliation of unions, many of them small, that characterize the AFL-CIO is no match for well-financed international corporations... Unions must be forced to merge to create larger units that can dominate economic sectors."
Unfortunately, with the 2006 and 2008 elections on the horizon and the Bush agenda marching on, the timing stinks. Lobbying and get-out-the-vote efforts may be diminished: undermanned and underfunded.
When they should be uniting against the politicians and corporate interests that value unfettered profit over people, unions fighting amongst themselves give comfort to the enemy.
Reprinted by permission
August 8, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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