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September 24, 2004

What Should We Make Of The New Unity Partnership

The direction of the New Unity Partnership group spearheaded by Stern of the SEIU is becoming the focus of discussion over the future of the labor movement, especially with suggestions in various media that it may develop into a split from the AFL-CIO roughly modeled after the CIO split from the AFL. It is a complicated and complex discussion...

because there is a clear need for action to reverse the long-term decline of American labor, but the solutions to that decline are not entirely clear. [It is worth noting that the decline of the American labor movement is not unique to us, but part of a general tendency throughout the developed North. The one exception to that rule appears to be Scandanvia, where the labor movement was always the most developed, economically and politically; they have maintained, and even extended, their dominant position. The decline of labor throughout the developed North is clearly linked to transformations in the global economy that no national labor movement has successfully figured out.]

Stern's NUP proposes a single-minded focus on organizing the unorganized and on strengthening labor's political action, but that was also the platform of the current AFL-CIO leadership team of John Sweeney, and if nothing else, Sweeney's ten year tenure demonstrates how hard that it is to accomplish. If NUP had a plan for taking on Wal-Mart that was a lot more substantial than the one being developed by the current AFL-CIO leadership then maybe one see them as more credible, but all that we have seen to date is the strategic idea that it is important to develop union density in an industry and in a region, and the notion that organizing needs to be taken away from the more reluctant internationals and given to the central federation. Yes, many AFL-CIO international unions are doing little by way of organizing, and others seem to be much more interested in organizing graduate students than there own core industry, but the fact of the matter remains that it is a lot easier to organize the service sector, where SEIU has made real gains, and the public sector, where my own union, the AFT, has done impressive work, than it is to organize the manufacturing sector and the private sector. I am not convinced that taking organizing away from the internationals and giving it to the central federation will change all of that. And a number of internationals affiliated with NUP have a record of being less than progressive on a number of questions, starting with internal union democracy.

But activists and intellectuals in the labor movement will want to pay attention to the growing debate over the NUP program. Labor Notes has just set up a web page which contains their own pieces on the subject, together with a number of articles from Business Week. That is not the full range of discussion one would like to see on the topic, especially given the Labor Notes tendency to have a Johnny one-note response to every labor issue [organize and activate the rank and file], but it is a place to start for those who want to learn about the issues. And for those around the metropolitan New York City area, the Labor Resource Center at Queens College, which publishes the informative New Labor Forum, is organizing a Labor At the Crossroads conference at the CUNY Grad Center on December 2 and 3.

Posted by Leo Casey at September 24, 2004 10:20 AM