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November 10, 2004

Fight Over Future of Labor Starts

This is it.

SEIU has officially launched its challenge to the AFL-CIO on how to organize the labor movement for the future. It's called Unite to Win, a website that will be the center for discussion and debate on what labor needs to win.

The starting point is the challenge facing labor laid out by SEIU President Andy Stern:

When 1 in 3 workers were in a union when the AFL-CIO was founded 50 years ago, union wages and benefits brought everyone up.

But since then, unions have represented a decreasing percentage of the workforce. They have been growing smaller instead of growing stronger.

Today, only 1 in 12 private sector workers are in unions. Workers in our country are divided not only into red and blue states, but into union and non-union states (and you won't be surprised that they are pretty much identical).

The agenda proposed to deal with this challenge is not a minor tweaking of present AFL-CIO policy but a controversial agenda for change:
  • Divert $25 million per year of AFL-CIO annual revenue to organizing Wal-Mart as the key target for the labor movement.
  • Deny political endorsement to any politician who does not support labor law reform.
  • Eliminate smaller unions and merge them into larger industry-wide unions who will be required to coordinate national bargaining.
  • Lead unions in key industries should receive half their dues back from the AFL-CIO to be devoted to new organizing.
  • Local central labor councils should be strengthened and all unions locally should be required to participate in regional organizing strategies.

    These are the most controversial proposals; others include a fight for national health care, strengthening organizing generally, improving political work by unions, increasing diversity in the labor movement, and strengthening ties with global unions.

    Probably no proposal will be more enraging to some other unions than the one calling for mergers and the elimination of smaller unions. And since Wednesday is the meeting of the AFL-CIO executive council, Andy Stern will no doubt hear an earful from those unions. The leaders of the Machinists union have become point as leading critics of SEIU and its allied unions like HERE-UNITE:

    Richard Sloan, a spokesman for the machinists' union, criticized Mr. Stern's proposals, asserting that they were part of a power play in which Mr. Stern and his allies were seeking to take over the A.F.L.-C.I.O.

    "It's not Andy Stern's role in life to say to 60 other international unions that you got to do it my way or the highway," Mr. Sloan said. "That's just dead wrong. There's an arrogance to that. He fails by misunderstanding the nature of the labor movement - this isn't a set of elites that dictates to us. This is a democratic movement."

    At their convention in September, the machinists' delegates authorized the union's executive council to withdraw from the A.F.L.-C.I.O. if its political opponents won control of the federation.

    Here's the thing. SEIU's proposals and how it runs its own union is not immune to criticism, but the critics need an alternative agenda to be taken seriously. We need a debate and concrete change or Bush and his corporate allies will steamroll the labor movement in the next four years.

    This is self-consciously the same point as when the CIO proposed changes in the American Federation of Labor back in the mid-1930s. The result then was a split in the labor federation and a frenzied competition between the two rival federations to organize new workers. Maybe that is the result we will see today, but with a hostile federal government, that may be a harder trick to repeat. So "uniting to win" may be a better result this go round, but something's got to change, and the SEIU proposals are at least a good place to begin the debate.

    And since the website encourages comments on its blog, you can join in. So join this debate on the future of democracy in the workplace.

    For comments, go to the new version of LaborBlog

    Posted by Nathan at November 10, 2004 08:23 AM