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November 10, 2004

The SEIU plan & Forced Mergers

I just posted this as a comment over at the NUP blog, but I figured I might as well put it up here as well.

Simply put -- the portion of the SEIU's plan advocating that the AFL Executive Council force mergers is wrong, untenable, and destructive to solidarity and the basic principles of unionism.

One of the SEIU's main proposals is that "the AFL-CIO should have the authority to require coordinated bargaining and to merge or revoke union charters, transfer responsibilities to unions for whom that industry or craft is their primary area of strength, and prevent any merger that would further divide workers' strength."

The idea of the AFL-CIO Executive Council -- the ivory tower of organized labor, as divorced from the rank and file as any body of the labor movement -- ordering American and Canadian workers to leave their union and join a new union is at once offensive and laughable. It's offensive to the essential idea underpinning the labor movement -- that working people have the God-given right to choose their own representative. Working people are the foundation, the raison d'etre of the entire labor movement -- but on a day-to-day basis, most people don't see themselves as part of the movement. They see themeselves as everyday people doing their jobs, and they rely on their union to do one thing -- to stand up for them on the job. Most couldn't care less about the machinations of the Executive Council -- they simply need a union that will work for them. And to tell people that because of broad, historical developments, they have to join a new union -- one that has no experience dealing with their employer, one where the business agents are new and haven't built a relationship with the employees, one where the union's primary interests lie in another portion of the industry or another industry entirely -- that's arrogant and wrong. If people aren't being served by their union, they have the opportunity to get rid of it. If the members voluntarily seek to merge with other workers in a different union, that's great. But when DC bureaucrats force a merger in the manner of Churchill imperiously drawing the boundaries of the Middle East, it's wrong.

But the idea isn't just wrong -- it's not tenable. Sure, there are some weak, small unions that it won't be hard to merge, because the unions have lost any strong sense of identity. But a lot of the smaller unions, especially in the building trades, aren't mergeable. Does anyone really believe that the Elevator Constructors -- a small union with about 25,000 members, but with nearly total market share -- are going to allow themselves to merge with anyone? How about the Ironworkers? Or, outside of the trades, the ILWU? These unions may be small, but they're a lot stronger in their industries than some of the large service and industrial unions are in theirs. They have long histories and fierce senses of independence and solidarity. The often bargain with specialized employers in specialized industries. You can't merge them by fiat -- any attempt to do so will simply drive them out of the AFL.

Some of the SEIU's proposal makes real sense. The increased organizing expenditures (including the idea of dedicating all of the Union Plus royalties to organizing), the per capita rebates for organizing, the strengthening of CLCs (and, presumably, local building trades councils) -- these are good ideas that deserve real consideration. But the anti-democratic, heavy-handed, staffer-driven plan to compel mergers -- even mergers of healthy, thriving unions -- simply to satisfy preconceived notions of what makes a strong union -- is not worthy of our movement.

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Posted by Trapper John at November 10, 2004 11:05 AM