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June 15, 2005

AFL-CIO: DEBATE, DON'T DIVIDE

It is too early, I would argue, to conclude that the shots over the bow by SEIU and five other unions in the form of establishing an independent organizing committee means that an AFL-CIO split is imminent, as Nathan seems to think. An equally plausible reading of these moves...

would be that the SEIU and allied internationals are trying to exercise leverage to force Sweeney out, given that they currently lack the votes to do so. Of course, when you start playing a game of 'chicken' with these sorts of stakes, it sometimes spins out of control, and one ends up taking actions one didn't really intend to take, simply to save face and to show that one's threats have to be taken seriously. Part of the question one must consider is the extent to which  the 'out of control' and reckless image that Andy Stern has acquired is real, or cultivated for political effect to achieve his goals in the AFL-CIO. 

But I am much less sanguine than Nathan about what a division in the AFL-CIO would mean, in part because I view the SEIU led forces with a great deal more skepticism. I remain unconvinced that its strategy for new organizing is all that different from that of the AFL-CIO leadership, and that the consolidation of internationals, with clearer organizing jurisdictions, is what is essential for American labor to reverse its decline and grow. And when everything is said and done, it is only that strategy of consolidation and reoganizing jurisidictions that differentiates the SEIU led camp from the rest of the AFL-CIO. [My own union, the AFT, would certainly benefit if the UAW and the Steelworkers were not organizing graduate students in a mad rush to stem some of the hemorrhaging of their members, but that is a different matter than the labor movement turning itself around.]

The reality is that there are more internationals with strong organizing records in the AFL-CIO leadership camp than there is the SEIU led camp. The AFT, AFSCME and the CWA, all of which have organized many new members over the last decade, are now among the supporters of the AFL-CIO leadership, while among the internationals in the SEIU camp, only the SEIU has a similarly positive record. While one can not fault UNITE-HERE for having undertaken a serious organizing effort in textiles, the limited results of that work points to the fact that there are a lot of factors outside of the control of the labor movement that make organizing in manufacturing industries and in the private sector extraordinarily challenging. And it is especially ironic [and not exactly convincing] to see the United Food and Commercial Workers Union join the SEIU camp and proclaim the new organizing religion, as it has one of the poorer records here, especially when it allowed the recent pivotal supermarket strike in southern California go down to a crushing defeat, rather than mobilize its own members and the rest of the labor movement to win.

Truth be told, the problems that American labor is facing in this regard are part of a much wider crisis of organized labor throughout Europe and North America, as globalization has seriously undercut the conditions for organizing manufacturing and private industry in advanced economies. Consolidating unions and organizing jurisdictions, replacing Sweeney with Wilhlem, or starting an independent union federation, will not wipe away those obstacles.

Equally distressing, for those of who think that union democracy is a crucial issue, and central to a labor movement that can mobilize its own members to do organizing, is that the unions with the worst histories of widespread, endemic corruption, Hoffa's Teamsters and the Laborers [and the Carpenters, now outside of the AFL-CIO], are in the SEIU camp. Not incidentally, they are also the unions with histories of playing footsie with conservative Republicans.

It should also be pointed out that the AFL-CIO leadership has already implemented a great deal of the SEIU led camp's platform, decimating its health and safety, workmen's compensation, policy and international programs to redirect money to organizing. A great many of us think that this move has been harmful to the AFL-CIO. If the problems that the American labor movement faces in organizing manufacturing and the private sector are related to globalization, one should be figuring out to make international work more meaningful -- not eliminating most of it.

The American labor movement is unquestionably in crisis. Whatever one thinks of the specific programmatic initiatives put forward by the SEIU led camp, the debate they have sparked is all for the good. We need to be self-refective and self-critical. But division for the sake of division, that is, division without a meaningful different approach to organizing, such as the CIO had when it broke with the AFL, will be a setback, not an advance, for American labor. Debate, don't divide.

Posted by Leo Casey at June 15, 2005 09:40 AM