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June 17, 2005

Good Folks on Both Sides of Split

Just a quick response to some sniping in the thread initiated by Leo: while I generally fall on the SEIU et al side of the strategic debate within the AFL-CIO, I do want to emphasize that union leaders on both sides are admirable for the work they've done in recent years.

To take an example, my last job on a union payroll was at CWA (one of the key Sweeney loyalist unions) in their legal department and I have nothing but respect for CWA's tenacious work in not only holding onto traditional union jobs in the industry but making some headway into cellular and broadband jobs. Given the turmoil in high-tech in the 1990s, the whole industry could be non-union today if union-busting companies like World Com-MCI had ended up dominating telecommunications. But through tough strike actions and smart corporate campaigns, CWA held on tight and continue to organize hard in an incredibly tough environment.

The issue is not just which unions are adding the most members. Unions operating in the public sector generally have a much less hostile environment (and that includes part of SEIU's gains), while unions just holding their own in certain manufacturing sectors facing offshoring of jobs deserve credit.

The issue is a more subjective one of whether each union could be doing better in their respective sectors? Do they have a strategic plan for not only organizing well in the United States but for international organizing if that's where their jobs are going? And if their industry is in a permanent tailspin, is the union moving into organizing related industries where their existing power gives them leverage to make membership gains?

In honesty, the real debate shouldn't be between various union leaders but between leaders and their membership, some of the latter will have additional questions of how well each union is promoting internal democratic debate and mobilization to achieve any of these ends.

For me, the debate is more important than any individual answer, since different industries may need quite different solutions. It's harsh medicine, but it may take a split in the AFL-CIO to force that debate in every union. And I actually have some faith that precisely because there are great folks among both the "old guard" and the "dissidents", that the result wil be better organizing and success by both camps if the current debate forces all of them to confront these questions.

Posted by Nathan at June 17, 2005 10:51 AM