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AFL-CIO split

By: 
Peter Brogan
Date Published: 
November 01, 2005
    Workers of the world divide? Yes, in spite of clear and sunny skies over Chicago, the AFL-CIO split this July 25th at their annual convention when two of the federation’s most powerful unions, the Service Employees International (SEIU) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, formally withdrew from it. In total, both unions represent about 2.9 million workers. When the convention ended the United Food and Commercial Workers joined these two in their exodus from the AFL-CIO.

These three unions are part of the Change to Win coalition, which includes others like UNITE HERE, United Farm workers, and the Laborers International Union, all of which haven’t yet pulled out of the AFL-CIO, as well as the Carpenters (who jumped ship years ago).

The key ideas of the Change to Win Coalition include merging more national and international unions to lessen competition between unions and to make more “efficient” use of resources while pushing unions to concentrate on their “core areas.” In other words, sticking to organizing those workers each union has traditionally organized as opposed to organizing in diverse and unrelated sectors of the economy. John Sweeny, AFL-CIO president, has also advocated for the federation to dedicate more money to organizing. Yet he still wants to throw more money into electoral politics—an increasing share of which has been going to Republicans, something both sides have in common. The central difference between the two factions is the proportion each wants to allocate to organizing and electoral campaigns.

In addition to this monumental, yet not unexpected, division in the union movement, the convention oversaw the passing of an important antiwar resolution calling for bringing the troops home from Iraq “rapidly.” While the word “rapidly” is indeed an ambiguous word and has been interpreted by some as being on par with the rhetoric of the Bush administration and the Pentagon, who also speak of “rapid disengagement” from Iraq, it is in actuality a significant turnaround for US unions from their crusading days of the Cold War.
As labor journalist David Bacon rightly notes: “The resolution marks a watershed moment in modern US labor history. It is the product of grassroots action at the bottom of the US labor movement, not a directive from top leaders. The call for bringing the troops home echoes the sentiments of thousands of ordinary workers and union members, whose children and family have been called on to fight the war. A growing number, now a majority in US unions, believe the best way to protect them is to bring them home.”

But what originally inspired proposals for changing the direction of the union movement, which ended up splitting the AFL-CIO asunder, was not the imperial foreign policies of the US government, but narrow disagreements on the structure of the labor federation and whether the it should give larger or smaller dues rebates to unions that are supposedly organizing more. It is the latter set of issues that SEIU president Andy Stern and his allies see as being at the center of labor’s decline.

The majority of rank-and-file members don’t have a clue about the reasons for the split and the arguments taking place within the upper echelons of the union bureaucracy. As one commentator put it, they view it largely as a battle between the gods at Mt. Olympus. And what of the roughly 90% of non-union workers in the US? The technical matters being debated are unlikely to inspire these workers, least of all make it easier and more desirable for them to join a union.
Andy Stern, president of SEIU and leader of this union “insurgency” has talked a lot about the labor movement needing fundamental change—change that need not have anything to do with a democratic process and an active empowered membership. Yet as JoAnn Wypijewski pointed out in the Nation, Stern said in an interview with CNBC-TV that, “our labor movement was built around an industrial economy back in the 1930s. It was sort of class struggle kind of unionism, but workers in today’s economy are not looking for unions to cause problems; they’re looking for them to solve them, and this means like Ireland where business and labor and government all began to work together, we need team America to really work together.” (Run like hell from anyone who uses the phrase Team America!) It is true, this kind of thinking has allowed SEIU to organize a significant amount of workers from the low-wage sector of the economy, like janitors, home healthcare workers, and security guards, but for the most part it has only won them limited benefits and sub-standard wages. Such comments are proof positive that US union leaders, even the so-called “insurgents,” don’t have a clue about either the politics of the US nor the structure of the global capitalist economy.

As Bill Fletcher Jr. has pointed out nowhere in the debate over the future of the union movement is there any attempt at a rigorous analysis of the current economic and political conditions, what implications they have for the sorts of organizing unions need to be doing, and which structures can best accomplish this. Fletcher is also right when he says that unions need a serious urban strategy. More than just asking community organizations for help from campaign to campaign, unions need to reciprocate. They need to reach out more. In particular they need to build partnerships with communities of color.

Another crucial element missing from the debate is the need to organize in important regions of the country like the South; or what a genuine strategy of international organizing—above and beyond solidarity—means in the 21st century. The importance of fighting racism, homophobia, sexism and other manifestations of oppression—which are not only unjust but are gigantic obstacles to building a powerful united labor (not simply union) movement—are nowhere to be found in the debate.

The debate about the future of unions and the labor movement needs to be a much broader one than it currently is. In addition to what’s already been mentioned labor needs to understand how all of these things are interrelated with global capitalism and to directly confront this totalizing and unmerciful system. We need to address the questions of what the purpose of a union and labor movement should be, along with the complete lack of a liberating vision we presently suffer from. A serious look at the history of working people’s struggles in the US shows that without such a vision and analysis, along with an engagement in militant tactics like strikes, sit-ins, and workplace takeovers, we’ll remain in a state of paralysis and decline in a very one sided class war.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Brogan is a writer and activist who has recently migrated to Toronto from NYC
and looking to raise a little hell in the northern white settler state of North America.