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Urgency for Change: Labor Troubles and the New Unity Partnership

By: 
Marc Rodrigues
Date Published: 
May 01, 2005

Recent debates concerning how to restructure unions look to bring about fundamental change in the US labor movement amidst decades of decline and threats from Bush to Wal-Mart. Are the new proposals the keys to reversing labor's decline or more of the same? What role will rank-and-file workers have in the process of reexamination and transformation?

2005 may mark a turning point for the US labor movement, as the efforts of the New Unity Partnership (NUP) may bring about drastic structural changes. The NUP is a grouping of the leaders of four unions: Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the recently merged needletrade and hotel workers union UNITE-HERE, the Laborers' union, and the Carpenters' union. The group has, increasingly under the leadership of SEIU president Andrew Stern, put forth its proposals for the restructuring of the movement in a document entitled Unite to Win.

The NUP itself recently disbanded, having “served its purpose.” Indeed it has, if one considers the recent unprecedented period of debate and introspection in the union movement. One sign of this is a new section on the AFL-CIO website devoted to the current debates, after it appeared for quite some time that the Federation was choosing to ignore it. The fact that staff, organizers, and members with access to the internet can log on to the UtW or the AFL-CIO sites and post their uncensored thoughts on the various proposals is a step forward for a movement not known for encouraging (or tolerating) internal dissent.

Before getting carried away, however, it's important to question who really has access to these debates and to the formulation of the various proposals, internet or no internet. The characterization of the NUP by some as “five men sitting around a table”—five white men, that is—shouldn’t be ignored. Most of the actual decisions concerning the NUP’s proposals will take place at two conventions this year of top AFL-CIO officials, few of whom are actually directly elected by union membership. These debates—mostly concerning the structure of the labor movement—have the potential to reverse the course of labor’s decline or to make the prospects worse for grassroots, transformative social movement unionism.

Up to the mid-1990’s, a labor-management-government “accord” was pursued by unions who saw their role as one of “servicing” their members. Unions were allowed to exist in return for guaranteeing “labor peace.” Little attention was given to organizing the unorganized and labor played a reactionary role in society, supporting everything from the war in Vietnam to sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers. Labor unions functioned more as an “interest group” than as a “social movement,” with elites from labor negotiating with business elites on behalf of their uninvolved, unmobilized constituency.

By and large, this is still the case. Meanwhile, due to a number of factors, starting in the 1970’s business went on the offensive and sought to obliterate unions. Heroic struggles such as widespread ‘wildcat’ strikes and other job actions and the rise of groups such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement proved to be too little too late as the official labor movement was caught sleeping at the wheel. The subsequent decades have been a period of sharp decline in union density and power—politically and on the job.

New proposals

The density argument, articulated by SEIU’s Stephen Lerner, is probably the strongest argument in support of the NUP restructuring proposals and one with which even many of its critics agree. Lerner, who along with Andy Stern is one of the main intellectual architects of the NUP/UtW proposals, argues that unions can build strength for their members by increasing the percentage of workers in a sector of the economy, industry or labor market that are unionized. If only 2 or 3 percent of a given industry is unionized, employers will have little reason to take seriously the demands of those unionized workers. Recent government figures again show a decline in the overall density of unionized workers in the US—just 12.5% of the overall workforce and 7.9% of the private sector workforce are unionized. These are the lowest figures in at least six decades.

The unfulfilled promises made by the John Sweeney–led slate that took control of the AFL-CIO in the mid-1990’s is another factor fueling the urgency for change. This period was one of renewed hope in labor as the relatively “progressive” Sweeney promised to devote the resources necessary to organize the unorganized and make labor a movement again. While some improvements have undoubtedly been made, the decade since Sweeney took over has seen the same precipitous decline in union membership and power despite positive rhetoric.

The Bush and Wal-Mart factors are also motivating the calls for change. Having spent tens of millions of dollars and used hundreds of paid staff and thousands of volunteers in an effort to get Kerry elected, the union movement finds itself confronted with another four years of perhaps the most virulently anti-union presidency in US history.

Due to its immense size and popularity of its methods amongst other business leaders, Wal-Mart continues to exert downward pressure on wages and basic benefits, such as healthcare, across several industries. Downward pressure and competition from Wal-Mart was a huge factor behind last year’s vast southern California grocery strike/lockout. The strike and lockout ended in an agreement allowing the companies to institute a lower tier of wages and benefits (including health benefits) for new hires.

These factors have converged to produce the calls for change from within labor’s ranks. But how do the NUP supporters propose to solve these problems?

Key features

Some of the key features of the proposals for change in the labor movement drawn up in Unite to Win include:

Consolidation and Centralization: The AFL-CIO’s 60+ member unions should be collapsed into no more than 20 “mega-unions,” each concentrating on a particular sector of the economy. AFL-CIO bylaws against “raiding” (labor unions’ version of a hostile takeover) should be ignored. Smaller and independent unions should be absorbed into larger ones. The AFL-CIO or some other central body should have the authority to force mergers and shift units of workers from one union to another.

Whether centralization (or decentralization) in and of itself necessarily translates into strength is up for debate. Interestingly enough, Wal-Mart’s CEO Lee Scott has recently complained about being “nibbled to death by guppies,” in response to attacks coming from labor, community, and other groups.

In a similar vein, IFPTE (the professional and technical employees’ union) president Gregory Junemann recently recommended that the labor movement “disassemble the whale and put together a school of piranhas.” Coordinated, strategic decentralization could be just as powerful as the type of consolidation put forth by Unite to Win, without comprimising what does make sense in their organize-by-industry approach.

Throw Money at Wal-Mart: Profits earned through the AFL-CIO’s credit card programs should be allocated toward organizing—with Wal-Mart as the first target. United to Win calls for at least $25 million a year to be earmarked for this purpose. While a great idea that few would disagree with, they are less clear on what actual strategies it will take to organize Wal-Mart workers.

Increase Density: With a major shift in focus and resources toward organizing, unions should be able to increase their density and what the NUP refers to as “market share” within key sectors of the economy. Unite to Win proposes slashing the dues that affiliated unions currently pay to the AFL-CIO and using this money for organizing.

While there is some talk about “involving members” in the process, the Unite to Win supporters shouldn’t forget that an important factor in organizing is building organizations that people actually deem relevant and would want to join. Members need to have a sense of ownership and see that their input is valued.

Another drawback to the zealous focus on increasing density would be its propensity toward labor-management cooperation. We can make this prediction based not only on SEIU’s infamous past practices but also because in such an anti-union climate, employers are much more willing to accept a union if there’s something in it for them—for example, promises of relatively weak contracts, or a docile workforce.

Company union

An example of what’s in store if the NUP gets its way is the deal cut last year between SEIU and Tenet Healthcare in California. SEIU obtained a promise of union neutrality from Tenet management in return for a pre-arranged, four-year contract covering workers that they would have absolutely no say in formulating. Some see the agreement as a way for Tenet to set up a virtual “company union” through SEIU rather than deal with the independent California Nurses Association which had been organizing and winning strong contracts for its members. What would be the fate of an independent union such as the California Nurses Association under the Unite to Win plan?

In its earlier days, leaked emails revealed the NUP considering everything from reducing or eliminating education and civil rights departments in unions to meeting with Karl Rove. Many such unpleasantries have since been polished out of the Unite to Win document. Proposals related to “diversity” in the movement and organizing in a global economy are numbers 9 and 10, respectively, in the Unite to Win program.

Unions as diverse as the Commnications Workers of American (CWA) and the Teamsters have come up with their own proposals for the future of the movement in response to the Unite to Win platform. CWA, seeing itself as a more democratic and member-controlled union, has been one of the biggest critics of the Unite to Win plans. The CWA proposals agree on an increase in resources for organizing. However they maintain that labor-law reform, union democracy, a strong shop steward system, and establishment of a national strike-solidarity fund are equally important and should not be abandoned for the sake of what they see as “top-down” restructuring schemes.

The New York Times Magazine recently ran a cover strore on Andy Stern called “The New Boss.” The cover photo features Stern, arms outstretched Christ-like with smiling SEIU members forming the background. The article itself tells about Stern’s suburban upbringing, his belief in “partnering” with employers, and experience as an “idealistic” organizer before being summoned to a staff job at SEIU by then-president Sweeney.

One of the strongest concepts NUPsters such as Stern have in their favor is social power. They argue that a labor union or the larger movement could be perfectly democratic and participatory, yet be so small and marginal as to lack the sheer numbers and power to improve the conditions of anyone’s life. While this is hard to argue with, the problem that arises from the NUP’s Unite to Win proposals is that they really deal with little outside of the structure of the labor movement.

Social power

In other words, the NUP seeks to tweak the nuts-and-bolts structure of organized labor to increase the bargaining power of its current members and bring new members into the fold without reassessing its larger goals, vision, or ideology. As Bill Fletcher, former AFL-CIO director of education, has recently put it, “form has to follow content. That is, we have got to figure out what do trade unions stand for in the 21st century, and in that sense, it’s not even just about mobilizing members...At the high points of trade unionism in this country, the trade union movement is looked at as a visionary movement, as a movement that’s spearheading larger change than just organizing members…”

The Unite to Win proposals raise the question—at what magical level of union density does the movement begin to worry about whether members have any say or control over their unions? To emphasize the point, it’s worth quoting labor educator Richard Hurd, who wrote recently, “[Efforts such as] the NUP restructuring framework have a common objective: they all seek to promote some type of permutation for the sake of union growth. As good as it is to shake up the movement…these initiatives share a common flaw. There is no unifying vision of a different world, no new paradigm to inspire workers and challenge the status quo…at a minimum labor needs to recapture the organizing model ideal of injecting social movement zeal within the rank and file. To do this and to attract substantial numbers of unrepresented workers, there really needs to be a coherent vision about how our economy and our society would be different with a more vibrant labor movement…”

The arguments in favor of union democracy and rank-and-file control on the one hand, and some of the reservations critics have concerning aspects of the UtW program on the other, don’t come out of a merely abstract or ideological stance. In fact, historical studies of 20th-century American trade unionism have shown that the more democratic and militant a union, the better the wages, benefits, and protection from dictatorial treatment at the workplace secured for its members.

It’s quite possible that if the numbers and diversity of unionized workers do significantly increase due to the implementation of the Unite to Win proposals, if unions become a more relevant and active force in society, that change will come from below. Nevertheless, the ‘social power’ argument continues to be a strong one. Perhaps this is a false dichotomy, that real organizing and power will happen simultaneously as working people come to control their own organizations.

Radical visions

This brief review of the current situation aims to provide a background for radicals not involved in the labor movement. The conflict many perceive between our radical vision and the traditional left/liberal electoralist approach of the union movement has kept us apart for too long. To be sure, those of us who politically, strategically, and morally value the concept of organizing in a way that prefigures the liberatory society we would like to live in see red flags go up (no pun intended) when looking at parts of the Unite to Win platform.

The question of how we work with and take leadership from, while mutually exchanging ideas and knowledge with, explicitly working-class movements based in some way around the workplace (the situation is somewhat different with more community-based organizations) is one that I hope our movements take up seriously in the coming period.

Many in the labor movement are excited to finally see some real reflection and reassessment going on and look forward to seeing what will come out of the Unite to Win debate and what the rank-and-file responses and contributions will be. It remains to be seen if SEIU and/or any of the other NUP unions will withdraw from the federation, or if the AFL-CIO will adapt some or all of the Unite to Win strategy. It was recently announced that John Wilhelm (head of HERE before it merged with UNITE) will challenge Sweeney for presidency of the AFL-CIO at this summer’s convention, the results of which will certainly have important repercussions. As troubling as times are right now for working people and their movements, the fact that at least some reassessment is taking place is a hopeful sign, even if we disagree with the direction this may take the movement.

Despite our valid reservations and criticisms of the union movement, as workers, anti-sweatshop activists, community organizers, union democracy solidarity activists, students struggling to rid their campuses of Taco Bell and Coke, as “salts,” and even as union organizers, we should continue to build bridges and constructively engage with organized labor and grassroots, rank-and-file leaders looking to take the movement in more militant, participatory and liberatory directions. After all, we can't win our struggles alone.

To view documents and proposals from other unions and background information on Unite to Win see www.unitetowin.org. A comprehensive collection of critical views and analysis on the NUP/Unite to Win proposals can be found at www.labornotes.org/nupdiscussion. For debates hosted by the AFL-CIO go to www.aflcio.org/aboutaflcio/ourfuture/index.cfm.