Though the summer skies were mostly clear and sunny as the AFL-CIO convened this week on Chicago’s renovated pier jutting into Lake Michigan, the cloud of the departure of the Service Employees and Teamsters from the federation hung over the proceedings all week.
But for what is still the major body of organized labor there were also subtle signs of progress, ranging from internal reforms stimulated by the debate that had been initiated by the dissident unions to a historic resolution critical of the Iraq War and calling for troops to be brought home “rapidly.”
The remaining unions at the convention scrambled to figure out how to pay the bills with $18 million a year less in dues (and more if other unions leave, as expected); how to help central labor councils and state labor federations adapt to loss of members and money; and how to manage the tension between the AFL-CIO and the SEIU-led Change to Win Coalition, which still has four of its seven members within the federation.
There were eloquent pleas for solidarity, despite the split, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, urging labor to maintain a “big tent” and keep its eyes on the prize, and from the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Ed Hill. And the AFL-CIO reiterated its pledge to wage a vigorous campaign–so far, slow to materialize–against Wal-Mart, even though the main union expected to organize Wal-Mart workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, may soon be leaving the federation.
But underneath the surface, the embers of conflict were glowing more brightly: One flashpoint is SEIU’s petition for an election to represent homecare workers in Riverside County, California, who are now in an AFSCME (public workers) local union. An umpire had recently determined that under AFL-CIO rules, AFSCME had the right to represent those workers. But on the day after the SEIU disaffiliated, its president, Andy Stern, notified the public authorities in Riverside that since it was no longer bound by those rules, the SEIU wanted to proceed with a petition to overturn AFSCME’s union status. (SEIU says that local leaders requested a switch in union affiliation; AFSCME says it removed those officers for financial improprieties.)
Although AFSCME has been trying to negotiate a no-raid agreement with SEIU, some AFSCME leaders are ready not only to resist the “raid” but to retaliate by trying to take away units from SEIU. “The situation seems to be moving in a very negative way,” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said. “There are indications SEIU will raid AFSCME aggressively.” But if AFSCME and others go after SEIU locals, there could be a disastrous all-out war.
In anticipation of such bloodletting, the convention voted to increase dues that unions pay the federation, creating a fund to help central labor councils–partly to do their own work but also partly to resist raiding of AFL-CIO unions. The councils will, even with that aid, be financially hurt if all the SEIU-led Change to Win Coalition unions leave the federation. But Sweeney, along with leaders of key AFL-CIO unions, insists on enforcing a constitutional prohibition on unions outside of the AFL-CIO from belonging to state and local labor organizations. “What we learned this week is we can’t have a voluntary labor movement–you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out,” said Larry Cohen, who is likely to be elected Communication Workers president next month. “That has to be true for every central labor council and state federation.”