Now able to lay claim to only one worker out of twelve in the private sector, organized labor is in deep crisis, and this means that the American working class is in crisis. As the ranks of unions have thinned, economic inequality for all, particularly along racial and ethnic lines, has reached historic proportions. It is in this harrowing context that a debate has erupted, which will come to a head at the federation’s July 25-28 convention, about the purpose and future of labor’s central governing body, the AFL-CIO.
Calling themselves the Change to Win Coalition, five AFL-CIO member unions (SEIU, UNITE HERE, the Laborers, the Teamsters and the United Food and Commercial Workers) are pushing for a near-total redefinition of the AFL-CIO’s role, which, they argue, is necessary to stimulate a return to large-scale worker organizing. Established through the merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1955, the AFL-CIO was set up as a voluntary coalition with little formal power over its affiliated unions. Change to Win proposes to streamline the federation while also giving it substantial power over member unions, with particular emphasis on the need for each union to focus its organizing efforts on a strategic economic sector–its “core industry.”
The proposed reforms mirror restructuring measures that in recent years have been taken by some unions, like the SEIU and the Carpenters Union (which left the AFL-CIO in 2001 and joined Change to Win in June). They have consolidated local unions into regional bodies they believe map more logically onto the contours of emergent economic structures. The transitions have not been easy, and many worry that the restructuring has taken power away from local unions and the rank and file. Critics of the SEIU and Carpenters approach believe that it underestimates the centrality of rank-and-file participation and deliberation to nurturing working-class consciousness–the real key to labor’s revival.
The five dissident unions are among the largest in the fifty-seven-member federation and together constitute more than a third of union membership in the United States. They are bringing a set of constitutional amendments to the July convention in the hope of persuading a majority of delegates to adopt them. If they lose, as SEIU president Andy Stern explains below, they are “fairly certain” to pull out of the AFL-CIO, possibly bringing others with them into a rival labor federation. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney and his coalition (which includes AFSCME and the Communication Workers of America) will be brandishing their own amendments at the convention. The sharpest difference between the two sets of proposals lies in the power vested in the federation to compel changes in the behavior of member unions.
The forum that follows is intended to give readers an opportunity to hear directly from six of the most prominent union leaders engaged in this debate: AFL-CIO’s Sweeney; SEIU’s Stern; John Wilhelm, hospitality president of UNITE HERE; AFSCME president Gerald McEntee; CWA executive vice president Larry Cohen; and Teamsters president James Hoffa. Each was interviewed separately by telephone. Transcripts of the interviews were edited for space and clarity.