Debating Labor's Future
Q. SEIU and HERE have reason to be proud of what they have accomplished. SEIU is one of the only unions that have significantly grown, but most of the others in the Change to Win Coalition have been shrinking, and many of them do organizing outside their core industry. What is this unity really based on? How do you justify a coalition with other unions that have not figured out how to organize their core industry?
: We have six unions (including the Carpenters) that want to change to win, and none are saying that we have done everything right, up to now. There is a new president of the United Food and Commercial Workers who says that if they don't organize in their core industry of meatpacking and food stores, they will not be a relevant union in the future. Unions like the Teamsters reorganized themselves nationally to be more focused on industries, but they have many affiliates that have different ways of growing. They haven't moved the whole organization in that direction, and they may never do so. But the good news is they want to win and are ready to change.
Q. James Hoffa, the Teamsters are the most general union of all. Why are you on a team that is so clearly emphasizing uniting workers by core industries? You organize in every industry. Are you going to stop doing that?
: Absolutely not. We would not give up members. But we feel that if a union is going to get the organizing rebate money from the AFL-CIO, it should be for organizing in their core industries, not just for going out and organizing zookeepers or something like that--which we have at the San Diego Zoo. We have from A to Z in our union, airline pilots to zookeepers, but we felt that the money that comes from the rebate program should go to each union for organizing their core industries. We will never just be a trucking or transportation union. We will always be a general union, and we are not giving up our right.
Q. Gerald McEntee, given your history as president of AFSCME and your belief in AFSCME's strategic sectoral approach to organizing, why aren't you with Change to Win? You have more in common with them.
: I would say this: We make out well under many of their proposals. For example, we would meet the standards for the Teamsters' proposal of a 50 percent per capita tax rebate for organizing in your core industry. But we believe there should be an AFL-CIO and that it should have the resources to operate. I have been with AFSCME for forty-three years. I started out as a steward in Philadelphia and have spent my entire adult life in this union, but I am also a trade unionist. I believe there has to be a trade union center, a federation where unions come together, where after the debating is through, they are able to exert their joint power across the United States and in individual states. I believe we have to have a strong federation. I am not for laying down these gauntlets, these "my ways or the highways."
Q. Scholars like labor economist Richard Freeman have documented that the labor movement here as well as all over the world has always grown in spurts and not by slow accretion. When the Wagner Act was passed, there was tremendous growth, in part because there was a general sense that President Roosevelt wanted workers to join a union and would protect their rights to do so. The Change to Win strategy is based largely on internal changes to the unions so they can go out and organize, but isn't a lot more than new structures, more staff and smarter industry strategy needed here? Where do movement building, changing the climate and building working-class consciousness fit into the vision?
: It is true the labor movement has grown in spurts, but it is not true that in the 1930s something happened just because the stars lined up a certain way. The growth of the CIO unions happened because there was a dramatic change in the structure of the economy. But that wouldn't have resulted in a huge upsurge of worker organizing and the consequent enormous improvement of society had it not been for a segment of the labor movement led by John L. Lewis, the CIO and some AFL unions as well. They decided to take a thoughtful look at what all these changes meant and to throw everything they had at organizing. There has got to be willingness to bet the ranch, and if existing unions don't do it then workers will invent something different. I think the labor movement can do it. We have an obligation to do it.
: The working-class consciousness of the middle of the last century is gone, not just in the United States but also around the world, and the great social movements that drew our country in a different direction are all blowing less forcefully. We have to do our job first in order to be in a position to help to build broader movements for social change. If growth happens in spurts, we need to be prepared take advantage and create opportunities for those spurts in growth to occur.