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Debating Labor's Future | The Nation

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Debating Labor's Future

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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.

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Janice Fine
  Janice Fine is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at the School of Management and...

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In Stamford, Connecticut, organizers are putting the movement back in labor.

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.

Q. What do you see as the main challenges facing today's labor movement? How much of labor's decline do you believe has been a result of weaknesses in the movement's own structures and strategies, versus external factors like labor law and the larger political and economic climate?

Sweeney

: Working people are under attack in this country as never before, at least in the past eighty years, whether it is on Social Security or economic policies or attempts to take away collective bargaining and violate the right of workers to organize and form unions. At a time like this, we need unity and solidarity, and I think that is what working people in this country deserve. We really have to fight back stronger and smarter, and we have to do this together. Historically, our strength has been that we may not always agree, but when we take on big business or our political enemies we stand together.

Wilhelm

: Workers are in trouble in this country, and a significant part of the reason for that is that the labor movement is in trouble. I think the country got put to sleep in the 1990s by President Clinton, Labor Secretary Reich and others assuring everyone that they shouldn't worry too much about the loss of good manufacturing jobs because we are in a knowledge economy and if everyone would just get the requisite amount of education, people would be able to get good jobs, comfortable working conditions and higher pay. They did that to put people at ease about things like NAFTA.

The American people now know that jobs of all kinds are being exported--especially knowledge jobs that are supposed to be the future of our economy. At home we see the other face of globalization, the wreckage of the middle-class dream this country created in the post-World War II era. We need to re-create the possibility that my generation was raised on--you work hard, you play by the rules and you get a shot at achieving the American dream. I don't think that re-creation of middle-class opportunities is possible without a bigger, stronger labor movement.

McEntee

: The vast majority has been external factors, really. The Steelworkers went out and spent a lot of dough on organizing. They even looked toward other sectors like healthcare, where millions of workers are not organized. But they continue to hurt. The United Auto Workers are trying to organize parts plants and moving into organizing in the public sector to try and grow. What makes organizing so difficult are these external factors, much less the internal structure of the AFL-CIO.

Cohen

: I look at it in a global context. Why is union membership rising in Taiwan, Korea, South Africa and Brazil and declining here? They have strong collective bargaining rights. It has more to do with the politics of those countries and our own, and the behavior of management and the political structure, than it has to do with how workers and their organizations change their behavior. In any crisis, there is an absolute need to change your behavior. But we shouldn't confuse the necessity to change what we do with the cause of the problem.

Stern

: We have gone from a GM to a Wal-Mart economy. This can be slowed down, or, as we saw with the New Deal, we can organize unions and pass laws to soften the changes. There are a lot of factors we have less control of, but we have complete control over our own strategies and plans and the way we work with each other. That is where you have to start, with things that are in your control. If we want to reward work, we are going to need unions that have strategies, resources and the focus to be successful. I would say, right now we have unions that don't coordinate and cooperate and don't share a common strategy. We have a badly divided labor movement.

Q. Ten years ago there was tremendous hope and promise about the "new AFL-CIO." What is your assessment of what did and did not work at the federation? What do you believe are the lessons of the Sweeney years?

Sweeney

: We have learned that labor's political clout has grown tremendously since 1995. During that time we have unified the labor movement around a program of membership education and mobilization. Even though union households constitute only 17 percent of the voting age population, they represented 24 percent of those who voted in 2004. According to national exit polls, 4 million more votes came from union households in 2004 than in 1992, despite labor's decline. Kerry would not have come close without the union vote. Nationally, among nonunion voters, it was a Bush landslide.

I am proud of the record we have in terms of how we have strengthened our political program and our organizing program, but I found the Bush Administration so anti-worker and so anti-union. As a result of our tax and trade policies, we saw very difficult times for workers. We have organized millions of workers, yet we lost almost 3 million good-paying manufacturing jobs with good health benefits and retirement security. As much as we organized, we managed only to stay stable in terms of membership.

Wilhelm

: I think the lessons are programmatic and structural. The AFL-CIO has become a lowest-common-denominator federation. So as a practical matter, if any significant union opposes anything, it doesn't happen. We can't retool the labor movement for the twenty-first century if we are not ready to exercise strong judgment and make big decisions when necessary.

Cohen

: In CWA, we think that the issue is the virtual elimination of collective bargaining rights and the linkage between those rights and any modern democracy. Our union identified that as the critical crisis more than fifteen years ago, when we helped start Jobs With Justice and put enormous efforts into building it. The incredibly positive thing about the AFL-CIO's focus of the last ten years is that more than ever in its history it has focused on exactly this problem. The primary crisis is not about union membership. We reject that. The crisis is about American workers' right to join and build unions.

McEntee

: Up until ten years ago, the federation had no organizing program at all and the political program wasn't really grassroots-oriented, nor was it very large or powerful. Sweeney came in and one of the first things he did was to create a department within the federation for organizing new members, which had never been done before.

He took an entirely new tack in politics, to be much more aggressive in terms of staff and mobilization out in the field. I don't think anybody can argue with the fact that aside from the political parties--and that is open for question with the Democrats--the AFL-CIO is the strongest on-the-ground political component in the United States today. This was Sweeney's leadership. It doesn't mean he did all that he wanted to do.

The insurgents are saying that the AFL-CIO is too close to the Democratic Party and supports more Democrats than Republicans. We are a liberal progressive union, but there are times we support Republicans who stand for working men and women. We support more Democrats because of the way the Republicans at any number of levels are treating us. In Missouri a Republican governor got rid of the executive order granting collective bargaining rights to public-sector workers, and that probably cost AFSCME, SEIU and the UAW 30,000 to 40,000 members. The same thing took place in Indiana, and now there's a strong possibility of losing 60,000 members. These people are Republicans. They are not Democrats, and we all know the record of George Bush since he has been in the White House.

Hoffa

: We've got to get back to building a populist base in this country. There used to be a social contract where if you worked hard for a General Motors, showed up every day and were a good employee, they owed you something. Sometime during the Reagan Administration that got thrown out the window. Now there is this Darwinist ethos. We need an FDR-type person who talks about a populist program to get America back. While I am a Democrat, we have to find people who believe in working families, whether Republican or Democrat, who share our goals to build a pro-worker coalition.

Stern

: One, I think what we learned is that having a plan matters and the plan being relevant matters. So the AFL beginning to focus on organizing matters, building a political program that focuses on talking to members at worksites matters. These were positives. Two, we have learned that a loose federation that allows everyone to act independently of each other is not going to work in the twenty-first century. The model of the federation that was set up in 1955, when one in three workers was in a union and each union could go it on its own, won't work today. Three, strategy matters. John Sweeney has done a strong job taking it to where it needs to go, but now it needs to get to a level that is more appropriate for a new century, and this will be based on organizing wholesale, not retail--organizing whole industries and sectors and markets, not individual worksites.

Q. What do you think are the core strategies needed to revive the labor movement? Is it possible for the AFL-CIO as currently structured to lead the kind of revitalization effort you believe is necessary? Should the federation have more power over its affiliated unions?

Sweeney

: The federation is not a national union. It is a coming together of many different unions with different cultures and experiences. You have to bring people along in the process. Consensus is very important for the success of a federation.

We have to do everything in our power to strengthen the labor movement at every level, and that includes state and local initiatives within central labor councils and state federations. We have to continue what we have been focusing on for the past several years to build up our grassroots activists and involve them in membership mobilization efforts around the political program and issues campaigns. Last Election Day we had 225,000 activists out working all across the country.

The major change in the political operation is that we need to convert from a "get out the vote every two years" operation to one that is going on every day of the year, whether holding candidates accountable or mobilizing around issues like Social Security. That is our biggest strength, activating the grassroots members who want to be involved.

Wilhelm

: It is a structural problem. Governance needs to be significantly overhauled. It is also a leadership question. We need a president of the AFL who will take a strong leadership position, even if that means something less than unanimous support for every measure.

The new mantra from their side is that there is not a lot of difference between the two sides of the debate, and this is patently not true. We are proposing a 50 percent rebate of the per capita dues paid by an international union to the AFL-CIO for a well-planned, systematic, well-resourced strategic organizing campaign in their core industry. We think this rebate would leverage about $1 billion. On top of that, $25 million would be devoted to large-scale organizing efforts like Wal-Mart that no one union can undertake by itself. So these two proposals taken together would [mean] spending over half of the roughly $125 million AFL budget on organizing. If the AFL is exhorting unions to organize but not itself focusing on organizing, the exhortations are meaningless.

Cohen

: CWA believes that the constitution needs to change to make it fundamentally a local and state as well as national organization. Central labor councils should be the backbone of the federation, and membership in them should not be voluntary. You can't have an optional labor movement.

We need to mobilize the 13 million union members in this country into one united movement around democracy in the workplace. It is not about how much money we spend or how much staff we have. It is about mobilizing our members around that kind of change as well as around specific efforts to organize specific employers.

Stern

: The constitutional amendments that Change to Win is proposing strengthen the power of the federation, which has historically had little power over affiliated unions. In the end, to be a chartered member of the AFL-CIO should mean that you are able to do certain things for your members.

The way that workers are succeeding is by working together with other workers who do the same type of work in their industry or sector. We call for strong industry coordinating committees that have the authority to bargain, make annual organizing plans and prohibit people who are not part of those plans to continue to be involved in that sector. This would put an end to the thirty unions that organize in healthcare every single year. There is a better way to unite the strength of workers than fifty-seven different international unions. There should be a blue-ribbon commission established to recommend mergers and incentivize them. Finally, there should be an executive committee. The executive council is too large to govern.

Q. Andy Stern, is it really possible to make a revolution like this overnight, at one convention? Is there room for compromise here, or is the drawing up of the amendments and bringing them to the July convention just a prelude to secession?

Stern

: You can't compromise on having a strategy that rewards people who go to work every day. We need a strategy that works. We can't take a little bit of this and a little bit of that and say we are all together--we are going to lose that way. If we start a new federation, it will have the values we have. We didn't write these constitutional amendments to create a double standard but with the clear understanding that, if we start a new federation, these are the values and the ways we would operate.

Q. If your amendments are not passed at the convention, how likely is it that SEIU will leave the AFL-CIO?

Stern

: I would say right now it is fairly certain. We have a different strategy about how workers are going to be successful in this economy. We clearly are influenced by the fact that we have grown by 900,000 workers in nine years, by the fact that we are winning healthcare coverage while other workers are losing it.

Q. Some people feel that some members of the Change to Win Coalition look down on unions that have been struggling to organize instead of looking for ways to assist them and that for many unions, such as those in the manufacturing sector, the ability of employers to move production or outsource jobs to other countries makes it very tough to figure out what to do. How would you respond to that? How can the power of the manufacturing unions be revived?

Stern

: The Steelworkers have made a choice to have an organizing strategy that is based on organizing any worker who is willing to pay dues in total defiance of what built the strength of that union, which was organizing workers in steel. That is their choice, and one reason they have been unsuccessful is that they don't have a long-term core industry strategy. Our union went and talked with them about organizing the security industry, which is one of our core industry focuses. They represent about 10,000 security guards in Canada. Since we are mostly focused on organizing security guards in commercial buildings, we offered to work with them to organize security jobs at industrial facilities. But they saw this as an attempt to distract them from organizing healthcare workers. There are problems for manufacturing unions who have to find ways to organize industries that are going to stay in this country, but for Steelworkers to go after nurses and public sector workers is just the wrong choice. Going after all different kinds of workers is not a successful strategy. Focus matters.

Wilhelm

: There is no question that both bargaining and organizing in the manufacturing sector, where capital has become so mobile, is extraordinarily difficult. On the other hand, there are millions of manufacturing jobs in the United States. I think we need a strategy that does the utmost we can do politically, legislatively and through corporate strategies to diminish the flow of manufacturing jobs out of the country, and we need a strategy to organize the manufacturing jobs that are here. In terms of the arrogance issue, none of us feels arrogant about the changes that need to be made. The challenges that every union and worker faces are daunting. Nobody in the Change to Win Coalition believes we have the sure-fire recipe and that if only everybody else would sign on, it would be lovely.

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?

Stern

: 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?

Hoffa

: 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.

McEntee

: 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?

Wilhelm

: 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.

Stern

: 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.

Q. The whiteness of labor union leadership is a huge problem. How can this be changed?

Cohen

: The key on diversity of all types is that all union structures and AFL-CIO structures reflect the composition of the membership base. If we did that, this would already look a lot different than it looks now. Second, if we believe in affirmative action for employers, we need to practice it ourselves in terms of things we can control, like staffing. Also, if we have labor councils rooted in America's cities and members are members of labor councils and those councils are viewed more and more as building blocks of a unified labor movement, that will diversify our movement structures.

Wilhelm

: At our union it is an enormous problem, and we are doing everything we can to figure out how to encourage the development and advance the leadership of people of color and people whose native language is not English, because our union is majority minority and majority female. The increased diversity at HERE has come from developing new leaders, teaching leadership skills to women and people of color who are hungry for them. At the end of the day, the key to diversifying the labor movement and taking advantage of the vast strength that will come from greater diversity is organizing.

McEntee

: The federation has no power over what is going to be the color of the executive council or the leadership of the executive committee. It comes back to individual unions and then to the long history of what kinds of people were organized by unions. For years, the AFL and even the CIO were organizing mostly white folks. They weren't organizing African-Americans. They weren't organizing Mexicans. The public sector helped break through this barrier. Now as we organize in home healthcare and childcare and in places like New York and Illinois and West Coast cities, we bring in large numbers of people of color and immigrants. Once we bring them into the union, we can educate and train and bring them up the ranks into leadership.

Q. Some people believe that the split between the AFL and the CIO was good for organizing large numbers of new workers into the labor movement. Do you believe a split today could have that same galvanizing effect?

Sweeney

: You know, this is not the 1930s and '40s, when US industry was on the rise and we were shifting from an agricultural to an industrial economy. We are shifting to service, working families have no basic healthcare, the working poor is growing and people are barely getting by. Right-wingers in Congress are actively attacking worker protections at every turn. It should tell you something that those right-wingers are salivating at the prospect of a split. Look at the Republican websites--they are gleeful, because the truth is, we have maintained power out of proportion to our numbers because we have been organized. A split will help no one. Unions need to work together to take on the giant bosses who are allied against us. That is the only way we can succeed.

Stern

: The labor movement is incredibly divided right now. The only way it is united is at a table in Washington, DC, or because it uses the same initials after its name. But when it comes to dealing with companies like United Airlines or national strategies about how to organize Wal-Mart or healthcare workers, there is no unity. The airline industry, the most heavily unionized industry in the country, is Exhibit A, B, C and D. If we don't believe our lack of ability to coordinate and cooperate within companies and across them is a factor, we are crazy. I don't think a split itself will create a whole new wellspring of growth and hope. I don't expect immediate results. But when you are going down a road that is getting smaller and smaller, and the markings are pretty clear that it is just wrong for workers, you have to change.

Wilhelm

: There is no question that the historical context is radically different, but I would point out that the CIO did not begin as a split but as a group of unions who wanted to try doing some things differently. The AFL expelled them. The question is, Will the federation take advantage of the greatest opportunity since the Great Depression to respond to what the country needs the most, or won't we? I don't think there ought to be a split. At UNITE HERE it is not our preference to leave the AFL-CIO at all. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We have a responsibility as labor leaders--we can't just say, Well, if a majority of unions want to embrace the status quo, let's embrace it as well.

Q. President Sweeney, how will historians look back on these past ten years and your role within the labor movement?

Sweeney

: I think they will recognize that the labor movement made some significant changes and focused heavily on organizing and political activity, that while two national elections were lost, we had our greatest number of workers and their families turn out in elections. They will see many successful organizing campaigns but a horrible Administration in Washington. Bush has had the worst jobs record since Herbert Hoover. They will see a record of strong activism on the part of rank-and-file workers in support of a strong, united labor movement.

Q. Any regrets?

Sweeney

: I would have loved to have organized more workers and enjoyed some political victories, but unfortunately neither you nor I have had that.

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