After the 1952 election, union leaders were worried. Republicans were in power. Labor rights had been weakened. Southern organizing had failed. Unions were raiding one another. There were bitter personal and federation rivalries. One big union threatened to disaffiliate from its federation. In 1955, hoping to strengthen the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged.
Fast-forward fifty years. There are echoes of those old issues, but now the AFL-CIO is on the brink of a major breakup. Partly that is because the original merger created a weak federation, not a strong, unified labor movement. It marked labor’s apogee and the beginning of its decline.
Last year the Service Employees (SEIU) proposed changes that, they argued, would strengthen the labor movement, including merging unions, getting them to focus their organizing efforts strategically in their core industries, cutting AFL-CIO staff and giving big unions more direct control over the federation. In recent months SEIU and like-minded unions have ratcheted up the pressure by making specific proposals to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. One from the Teamsters, for an AFL-CIO dues rebate aimed at rewarding unions that invest in strategic organizing, garnered support from unions representing nearly 40 percent of federation members. Still, Sweeney has managed to consolidate support both for his re-election at the late July convention and for his program–which moves in the dissidents’ direction without fully embracing their ideas–calling for a bigger, year-round political operation, cutting one-fourth of federation staff and modestly increasing organizing expenditures.
The debate has been muddied by personality issues. Union presidents representing 63 percent of federation members back Sweeney, partly because they like him (or dislike SEIU president Andy Stern’s style), but there are divisions within each camp.
The dissidents–SEIU, Teamsters, UNITE HERE (apparel and hotel workers), Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Laborers–remain a large minority with no presidential candidate. Three unions–SEIU, UNITE HERE and UFCW–have authorized their executive boards to leave the federation (a decision the Laborers aren’t considering). In June they launched the Change to Win Coalition to coordinate the work of willing unions inside or outside the AFL-CIO, a formation that could become the nucleus of a new federation. Having first stressed policies, many dissidents now argue that Sweeney is the problem. “I hate to say it, but John Sweeney is not supporting real change in the labor movement,” says SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, who managed Sweeney’s 1995 election. “I can’t see how we can support a president who is not committed to real change.” Sweeney supporters emphasize how much his proposals resemble the dissidents’ ideas; his opponents insist he offers only rhetorical change and is unwilling to push reluctant affiliates to reform.
The biggest difference is over incentives to organize: Sweeney offers much smaller rebates if unions devote 30 percent of resources to organizing. But he claims that will generate $2.5 billion over five years, compared with $1 billion claimed for the Teamsters plan. Both figures are inflated, since rebates will reward unions already meeting the targets, and neither rebate may be enough to spur any major transformations. But many dissidents also see their rebate as a way to shrink the AFL-CIO further and to push smaller unions to merge with big ones.