After months of debate on union strategy at the top echelons of the American labor movement, union leaders could finally agree on one thing: Sunday, July 24, the day before the opening of the fiftieth anniversary of the merger of the AFL and CIO, was an important milestone. But that’s as far as the agreement went.
For Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, a supporter of incumbent AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, it was a “tragic day,” and a carefully orchestrated rally to generate enthusiasm for Sweeney’s re-election had a decidedly discouraged and disappointed undercurrent.
A few blocks away, a few hours later, the mood was defiantly optimistic at a press conference called by the Change to Win Coalition to announce that the Service Employees (SEIU), Teamsters, UNITE HERE (textile and hotel workers) and UFCW (food and commercial workers) had all decided to boycott the convention. Officials of these unions also declared that they would not serve in any AFL-CIO office, including its Executive Council. “This is an exciting day, and a proud moment in the history of the labor movement,” declared Anna Burger, SEIU secretary-treasurer and president of the Change to Win Coalition.
This was the prelude to announcements on Monday that SEIU and the Teamsters were ending their affiliation with the AFL-CIO. Two other Change to Win unions, the Laborers and the Farmworkers, the newest member of the coalition, participated in the convention, but along with UNITE HERE and UFCW they are still deliberating whether to remain in the federation. The Carpenters, who recently joined Change to Win, have already disaffiliated. In October Change to Win unions will formalize a new organization that seems destined to be a rival to the AFL-CIO.
Will the day ultimately be seen as the moment when a tragic split tore apart the labor movement, or as a turning point yielding a reversal of fortune for a steadily declining movement? That depends in part on how the relationship between the two federations plays out. If it really develops as a test of different strategies to organize and gain power, competition could inspire harder and more creative work. But if it degenerates into fights and rising antagonism, then the split could weaken labor even further. There is also a third possibility: It could turn out that the split really has no big effect at all. Some unions may grow while others stagnate, as has been true in recent years.
Close observers are now watching for signs of whether each side is genuinely willing to cooperate with the other, as both sides have pledged to do, in the progress of negotiations over no-raiding agreements (AFSCME, the public workers union, and SEIU are talking but have reached no agreement) and whether the Change to Win unions will be permitted to continue to contribute to and participate in state and local labor federations.
Clearly, the Sweeney camp fears the loss of some of its biggest and most active unions, along with close to a third of the dues income of the AFL-CIO if the entire coalition leaves. The boycott was, Sweeney said to the convention, a “grievous insult” to the labor movement that especially “dishonors the founders and the members of my own union,” SEIU. On Sunday AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson lumped the Change to Win Coalition in with the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and Wal-Mart as organizations trying to divide and weaken labor.