One Hat for Labor? | The Nation


One Hat for Labor?

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Leaders of local unions and state and city labor federations resisted the split, which threatened their joint work on politics, economic development and other issues. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win agreed that locals of the breakaway unions could pay dues for "solidarity charters" in state and city federations, and eventually four-fifths of CTW locals signed up. At the national level, unions in the two federations worked together on elections to varying degrees, but in most localities the links were even tighter.

About the Author

David Moberg
David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, writes frequently for The Nation on labor issues.

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Change to Win put three-fourths of its money into a Strategic Organizing Center and did not work in many of the areas the AFL-CIO tries to address, from public policy to legal affairs. Its smaller leadership group met regularly to strategize. Faced with reduced income, the AFL-CIO pared operations, focusing on politics and on helping unions beef up organizing programs.

Despite their stated intentions when they abandoned the AFL-CIO, the CTW unions, especially SEIU, subsequently became even more involved in politics. In turn, AFL-CIO unions expanded their organizing. CTW--despite some notable successes--also found that changing to win on a large scale was slow. "It's been a lot harder to get there than we thought and hoped," CTW executive director Chris Chafe says. So both federations have done comparably well overall organizing, and both have gained disproportionately by organizing quasi-public workers (like homecare workers), not in the tougher private sector.

Thanks to the split, a lot of effort had to go into coordinating work across federations. And the federations were at times at odds--for example, until recently on immigration (even within CTW). But the leaders of the federations and individual unions often met. At one such lunch in Brussels nearly two years ago during a global union council, presidents Joe Hansen of UFCW/CTW and Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers of America/AFL-CIO began talking about what a labor federation would look like if it was started from scratch.

They continued their talks, as did other groups of leaders, but election work pushed aside talk of a new federation, even as divisions developed in both federations. (CWA was itself part of a four-union alliance that was partly independent of the AFL-CIO political operation). After the election, as unions were involved with the transition of power, Cohen and Hansen contacted Bonior, who chairs American Rights at Work, a broad-based advocacy group through which both federations champion EFCA. They got support from CTW, invited the National Education Association to join and called the first meeting.

The NEA's participation is important. The nation's biggest union, with a presence in every state, the NEA has become more a part of the labor movement in recent decades: in four states it has merged with the AFT; many city chapters have joined the AFL-CIO's central labor councils; and it works much more closely with other unions on politics. But as an independent, strongly democratic union, it brings a fresh perspective without the scars of schism.

"In any conversation about where the labor movement should be headed, a union of 3.2 million should be part of it," says NEA president Dennis Van Roekel. "We've had a good, frank discussion and learned about each other. Regardless of how it ends, it will pave the way for more cooperation."

The talks started by defining the mission of the labor federation. "The only consensus was to focus on public policy, legislation and political mobilization and action," Cohen says. Or, as Hansen puts it, "the main role of the federation is to be the voice that speaks with authority at the federal level."

Surprisingly, since Sweeney pushed unions to organize, and CTW wanted even more federation resources for organizing, the Bonior group has initially downplayed a role for the federation in organizing. But there does seem to be interest in establishing one--or multiple, possibly sectoral--"strategic organizing centers." In any case, Cohen says, the emerging plan "encourages joint work, not just on organizing but on bargaining."

Some CTW leaders have said that reunification requires a new organization, not a return to the AFL-CIO. But Sweeney wrote in an early April internal memo that "the AFL-CIO will not be disbanding to start anew, it will not be subordinating itself to or merging itself into any other organization, and it will not be abandoning its historic mission of fighting for economic, social, political, and workplace justice at every level."

Many AFL-CIO union leaders think the federation just needs reform, not rejection. Although hopeful for reunification, Electrical Workers (IBEW) president Ed Hill says, "I don't see changing everything to accommodate a few people." But some CTW leaders think resistance to change could stymie unification. Too many leaders, Hansen told his union, "are not fully engaged regarding the fundamental change necessary to reshape our movement."

Most of the thorny details of structure, governance, finance and leadership remain wide open or have been deliberately postponed as leaders discuss what they want a federation to do. But the result, if there is one, will almost assuredly be leaner than the AFL-CIO, more ambitious than CTW and will borrow features from both. The group seems inclined to give more control over federation affairs to an executive committee made up of leaders of ten to twelve of the biggest unions, with another five members elected to represent the smaller unions, Hansen says. The committee would meet frequently, supplemented by periodic meetings of larger groups, including most or all of the nation's unions. Although there was a proposal for having rotating chairs and an executive director, there appears to be more support for an elected president. Small unions objected strongly in 2005 to SEIU president Andy Stern's insistence that they all merge into larger ones. Stern still seeks those mergers, but the Bonior group has not discussed the topic much, and Cohen says there's agreement that all unions would enter the federation with their jurisdictions intact. But smaller unions worry about losing their voice in a reformed federation. And it's true that the balance of power in the emerging sketch of a federation would shift to the big unions with the majority of union members.

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