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One Hat for Labor? | The Nation

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One Hat for Labor?

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Even some AFL-CIO affiliate leaders think a new federation needs to be leaner. "We need a federation that's inclusive, focused and efficient," Steelworkers president Leo Gerard says. "We can't be everything for everyone, and sometimes we try to do too much."

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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As he mounts his run for AFL-CIO president at a moment of opportunity and peril for American workers, Richard Trumka calls for no less than a new social compact.

Indeed, a group of AFL-CIO union leaders, acting through the federation's executive committee, is reviewing what the AFL-CIO should do in advance of the convention. Firefighters president Harold Schaitberger thinks reforms might induce CTW unions to reaffiliate. "You build it--and well--and they will come," he says. Some internal group proposals parallel those in the Bonior group, and in March the AFL-CIO executive council endorsed both.

Now the focus is on what unions want from the federation. Soon that may shift to what should be left out, especially since some unions, like the Teamsters, strongly object to the higher AFL-CIO dues (65 cents per member, compared with 25 cents for CTW). But cutbacks, including those already made, still leave a tough financial problem: legacy costs of retired AFL-CIO staff.

Sweeney's imminent retirement means that the talk of reform and unification comes at a time when the AFL-CIO will elect a new leader. The Bonior group is rigorously trying to keep the issues separate, but the choice of leader could affect negotiations. "To me, the last discussion is who's going to run it," says Laborers president Terry O'Sullivan. "If we agree on budget, structure, roles and responsibilities, then we can get to it." Sweeney has endorsed secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka as his successor, and despite reservations some leaders express about him, no challengers have emerged.

Not every union leader is enthused about unification, especially if it involves what they see as concessions to SEIU's Stern, whose actions irritate many of his peers. "The Bonior committee is about making fundamental changes to make [reunification] palatable to Andy Stern," complains Machinist president Tom Buffenbarger, even though "things have only gotten worse for the defectors."

Indeed, some leaders worry that internal union battles could imperil reunification. The conflict among leaders of UNITE HERE has intensified as John Wilhelm--the former HERE president, who recently took control of the merged union--has accused Stern and SEIU officials of encouraging the old UNITE faction to disaffiliate, merge into SEIU and compete with Wilhelm's union to organize hotel, casino and food workers (and potentially move into UFCW's jurisdiction as well). So Wilhelm is seeking to reaffiliate UNITE HERE with the AFL-CIO.

Then there's the ongoing California strife in SEIU. There, former SEIU leader Sal Rosselli claims that a solid majority of his big, trusteed healthcare local now wants to disaffiliate from SEIU and join a new National Union of Healthcare Workers. Meanwhile, SEIU blocked some decertification votes and accuses Rosselli of various kinds of malfeasance. Rosselli, in turn, says SEIU harasses dissidents, even as more workers--including some from other California locals--petition to leave SEIU.

In case things weren't complicated enough, SEIU and its archrival, the California Nurses Association (a Rosselli supporter), recently agreed to a three-and-a-half-year cooperative national experiment organizing hospitals.

Even if unions can unite despite these squabbles, some union strategists argue that the current talks ignore possibilities for a bigger rank-and-file role in the federation (as in Canada); attend too much to parochial needs of the big unions rather than forging an organization that speaks for all workers; and focus more on short-term goals than a long-run strategy for labor. Despite forging broad agreements on political goals--such as EFCA and immigration and healthcare reform--unions remain divided, and confused, about long-term strategy. And while the labor movement influenced President Obama's response to the economic crisis, it has not offered a comprehensive progressive alternative program to keep pressure on the administration.

If unions have focused much energy on EFCA, it is because, as the Communications Workers' Cohen argues, strengthening organizing and collective bargaining is an essential first step toward a more democratized and revitalized economy. "If you have nothing but markets," he says, "you end up with nothing. If you don't have a society with workers at the table [at work and in politics], then they can't join in the debate." But if pressure from labor and its allies can't bring about labor law reform in this Congress, unions will need unity on grassroots mobilization and militancy even more urgently to break out of their impasse.

Unification of most, if not all, unions is likely to involve some transitional steps, many participants believe. NEA's deliberative process, for example, means it would take at best a year or two for it to decide, and the Carpenters--now barely participating in CTW--are unlikely to embrace unification soon. And if unions don't reach some agreement by July, it will be hard for the AFL-CIO to implement any needed changes at the September convention.

Still, hopes for a more rapid reunion run strong. "I'd like to see the labor movement reunited," says Sweeney. "I take it personally. I'll do my damnedest for reunification."

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