One Hat for Labor? | The Nation


One Hat for Labor?

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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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King’s progressive credentials are impressive, but his popularity with members will be tested as he goes up against the Big Three in tough contract talks.

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Rethinking their split four years ago, unions are exploring reunification.

In the late afternoon of January 7, fourteen union leaders gathered around a big oval table in the top-floor conference room of the United Food and Commercial Workers' (UFCW) Washington headquarters to talk about how to unify the fragmented American labor movement. The four-hour discussion with a catered light dinner was chaired by labor-friendly former Representative David Bonior and was attended by leaders of the AFL-CIO, the breakaway federation Change to Win (CTW) and the independent National Education Association (NEA).

That evening's discussion led to more talks, and participants cautiously hope they can unite to better take advantage of the political openings for revival of the labor movement. Assembling all unions into one "house of labor" may not come quickly, if at all, but by early April the Bonior group had decided to keep working--as the National Labor Coordinating Committee--perhaps to make significant steps toward unity at the September AFL-CIO convention.

The 2005 split in the AFL-CIO grew in part out of frustrations in dark times: George W. Bush and a Republican Congress had been re-elected, and union membership was shrinking, slipping to 12.5 percent of wage workers and provoking fears that unions would sink to a point of no return. Unions fought over how the AFL-CIO should operate, whether unions needed to be merged and reorganized by industry, and whether the AFL-CIO spent too much time and money on politics (and other tasks) and not enough on organizing.

Now opportunities for progress are pushing those unions back together. Organized labor played a major role in November's Democratic victories. Unions have even expanded membership slightly in the past two years. The time is ripe for broad legislative gains, from universal health insurance to the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make it easier for workers to form unions (though that bill faces obstacles in the Senate).

"We've just come off elections, and we've seen our collective work elect Barack Obama and a Congress more in line with the needs and aspirations of working people," says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, part of the Bonior group. "That unity produced something, but it needs to improve every day between elections. A unified labor movement will better serve working families than when we're separated. When we fight together, we're stronger."

Unions create central organizations with hopes of realizing power through solidarity at all levels, from local communities to the global economy. But unity is not always a quick fix for labor's challenges.

Even after the 1955 merger of the AFL and the CIO unified most of labor, unions left and rejoined the federation, split over political endorsements, battled over organizing turf, ignored federation decisions they didn't like and often failed to practice elementary labor solidarity effectively (for example, when President Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' strike). But the loose federation did pull unions together on many tasks and provided a voice--though an increasingly stale, conservative and remote one--for American workers.

In 1995, following Republican Congressional victories, passage of NAFTA and Clinton's failed healthcare reform, John Sweeney won the first contested election in a century to lead the federation. He promised a new voice and more organizing, smarter political work, broader coalitions, more progressive policies--with militancy, when needed, to back them up and a reinvigorated federation from top to bottom (the often-ignored central labor councils).

But Sweeney had trouble getting every union to march to the same tune, and despite huge improvements in the federation's coordination of political work, victory was elusive, especially in the first six Bush years. Several union leaders complained that the federation was an oversize bureaucracy run more by staff and officers than by the unions that make up the federation.

The 2005 revolt that produced Change to Win was led by the Service Employees, Sweeney's old union, with major support from the Teamsters, Laborers, UNITE HERE (a merger of garment and hotel unions) and UFCW. With little engagement of members or secondary leaders, it was a rebellion of union presidents, many of whose demands had been promoted in weaker form by Sweeney. But the rebels argued that the AFL-CIO was too focused on politics and not focused enough on organizing.

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