The Six-Year Itch
Meanwhile, employers everywhere still doggedly fight unionization. The challenge is especially great in manufacturing, where businesses wield the credible threat that they'll move overseas if workers unionize. In response, the AFL-CIO has organized a "voice at work" strategy: Unions and central labor councils recruit community leaders, clergy, politicians and others to publicly criticize anti-union employers, encourage workers forming a union or urge governmental action, such as recent legislation in Milwaukee and California requiring private employers with public financing to be neutral or not use public funds to resist when workers try to organize [see David Glenn, "Labor of Love," page 30]. To take just one recent local example, in Kansas City, Missouri, American Federation of Teachers organizers at Health Midwest credit their central labor council with drumming up support from politicians, clergy and other labor leaders to limit the effectiveness of the hospital's anti-union campaign. But local campaigns for the right to organize have been spotty, and the national AFL-CIO efforts have been concentrated during a week in June each year, when they need to be year-round and unrelenting.
Given that many unions continue to compete for members and refuse to cooperate out of narrow institutional self-interest, it's not surprising that the affiliates have disparate views on what their common federation should do. Should the AFL-CIO become more directly involved in organizing, perhaps focusing help on the smaller or less aggressive unions? Or should it focus on changing the climate for organizing, especially through politics? Should it provide affiliates with services or with strategic direction? Some key organizers think the AFL-CIO should still push laggard unions to organize more and help to coordinate more strategic, coordinated campaigns. But others simply want the fed to help clear the path for unions already committed to such methods. "The problem is that the federation needs to decide to do a few things well rather than being everything to everybody," argues SEIU executive vice president and organizing director Tom Woodruff. "It's still true that workers don't fundamentally have a real right to organize in this country, and that's not the public perception. That's the right campaign for the federation to run. That's the one they haven't run effectively up to this point."
HERE's John Wilhelm believes that the federation "ought to put the same focus and dollars into organizing as into politics, and I think the AFL-CIO needs to have the same leadership role in organizing as in politics," rather than defer to the individual unions, as many other leaders prefer. But because of the lack of consensus at the AFL-CIO, the leadership on organizing has begun to shift informally to an increasingly tight circle of unions--most large, a few small--that already have good track records. Indeed, some even suggest that the US labor movement should follow the German model: consolidate into a few giant unions with a tiny and unimportant national federation.
If Sweeney manages to forge some agreement among member unions, on the other hand, the AFL-CIO could still play a major role in creating a more favorable climate for organizing, and in stimulating more and better efforts at rebuilding the ranks of the labor movement. So far many of the federation's organizing efforts have flopped or proved at most partial successes, but at least it has been trying new ideas on a larger canvas. The danger now is that those experiments will be quietly forgotten, not systematically analyzed, and that pessimists will conclude that nothing new and ambitious should be tried.
Whereas organizing has been a particularly divisive topic, "politics has always been the glue that's held the AFL-CIO together," as Wilhelm puts it. Notwithstanding the outcome of last fall's election, the federation under Sweeney can point to an impressive political record. Under political director Steve Rosenthal, AFL-CIO staff--along with representatives loaned from affiliates in key Congressional districts and states, as well as local union officials and activists--have coordinated an energetic campaign to educate, register and turn out union voters. While the number of nonunion voters shrank, labor boosted the union household share of the vote steadily from 19 percent of the electorate in 1992 to 23 percent in 1996 and 26 percent in 2000--with a growing percentage of those households voting for labor-backed candidates. The more messages workers received from their union, especially personal contacts at work, the more effectively unions won over their members. Labor's political operation has also prospered by educating members about issues rather than simply issuing endorsements.
The AFL-CIO will beef up and refine existing operations as it starts its political organizing this fall, even earlier than in past election cycles. Much of the work will initially focus on issues such as the minimum wage, a patients' bill of rights and fast track "trade promotion authority," as well as on educating politicians and organizations about the need to protect workers' currently thwarted right to organize. But the challenge is larger than that. Without much satisfaction, Rosenthal has tried during previous election cycles to build a seamless, full-time, grassroots political and legislative action operation, so that there would be just as much effort devoted to holding elected officials accountable as to electing them. If that had been in place, the AFL-CIO might have been able to mobilize members on a massive scale against overturning the ergonomics rules or the Bush tax plan.