The best that can be said about the split in organized labor, which occurred on July 25, opening day of the AFL-CIO’s fiftieth-anniversary convention in Chicago, is that perhaps the principles of chaos theory will play out in interesting ways. By that theory, the slightest variation in conditions can drastically change the long-term behavior of a system. Or, as chaos pioneer Edward Lorenz put it, “One flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.”
The defection of first the Teamsters and Service Employees (SEIU) and a few days later the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is a bit more momentous than the flap of a bird’s wings, costing the labor federation some 4 million members and $30 million in annual dues and establishing the basis for a rival federation, the Change to Win Coalition. But in every way beyond the material it is, so far, insubstantial. No political vibrancy or meaningful debate, no fundamental power shift or even analysis, no movement mojo, nothing revolutionary or even progressive is discernible in the schism. Except as props or fodder for rhetoric, workers have been left out. They may yet demand in, but how and by what mechanism no one can say.
In Chicago on the day of the split, each side fulfilled the other’s caricature of it. At Navy Pier the convention came to order in a vast, darkened hall, with prayer, color guard and solemn praise for “the greatest labor federation on earth.” “Unity” was proclaimed from the dais, from the slogan on vest-backs of convention staff, from screen projections as if nothing were amiss; as if four major unions (the three that ultimately split and UNITE HERE) had not ceased paying dues some months before and were not now boycotting the convention, as if people in the hall were not seething and insulted, and crisis were not all around.
“This is surreal,” a building trades activist kept repeating. In the visitors’ section, international trade unionists were mystified. Business unfolded as usual. Politicians paraded on to extend their greetings and score their points, and silence or veiled reference addressed the issue foremost in everyone’s mind.
In the bright, cramped offices of SEIU Local 1, where the Teamsters’ James Hoffa kicked off the lunchtime press conference announcing the split, “Change to Win” was as contentless as “Unity” had been at Navy Pier. The day before, Joe Hansen of UFCW had told reporters that the coalition’s differences with the AFL were “principled and fundamental” but couldn’t explain them. Now Hoffa seemed to settle the matter by emphasizing the $10 million a year that the Teamsters would save by not paying into the federation. On organizing in core union sectors, one of the stated missions uniting the coalition partners, he mentioned trucking but referred more often to opportunities for the Teamsters to organize casino workers–gesturing fraternally toward UNITE HERE, which elsewhere is suing another union for encroaching on its claimed casino sector.
For his part, SEIU’s Andy Stern seemed focused on history. The split, he said, was intended “not to divide the labor movement but to rebuild it.” He said SEIU had no interest in raiding, the age-old practice of hitting on another union’s members to get them to switch affiliations. Yet as he spoke, his operatives in California were in the midst of raiding an AFSCME local for 10,000 home-care workers under contract with Riverside County.