“Andy Stern is not shy about speaking his mind,” veteran labor reporter David Moberg wrote in our recent cover story, Can’t Workers of the Word Unite? In these last months, Stern has been anything but shy about triggering the most far-reaching strategic debate in labor in more than a generation.
But while Stern’s call for dramatic structural change, his openness to remake labor’s traditional ties to the Democratic Party and create new institutions and alliances for working people, and his sense of urgency, even desperation, about the future of labor is admirable and welcome, much of SEIU’s argument about what is to be done is less persuasive. (For more on Stern and the recently dissolved New Unity Partnership’s (NUP) reform proposals–and my take on the arguments–see below.)
The insistence on the need for change at almost any cost was at the heart of Stern’s talk to a packed early Monday session at the Harvard Club–organized by the Drum Major Institute and its indefatigable Executive Director Andrea Batista Schlesinger. The charismatic 54-year old leader of SEIU, the AFL’s fastest growing affiliate, acknowledged that if his (and NUP’s) candidate–John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE–isn’t elected (and John Sweeney ousted) at the AFL’s quadrennial convention this July, it’s the endgame.
Or, as Stern said, “We made a decision, rightly or wrongly that we will either be part of or partners with the AFL-CIO, but we don’t want to be part of a labor movement that isn’t willing to make changes that give workers a chance.” Meaning that either the AFL-CIO implements a slate of specific reforms that Stern and his partners are demanding, or some 40 percent of the AFL will depart the federation and form something new–raising the specter of a split in the House of Labor akin to John Lewis’s departure in 1935 to form the CIO.
When I pressed Stern about the danger of a split, at a time when labor is under ferocious assault, it was startling to hear SEIU’s fiery leader invoke a business model. “Competition is not necessarily the most unhealthy aspect of moments in history…in a business analogy, there is US Airways, which has a model of doing work which has not been as successful as they ever wanted it to be…If you were Herbert Kelleher [chairman of the board of Southwest] right now and you wanted to start a new airline, you could either start Southwest with a whole new model and see if it worked or you could take over US Airways and see if you could change it. To me, one of the questions in the labor movement is, do you want to take over US Airways or do you want to build Southwest?” (Click here to read an excerpted transcript of the conversation.)
Sounds like the House of Labor, under attack by the most anti-labor administration in modern history, is about to split. Is it worth it? While fundamental change in labor is critical, will changing the rules of the AFL bring about the revival Stern hopes for–and seems to promise? And will structural reforms really address the larger problem of how to revitalize a broader movement for economic democracy and social justice?
Here’s my take:
Andy Stern and the other members of the recently dissolved New Unity Partnership deserve great credit for forcing the first serious strategic debate in labor in more than a generation. I do not speak to the current state of the debate, which will inevitably change between now and the AFL’s convention in July.
Let me instead raise three questions about the basic proposal for reform.
First goes to the feasibility of the basic reform proposal. Second goes to the consequences of dividing labor if it’s not adopted. Third goes to the truth of its basic argument: that consolidation is the key to growth. While my answers are generally negative, they’re not proposed to end the discussion, but to clarify the terms on which I hope it will continue.
On the first question: Is this proposal feasible, given the current structure of the AFL and its affiliates? We’ll know in July but, whatever happens at the convention, I’m skeptical. Quite apart from questions of incompetence, bad faith or fraud in claiming organizing expenditures, there is the substantive prior question of which industries different unions can legitimately and consensually claim as core. This given the growth in the “general” unions–meaning those servicing members in many different industries–is a very dense omelet indeed, taking some time to unscramble under the best of circumstances. And these are NOT the best of circumstances. The AFL faces a powerful, unified right-wing, business dominated coalition of industry associations and the Republicans control all three branches of government.
The best unions will be those anxious to defend current members under attack, not bargain them away to a structure they don’t yet know. And then there are the familiar differences of union culture, and membership loyalties. For unions actually to surrender organizing ambitions or members to others is more daunting still. This would suggest indeed something like a sovereign with absolute force was needed to bring it off, but surrendering their power to some Leviathan like the AFL-CIO is one thing that almost no union is prepared to do.
On the second question: Is this worth a split? Again I am skeptical.The last time labor split was because the AFL was actively resisting the organization of millions of workers who clearly wanted to be organized. Nothing like that is going on now. And the prospect of employers and the Bush Administration further exploiting divisions within labor is horrifying, as is that of wasting precious resources in a new round or murderous turf disputes. That’s precisely what Andy Stern is interested in getting away from. But splitting off makes that a virtual certainty. Any dispute SEIU has with CWA or AFSCME now will only get worse, more ugly, if SEIU is outside the federation.
But the third question is the most important. Is the basic argument even right? I certainly think that decentralization and particularly a lack of discipline among the decentralized parts are labor’s Achilles heel. I’m all for coordinated industry organizing plans. And what woman would seriously disagree that size and focus are generally a good thing? But I don’t see union centralization per se, especially when achieved through merger, as more than a tiny step toward improving labor’s current predicament. That uncontested jurisdiction per se is no guarantee of anything can be seen in the recent decimation of many unions that enjoyed precisely that privilege in different industries. Sometimes this decimation as achieved through deregulation–here think of the Teamsters in over-the-road trucking, or CWA in long distance telephone; sometimes it was achieved through technical change that took away labor’s advantages in bargaining: here, think of longshore, mining, meatpacking. And even closer to protagonists in the current debate, it’s worth noting that members of the NUP are not doing very well on the density front. Outside hospitals, even SEIU is losing density in such key industries as nursing homes and building services.
Something more than union structure is going on here, and something more than union structure will need to change to turn it around. There’s also the blunt fact—from the history of corporate mergers in the US in recent decades–that merger per se does nothing particularly for efficiency. Often uniting two diverse cultures creates more problems than it’s worth. I THINK COORDINATION, NOT CONSOLIDATION.
But I also think and hope we can talk about what more is needed. Along with industry plans, what about massive political education of existing union membership? What about a much more sophisticated political program–one that really does build to last and keeps strength in the field after presidential elections–particularly at the state and city level, as the Working Families Party is demonstrating here in NYC? Especially outside the special context of New York electoral law, that implies stronger regional labor capacity for political as well as other coordination. And that requires confronting what many see as in many ways an even bigger challenge to labor coordination than turf wars among affiliates–that is, the war between affiliates and the central labor bodies that are needed for their political coordination and effect.
Finally, we need more aggressive recruitment of anybody who wants to join a revitalized political and social movement but doesn’t stand a chance anytime soon of getting to 50 percent plus one on some NLRB election, or benefiting from a bargaining to organize fight. Labor has a lot of friends out there that it could be doing more to tap into as part of a political strategy of developing more popular support for organized labor.
So in looking at all this, I’d put more emphasis on membership clarity and focus, not just industry; on coordination of a diverse movement–more than its willed consolidation; and on the strengthening of weak ties in political affinity and mobilization, to change policy and outcomes for workers outside collective bargaining or the climate of organizing.
I just don’t think labor’s ever going to win this fight if it is seen as only its fight. It must be seen as working America’s struggle, and that is not best organized through specific industry actions but broad and sweeping political and issue campaigns. My hope is that a transformed, revitalized labor movement will emerge from an intricate mix of different but complementary strategies.