After the Storm

After the Storm

Picking up the pieces at the AFL-CIO convention.


Though the summer skies were mostly clear and sunny as the AFL-CIO convened this week on Chicago’s renovated pier jutting into Lake Michigan, the cloud of the departure of the Service Employees and Teamsters from the federation hung over the proceedings all week.

But for what is still the major body of organized labor there were also subtle signs of progress, ranging from internal reforms stimulated by the debate that had been initiated by the dissident unions to a historic resolution critical of the Iraq War and calling for troops to be brought home “rapidly.”

The remaining unions at the convention scrambled to figure out how to pay the bills with $18 million a year less in dues (and more if other unions leave, as expected); how to help central labor councils and state labor federations adapt to loss of members and money; and how to manage the tension between the AFL-CIO and the SEIU-led Change to Win Coalition, which still has four of its seven members within the federation.

There were eloquent pleas for solidarity, despite the split, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, urging labor to maintain a “big tent” and keep its eyes on the prize, and from the president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Ed Hill. And the AFL-CIO reiterated its pledge to wage a vigorous campaign–so far, slow to materialize–against Wal-Mart, even though the main union expected to organize Wal-Mart workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, may soon be leaving the federation.

But underneath the surface, the embers of conflict were glowing more brightly: One flashpoint is SEIU’s petition for an election to represent homecare workers in Riverside County, California, who are now in an AFSCME (public workers) local union. An umpire had recently determined that under AFL-CIO rules, AFSCME had the right to represent those workers. But on the day after the SEIU disaffiliated, its president, Andy Stern, notified the public authorities in Riverside that since it was no longer bound by those rules, the SEIU wanted to proceed with a petition to overturn AFSCME’s union status. (SEIU says that local leaders requested a switch in union affiliation; AFSCME says it removed those officers for financial improprieties.)

Although AFSCME has been trying to negotiate a no-raid agreement with SEIU, some AFSCME leaders are ready not only to resist the “raid” but to retaliate by trying to take away units from SEIU. “The situation seems to be moving in a very negative way,” AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said. “There are indications SEIU will raid AFSCME aggressively.” But if AFSCME and others go after SEIU locals, there could be a disastrous all-out war.

In anticipation of such bloodletting, the convention voted to increase dues that unions pay the federation, creating a fund to help central labor councils–partly to do their own work but also partly to resist raiding of AFL-CIO unions. The councils will, even with that aid, be financially hurt if all the SEIU-led Change to Win Coalition unions leave the federation. But Sweeney, along with leaders of key AFL-CIO unions, insists on enforcing a constitutional prohibition on unions outside of the AFL-CIO from belonging to state and local labor organizations. “What we learned this week is we can’t have a voluntary labor movement–you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out,” said Larry Cohen, who is likely to be elected Communication Workers president next month. “That has to be true for every central labor council and state federation.”

But many central labor council and state federation leaders are scrambling for ways to continue working with SEIU, Teamsters and any other potential disaffiliated unions in their local coalitions, even if those unions can’t be members. Leaders of the most active and effective local labor groups have worked hard to build political powerhouses that are now threatened. “There have been CLC leaders in tears, literally crying, because eight to nine years of work have been torn up,” said Jeff Crosby, president of the North Shore CLC in Massachusetts. “When the Change to Win unions leave, it will be extremely difficult to continue to work at the local level as we have in the past.”

While SEIU is a major factor in many state and local groups, especially on the West Coast, the Teamsters have a much more spotty record–for example, paying dues to state federations for only about 11 percent of their members.

These local and state groups have been an important, if uneven, force in politics. They have also been a forum for the opponents of the Iraq War, mainly through United States Labor Against the War (USLAW), to build the pressure for a dramatic foreign policy statement by the national AFL-CIO. In a resolution that called for the rapid withdrawal of US forces, the AFL-CIO condemned Bush’s lies, argued for Iraqi workers’ rights and demanded fair treatment for US war veterans.

Eighteen resolutions from state federations and central labor councils were submitted calling for rapid or immediate withdrawal, and USLAW recently sponsored a tour of Iraqi representatives of three major labor federations. They also attended the AFL-CIO convention where, in small meetings, they recounted the repression of unions under Saddam and the terrorism directed at the emerging labor movement. They all pointedly argued that the US occupation was responsible for the high levels of internal violence and argued for troops to be pulled out quickly.

A compromise resolution from the federation’s executive council–which had opposed going into the war in Iraq–called for withdrawal “as quickly as possible.” USLAW leader Gene Bruskin saw that language as giving Bush too much latitude and lobbied members of the resolutions committee and the executive council to accept a friendly amendment from the floor to revise it to “rapidly.” After describing how his son has been sent to Iraq four times, veteran AFSCME leader Henry Nicholas from Philadelphia said, “This is my proudest moment as a union member in forty-nine years. This is the first time we’ve had the moral courage to stand up and say enough is enough.”

In a less dramatic, but also significant, political statement, the AFL-CIO also adopted an economic policy position attacking the “Wall Street Agenda” that is supported in varying degrees by both Republicans and many Democrats. It argues for an alternative that emphasizes national investment and industrial strategies, fair globalization, workers’ rights and corporate accountability.

The convention predictably, without even a symbolic contest, re-elected the Sweeney leadership team and a reduced but more diverse executive council (leaving room for leaders of Change to Win unions if they were to decide to participate). And changes that might have been highly controversial even a year ago–a powerful small executive committee, new industry coordinating councils and rebates for organizing, for example–were passed with little dissension, even though many individual union leaders were unenthusiastic about them. But there was more controversy about proposed authority for the executive council to suspend provisions of the constitution if needed for an emergency (what might constitute such an emergency was mostly unspecified, but the authority could potentially be used to drop the prohibition on unaffiliated unions’ participation in central labor councils).

In a week filled with hurt and anger, tempered by appeals to solidarity despite internal labor movement differences, Sweeney was his usual mild-mannered, low-key self in a press conference after his re-election. With all the controversy over the split, he said, “I don’t think enough attention has been paid to the members of these organizations and to workers. If there ever was a need for a strong labor movement, it’s this period of time when unions are under attack by an antiworker Administration. Leadership in Congress is not focused on a working people’s agenda. Employers are gloating over the fact that major unions have disaffiliated, and there’s a split in the labor movement.” Victory turned out to be bittersweet.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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