Labor Splits Open

Labor Splits Open

As its July convention approaches, the AFL-CIO is on the brink of a major break-up.


After the 1952 election, union leaders were worried. Republicans were in power. Labor rights had been weakened. Southern organizing had failed. Unions were raiding one another. There were bitter personal and federation rivalries. One big union threatened to disaffiliate from its federation. In 1955, hoping to strengthen the labor movement, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations merged.

Fast-forward fifty years. There are echoes of those old issues, but now the AFL-CIO is on the brink of a major breakup. Partly that is because the original merger created a weak federation, not a strong, unified labor movement. It marked labor’s apogee and the beginning of its decline.

Last year the Service Employees (SEIU) proposed changes that, they argued, would strengthen the labor movement, including merging unions, getting them to focus their organizing efforts strategically in their core industries, cutting AFL-CIO staff and giving big unions more direct control over the federation. In recent months SEIU and like-minded unions have ratcheted up the pressure by making specific proposals to AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. One from the Teamsters, for an AFL-CIO dues rebate aimed at rewarding unions that invest in strategic organizing, garnered support from unions representing nearly 40 percent of federation members. Still, Sweeney has managed to consolidate support both for his re-election at the late July convention and for his program–which moves in the dissidents’ direction without fully embracing their ideas–calling for a bigger, year-round political operation, cutting one-fourth of federation staff and modestly increasing organizing expenditures.

The debate has been muddied by personality issues. Union presidents representing 63 percent of federation members back Sweeney, partly because they like him (or dislike SEIU president Andy Stern’s style), but there are divisions within each camp.

The dissidents–SEIU, Teamsters, UNITE HERE (apparel and hotel workers), Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Laborers–remain a large minority with no presidential candidate. Three unions–SEIU, UNITE HERE and UFCW–have authorized their executive boards to leave the federation (a decision the Laborers aren’t considering). In June they launched the Change to Win Coalition to coordinate the work of willing unions inside or outside the AFL-CIO, a formation that could become the nucleus of a new federation. Having first stressed policies, many dissidents now argue that Sweeney is the problem. “I hate to say it, but John Sweeney is not supporting real change in the labor movement,” says SEIU secretary-treasurer Anna Burger, who managed Sweeney’s 1995 election. “I can’t see how we can support a president who is not committed to real change.” Sweeney supporters emphasize how much his proposals resemble the dissidents’ ideas; his opponents insist he offers only rhetorical change and is unwilling to push reluctant affiliates to reform.

The biggest difference is over incentives to organize: Sweeney offers much smaller rebates if unions devote 30 percent of resources to organizing. But he claims that will generate $2.5 billion over five years, compared with $1 billion claimed for the Teamsters plan. Both figures are inflated, since rebates will reward unions already meeting the targets, and neither rebate may be enough to spur any major transformations. But many dissidents also see their rebate as a way to shrink the AFL-CIO further and to push smaller unions to merge with big ones.

Sweeney has won widest approval for beefing up labor’s political work, but his critics claim that organizing is short-changed and labor is too subservient to Democrats (although only a few, like UNITE HERE hospitality president John Wilhelm, advocate primary challenges to Democrats in addition to wooing Republicans). Sweeney has tried to make the historically balkanized labor movement more influential and coherent by building up the federation’s operations to represent the movement as a whole. This has frustrated union presidents, who want to make decisions, not have them made by AFL-CIO staff with minimal consultation. The Change to Win unions want a smaller, centralized bureaucracy and more emphasis on coordinated action among big unions calling the shots.

It seems almost certain that SEIU will leave the federation, perhaps even before the convention. But it’s still unclear whether others will leave and whether Change to Win will become an alternative federation. Ongoing negotiations could bear fruit; for instance, Sweeney might still offer a bigger organizing rebate. There are also discussions under way about creating committees of unions by industry (like the airlines) and redefining federation rules and standards for organizing in a particular industry.

Maybe there’s still room for agreement. The idea that well-conceived strategic campaigns in core industries should receive incentives “is not a controversial issue at all,” argues Wilhelm. “It’s been distorted into the idea that nobody could organize outside their core jurisdiction. If that issue were joined with the president of the AFL-CIO supporting it, it would pass. It’s a no-brainer.” But the dissidents remain ready to play hardball. “We’re prepared to go to the convention and fight it out on resolutions,” says UFCW president Joe Hansen. “The status quo will not stand, and we have to be prepared for other possibilities.”

Sweeney insists labor unity is critical with hostile Republicans in power. “We try very hard to understand why they would split the labor movement during this time when there is such a need for a strong labor movement,” he says. “Anyone who leaves the labor movement is on a path of cynicism, divisiveness and destruction. It sounds like some may be interested in a power struggle.” Wilhelm says leaving would be “gut-wrenching,” but labor’s crisis–such as destruction of airline pensions–demands drastic action. “If the AFL-CIO is going to be a status quo organization, it won’t survive in the long run, and there has to be an alternative labor center,” he argues. “It’s too bad 13 million AFL-CIO members don’t get to vote. No question there would be dramatic change.”

So far the debate has engaged mainly union presidents, not members or even intermediate-level leaders. But unionists trying to build state and local labor movements are worried (not only for the financial loss if SEIU departs, taking 10 percent of the national budget, and more in many localities). “Mostly we feel like we’re children of some great parents who are getting divorced at the worst time of our lives,” says Cleveland central labor council leader John Ryan. Recently Sweeney sent out notices that unions leaving the AFL-CIO, such as the Carpenters or potentially SEIU, can’t participate in its local or state organizations. But enforcing this longstanding rule could intensify conflict within the labor movement. State and local leaders already are trying to figure out ways to follow the rules but maintain labor unity.

Whether a federation breakup precipitates a dreaded labor civil war depends largely on how Sweeney and others deal with groups like Change to Win or local efforts to cooperate after the convention. “So in the end, John runs, and John wins,” observes Laborers president Terry O’Sullivan. “What he wins is a divided labor movement. If that’s reality, how do we manage it? Do we go on attack against those who are out? Do those who are out go on attack on those who are in?” The labor movement has survived with unions operating outside the AFL-CIO, but a major split would weaken labor in the short run and could make the founding of a new movement even more difficult than reforming the old.

Workers would gain from a unified labor movement that resolved many of the AFL-CIO’s inherited weaknesses, at a minimum demanding that unions implement some clear strategic approach to grow and gain power for workers. Besides expanding accountability to members, labor needs ways to hold individual unions accountable to one another for action on fundamental decisions. Unions need both to better coordinate and to act as a movement beyond narrow interests, such as by launching new unions in unorganized sectors. Whatever happens at the convention, the battle over rebuilding a labor movement that overcomes the shortcomings of a half-century merger will continue, with an outcome that is far from certain.

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