Look Who’s Walking

Look Who’s Walking

David Moberg reports on the union dissidents leaving the AFL-CIO.


After months of debate on union strategy at the top echelons of the American labor movement, union leaders could finally agree on one thing: Sunday, July 24, the day before the opening of the fiftieth anniversary of the merger of the AFL and CIO, was an important milestone. But that’s as far as the agreement went.

For Steelworkers president Leo Gerard, a supporter of incumbent AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, it was a “tragic day,” and a carefully orchestrated rally to generate enthusiasm for Sweeney’s re-election had a decidedly discouraged and disappointed undercurrent.

A few blocks away, a few hours later, the mood was defiantly optimistic at a press conference called by the Change to Win Coalition to announce that the Service Employees (SEIU), Teamsters, UNITE HERE (textile and hotel workers) and UFCW (food and commercial workers) had all decided to boycott the convention. Officials of these unions also declared that they would not serve in any AFL-CIO office, including its Executive Council. “This is an exciting day, and a proud moment in the history of the labor movement,” declared Anna Burger, SEIU secretary-treasurer and president of the Change to Win Coalition.

This was the prelude to announcements on Monday that SEIU and the Teamsters were ending their affiliation with the AFL-CIO. Two other Change to Win unions, the Laborers and the Farmworkers, the newest member of the coalition, participated in the convention, but along with UNITE HERE and UFCW they are still deliberating whether to remain in the federation. The Carpenters, who recently joined Change to Win, have already disaffiliated. In October Change to Win unions will formalize a new organization that seems destined to be a rival to the AFL-CIO.

Will the day ultimately be seen as the moment when a tragic split tore apart the labor movement, or as a turning point yielding a reversal of fortune for a steadily declining movement? That depends in part on how the relationship between the two federations plays out. If it really develops as a test of different strategies to organize and gain power, competition could inspire harder and more creative work. But if it degenerates into fights and rising antagonism, then the split could weaken labor even further. There is also a third possibility: It could turn out that the split really has no big effect at all. Some unions may grow while others stagnate, as has been true in recent years.

Close observers are now watching for signs of whether each side is genuinely willing to cooperate with the other, as both sides have pledged to do, in the progress of negotiations over no-raiding agreements (AFSCME, the public workers union, and SEIU are talking but have reached no agreement) and whether the Change to Win unions will be permitted to continue to contribute to and participate in state and local labor federations.

Clearly, the Sweeney camp fears the loss of some of its biggest and most active unions, along with close to a third of the dues income of the AFL-CIO if the entire coalition leaves. The boycott was, Sweeney said to the convention, a “grievous insult” to the labor movement that especially “dishonors the founders and the members of my own union,” SEIU. On Sunday AFL-CIO executive vice president Linda Chavez-Thompson lumped the Change to Win Coalition in with the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and Wal-Mart as organizations trying to divide and weaken labor.

The question on everyone’s mind is why the split happened. Last year, when SEIU president Andy Stern declared that the AFL-CIO had to drastically change or his union would lead the effort to be something new, he said that the issue was the direction labor was heading, not who was at the helm. But by the end, the issue was also who was in charge.

SEIU vice president Tom Woodruff argued that the unions in Change to Win had a “commitment to organize in the right way and in core industries. I don’t see it in the others. That’s why the split is the right thing. There are basically two different schools of thought on how to revitalize the labor movement. If both work, great. Hopefully, one will.”

Labor needed drastic changes, the Change to Win leaders repeatedly asserted, but Sweeney offered only cosmetic ones. But leaders from the other side stressed how few differences they saw between the proposals from each camp on issues like establishing industry coordinating committees, setting guidelines to prevent destructive competition in organizing, encouraging more mergers and giving the biggest unions more power over AFL-CIO policy. They expressed frustration that in negotiations Change to Win leaders were unwilling to compromise or make clear what their bottom-line demands were.

There was one big difference: The Change to Win unions insisted on rebating half of dues to big unions spending 10 percent of budgets on organizing in core industries and spending all income from union credit cards on major organizing campaigns like Wal-Mart. The Sweeney camp, seeing that proposal as wiping out much of the AFL-CIO operation (precisely as Change to Win unions intended), called for less spending on organizing, demanding higher commitments from individual unions themselves.

Change to Win leaders also insisted that the AFL-CIO’s new rules and structures to guide organizing weren’t sufficiently tough. UNITE HERE hospitality president John Wilhelm argued that the dominant unions in an industry needed more control of industry councils if they were to work, for example. But other analysts questioned whether such strategic details were adequate grounds for disaffiliation or whether Change to Win unions couldn’t have done much of what they wanted and still remain within the AFL-CIO.

The answer seems to be that the Change to Win unions wanted to implement their plans without compromise and look forward to starting afresh.

When Sweeney refused to embrace Change to Win proposals at the March AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting and bring 10 to 15 percent of the rest of labor to give them a majority, the issue became one of his leadership as well, Woodruff said. “They chose to resist change,” he said. “That’s when leadership became the issue. Sweeney made the decision and did everything he could to block real change.”

In the end, Change to Win unions wanted to have power to name the next AFL-CIO president when Sweeney steps down, possibly in two years. Many unions do not want secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka to have an inside track to succeed Sweeney. “I think it boiled down to who’s going to be the successor to John Sweeney,” said AFSCME president Gerry McEntee. “They wanted to be very specific. I think it has to be democratic.” McEntee said he was willing to support changes that would guarantee that a vote to replace any officer who stepped down was a secret ballot weighted by membership, giving the Change to Win unions considerable influence, but it was not enough.

Change to Win unions portrayed the division in the labor movement as separating unions that believed it was possible to grow from those who didn’t. Stern had little interest in even discussing reaffiliation, but he thinks the AFL-CIO, Change to Win and other unions, like the NEA, might someday come together in a newly unified labor movement. “Our goal is not to divide the labor movement, but to rebuild it,” Stern said as SEIU made its announcement of disaffiliation from the offices of its Local 1 in Chicago. That will stand as the yardstick for their actions in the years to come.

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