With the heaving sound of an old tree suddenly splitting apart in a storm, the labor movement is finally breaking up. After four of the country’s largest unions announced they would boycott the AFL-CIO’s late July convention in Chicago, officials from SEIU and the Teamsters announced that they were leaving the federation. Whether they all formally depart the AFL-CIO, the dissident unions–which also include the United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers and UNITE HERE–have formed what amounts to a rival federation in the Change to Win Coalition (CTWC).
Given the stakes, the debate that preceded the split was not all it could have been. Why, if the dissidents meant what they said about not wanting to quit the AFL-CIO, didn’t they run a candidate against John Sweeney? (John Wilhelm of UNITE HERE was the most-discussed potential challenger.) Yes, AFL-CIO conventions have a scripted format and the result may have been foreordained, but it is hard to accept that there was no possibility of changing that culture, of using the occasion of an election to move an agenda from within. The insurgents claim that Sweeney “did everything he could to block real change,” in the words of SEIU’s Tom Woodruff. But those in Sweeney’s camp counter that the CTWC partisans flatly refused to compromise on anything–“my way or the highway” is how they describe SEIU president Andy Stern’s stance.
While Stern may be Mr. Highway (indeed, he likes to talk about “roads” and “signs”), he does have a clear sense of direction: It’s true, as SEIU argues, that having multiple unions compete in a single industrial sector hampers efforts to confront today’s corporate adversaries. Still, in their own organizing strategies, the Teamsters, a key CTWC partner, don’t even practice what the coalition preaches. Maybe CTWC’s innovative approach will pay off, increasing labor’s numbers and political clout, but there are real concerns about the political implications of this messy divorce, coming as it does as progressives struggle to maintain a foothold in the electoral arena. As the CAFTA fight demonstrated, labor needs all the unity–and backbone–it can muster. Both sides recognize the importance of holding Democrats accountable, which is a positive development as long as it means building power for the progressive movement, not making tactical alliances with Republicans who cast an occasional pro-labor vote. (One promising sign that principle lives at the federation: its long-awaited call, urged by US Labor Against the War, for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.)
Now the challenge for both sides is to get beyond recriminations and hold themselves to common goals: maintaining solidarity among workers and their unions; organizing on a much greater scale; building long-term political power for workers; nurturing responsive, democratic local unions; empowering workers of all colors and both genders as leaders; and fostering the rank-and-file class consciousness that makes labor a movement. If the two sides compete to see who does these things better, rather than sniping at and undermining each other, there is a chance that this split could provide the jolt labor needs.