The best that can be said about the split in organized labor, which occurred on July 25, opening day of the AFL-CIO’s fiftieth-anniversary convention in Chicago, is that perhaps the principles of chaos theory will play out in interesting ways. By that theory, the slightest variation in conditions can drastically change the long-term behavior of a system. Or, as chaos pioneer Edward Lorenz put it, “One flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.”
The defection of first the Teamsters and Service Employees (SEIU) and a few days later the Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) is a bit more momentous than the flap of a bird’s wings, costing the labor federation some 4 million members and $30 million in annual dues and establishing the basis for a rival federation, the Change to Win Coalition. But in every way beyond the material it is, so far, insubstantial. No political vibrancy or meaningful debate, no fundamental power shift or even analysis, no movement mojo, nothing revolutionary or even progressive is discernible in the schism. Except as props or fodder for rhetoric, workers have been left out. They may yet demand in, but how and by what mechanism no one can say.
In Chicago on the day of the split, each side fulfilled the other’s caricature of it. At Navy Pier the convention came to order in a vast, darkened hall, with prayer, color guard and solemn praise for “the greatest labor federation on earth.” “Unity” was proclaimed from the dais, from the slogan on vest-backs of convention staff, from screen projections as if nothing were amiss; as if four major unions (the three that ultimately split and UNITE HERE) had not ceased paying dues some months before and were not now boycotting the convention, as if people in the hall were not seething and insulted, and crisis were not all around.
“This is surreal,” a building trades activist kept repeating. In the visitors’ section, international trade unionists were mystified. Business unfolded as usual. Politicians paraded on to extend their greetings and score their points, and silence or veiled reference addressed the issue foremost in everyone’s mind.
In the bright, cramped offices of SEIU Local 1, where the Teamsters’ James Hoffa kicked off the lunchtime press conference announcing the split, “Change to Win” was as contentless as “Unity” had been at Navy Pier. The day before, Joe Hansen of UFCW had told reporters that the coalition’s differences with the AFL were “principled and fundamental” but couldn’t explain them. Now Hoffa seemed to settle the matter by emphasizing the $10 million a year that the Teamsters would save by not paying into the federation. On organizing in core union sectors, one of the stated missions uniting the coalition partners, he mentioned trucking but referred more often to opportunities for the Teamsters to organize casino workers–gesturing fraternally toward UNITE HERE, which elsewhere is suing another union for encroaching on its claimed casino sector.
For his part, SEIU’s Andy Stern seemed focused on history. The split, he said, was intended “not to divide the labor movement but to rebuild it.” He said SEIU had no interest in raiding, the age-old practice of hitting on another union’s members to get them to switch affiliations. Yet as he spoke, his operatives in California were in the midst of raiding an AFSCME local for 10,000 home-care workers under contract with Riverside County.
In the question period, Stern welcomed comparisons with the CIO, which emerged from a split within the American Federation of Labor in 1935, though unlike the current fissure, not before decades of mass rank-and-file industrial organizing. He spoke of bold, fundamental change, change that doesn’t dilly-dally with consensus. Days later, in an interview with CNBC-TV, he sounded like a throwback to labor dinosaurs of the 1980s: “Well, our labor movement was built around an industrial economy back in the 1930s. It was sort of a class struggle kind of unionism, but workers in today’s economy are not looking for unions to cause problems; they’re looking for them to solve them, and this means just like Ireland where business and labor and government all began to work together, we need team America to really work together.”
Team America? When a government-corporate combine is striking against union rights, civil rights, social rights, and in some parts the only sure job is in prison? Back at Navy Pier, the president of a Massachusetts electrical workers local said, “There’s got to be something between pork chops and Kool-Aid,” shorthand for, in the first case, bureaucrats who simply want to manage decline and who exist in every AFL and Change to Win union, and, in the second case, bureaucrats or their acolytes who have an inflated sense of their own superiority. That other “something” has yet to be named, but a move toward it is the only wing-flapping that might alter the course of labor’s heavy weather for the good.
In the convention’s aftermath there are at least interesting questions. Will anything emerge to fill the void left by two unsatisfactory forces, to develop a strategy helpful to union workers and the working class? Will local unionists, who had no real say in the split, find ways to exercise solidarity and coordinate political action? Will blacks, Latinos, women, gays, all the people who for years have been pressuring national unions and the AFL to go beyond window-dressing inclusion, be able to use the federation’s just-passed diversity resolutions to shake up labor leadership, vision, decision-making? Will anything be made organizationally of the historic antiwar resolution? How will Change to Win function once it institutionalizes itself on September 27 and SEIU has to maintain operational unity and political cohesion with the conservative Carpenters, Teamsters and UFCW? Will other unions disaffiliate from the AFL? Will locals disaffiliate from the Change to Win unions? Will the AFL directly affiliate locals? Will Government Employees’ president John Gage press on with a proposal for a serious top-to-bottom debate within the AFL on the nature of work, the economy and organizational strategies needed to meet them? Will anyone develop an independent, inside-outside people’s political agenda, as Jesse Jackson passionately urged at the convention, or will disappointment with the Democrats and organizational disarray mean what it has so far among Change to Win and some AFL unions: money and support for Republicans?
Perhaps, as a North Carolina unionist wrote to me, “Pain is the only motivator for action,” and we’re in for exciting days. Just as likely, we’re in for bloodletting and fragmentation. Either way, it’s no time for romantics.