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SEIU's Andrew Stern launches fight in labor federation
Will the AFL-CIO split?

By Lee Sustar | November 19, 2004 | Page 15

IS THE U.S. labor movement on a fast track to a split--or will union leaders cut a deal that preserves the unity of the AFL-CIO?

That question was hanging over a post-election meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council after Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andrew Stern wrote a letter to the 54-member council that called for a radical--and immediate--restructuring of the unions. "[Stern has] alienated a lot of people," a source at the AFL-CIO told Socialist Worker.

While the prospect of a rupture in the short term is real, Stern may also be attempting "to create such a crisis that key people--in multiple camps--will surface as peacemakers in a way that will lead to progress that he doesn't think will happen in any other way," the source said.

In his letter, Stern reiterated his argument for mergers to reduce the number of unions from 60 to less than 20. In this way, he argues, labor could rebuild its membership--now just 12.9 percent of the workforce--in order to eliminate waste and build bargaining strength within their respective industries.

What's new is Stern's demand for quick action--or else. He also called on the AFL-CIO to return half of the dues money it received from its affiliate unions in order to fund organizing drives--and to use royalties from the AFL-CIO's credit card to finance a union drive at Wal-Mart.

The letter was seen as an ultimatum by the New Unity Partnership (NUP), a faction that includes the UNITE HERE garment and hotel union, the Carpenters and Laborers as well as the SEIU. Meanwhile, the SEIU has established a new Web site--unitetowin.org--to promote its strategy.

The question now is whether the NUP will part company with the federation--perhaps after the next AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in February--or launch a fight to take over the AFL-CIO at its next convention, scheduled for July in Chicago.

The NUP has already floated the name of John Wilhelm, former head of the hotel workers' union, as a candidate to replace AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, who's vowed to run for re-election. Wilhelm may be a stalking horse for a figure more amenable to conservative unions--such as Laborers International Union President Terry O'Sullivan. But if the NUP leaders fail to take over, they're likely to simply pull out.

At the UNITE HERE and SEIU conventions earlier this year, Stern raised the prospect of a split in the AFL-CIO. "We either transform the AFL-CIO or build something stronger together," Stern said. His proposals are controversial because they would drain financial resources away from the AFL-CIO bureaucracy--and also threaten the bureaucracies of smaller unions that are merged into larger ones.

Stern's strongest critic is International Association of Machinists (IAM) President Thomas Buffenbarger, who has vowed to pull his union out of the AFL-CIO if Stern's proposals are imposed.

There's a history here. Buffenbarger is seen as the person most responsible for the failure of the proposed union merger of the IAM, the United Auto Workers and the United Steelworkers of America several years ago--because he didn't want to give up his job. The failure of that metalworkers' union merger is cited by Stern as a symbol of labor leaders' willingness to put their individual fiefdoms ahead of the interests of the labor movement as a whole.

There's no doubt that Stern is right on that score. Most unions are in the grip of sclerotic bureaucracies that have shown themselves incapable of resisting employers' demands for concessions or reversing their slide in membership.

Whether Stern's and the NUP's strategy can turn the labor movement around is another question altogether. As many critics in the labor movement have pointed out, the NUP plan to restructure the labor movement undermines union democracy in favor of powerful, centralized labor bureaucracies. Central labor councils that link unions at the city and county level would be eliminated, according to a key NUP strategy document.

The model for this is the SEIU itself, which grew substantially through mergers as it became the largest union in the AFL-CIO with 1.6 million members. Stern concentrated power in his hands by putting corrupt--or rebellious--locals into trusteeships and appointing his allies to run them.

This highlights the assumptions of the NUP--that the solution to labor's problems lies with giving power to farsighted leaders and their technocrats, rather than giving voice and power to the membership.

To be sure, mergers to build union power makes sense in some cases--but this is something that should be presented to the rank and file for debate, discussion and a decision. And union size doesn't always equal power--or competence. After all, the United Food and Commercial Workers union was created through mergers to become one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO--but the union's highly paid bureaucrats made one disastrous decision after another in the defeat of the six-month Southern California grocery strike earlier this year.

And despite the furor around the NUP proposals, Stern's faction shares the same framework of his rival union leaders--partnership with the employers and automatic support for the Democratic Party.

Stern did declare that the Democrats were a "hollow party" on the eve of the Democratic National Convention--and said that a victory by George W. Bush might be a better outcome because it would force the party and the labor movement to confront their crisis. Yet Stern went on to give the "hollow party" $65 million, a full-time staff of 2,000 SEIU members and nearly 1,000 SEIU staffers, plus 50,000 rank-and-file volunteers--and didn't make a peep as John Kerry ran the most conservative Democratic presidential campaign in decades. Is this really a sign of the SEIU's political savvy?

To be fair, the SEIU has broken with the Democrats on occasion--to support Republicans like New York Gov. George Pataki and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

Seeking partnership with employers is also a hallmark of SEIU's "high road" approach of making deals with employers to allow new organizing in return for common strategy on industry matters.

There's no indication that the NUP is willing to break from concessions bargaining in which union leaders have failed to resist--or advocated--massive givebacks to Corporate America.

Organizing the unorganized is key to labor's survival as a social force--but every concession by unionized workers makes it that much more difficult to champion the interests of unorganized workers. The labor movement renewed itself in the 1930s in conditions much worse than today's by the militant and direct action of millions and workers--with radicals, socialists and communists at the center of the struggle.

The union leaders who split away to form the Congress of Industrial Organizations were responding to pressure from below. Today's debate, by contrast, has so far been conducted around boardroom tables and lengthy documents.

The prospect of a split in the AFL-CIO, however, is likely to lead to a wider discussion in the labor movement. When that happens, the rank and file will need to make its own voice heard.

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