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Union leaders retreat from challenge to AFL-CIO
Why did the NUP disband?

By Lee Sustar and Alan Maass | Janury 28, 2005 | Page 11

THE NEW Unity Partnership (NUP)--a grouping of five major unions demanding reforms in the AFL-CIO--has disbanded shortly before an expected showdown at the federation's Executive Council meeting in February, according to a news report.

The formation of the NUP in 2003--which brought together the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the soon-to-be-merged UNITE textile union and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) union, with the more conservative Carpenters and Laborers unions--sent shock waves through the labor movement. Leaders of the NUP were sharply critical of the AFL-CIO's lack of initiative in the face of labor's declining membership and waning political clout.

Central to the NUP's program for reform was a proposal to push for mergers among the federation's 58 member unions. The idea was to encourage the creation of a handful of big unions--no more than two dozen total--that would be capable of giving labor the leverage it needs to bargain for real gains.

Leaders of the NUP unions also proposed to reduce the AFL-CIO's staff--and encourage member unions to devote the resources saved to organizing.

Following last November's election disaster for labor, SEIU President Andrew Stern even issued a veiled threat that his union would pull out of the federation if the NUP's demands weren't met.

Even before this, though, the NUP sparked a backlash among the leaders of other unions. United Steelworkers of America (USWA) President Leo Gerard dismissed the NUP as "five guys sitting around and talking...They don't represent the labor movement."

In December, the Teamsters union produced its own statement on labor's future, with some proposals similar to the NUP's, but presented with more diplomatic language and no threats about splitting the federation. According to the Harold Myerson of American Prospect magazine, this seems to have given union leaders a middle road to embrace--between doing nothing or joining with the NUP.

Now, the NUP itself has disbanded, according to Myerson--and its leading figures are claiming that they succeeded in getting the labor movement headed in the right direction. "I think it served its purpose," Bruce Raynor, co-president of UNITE HERE and a leading figure in the NUP, told the American Prospect. "It sparked this great debate in the labor movement, which is what we wanted...Hopefully, the AFL-CIO now becomes the vehicle to reform the labor movement."

But given labor's record over the past year, that's a slender hope.

In the airlines--the private-sector industry where union membership is highest--labor has given up tens of billions of dollars in concessions since 2002, including huge pay cuts and enormous job losses. The two unions most hostile to the NUP--the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Association of Machinists (IAM)--have either surrendered to, or actively pushed, concessions.

Elsewhere, the United Auto Workers (UAW) suffered another awful setback in its new contract at Caterpillar, where new hires will earn just $10 per hour--half the old scale--at a company heading for $2 billion in profits this year. These givebacks follow the UAW's concessions in the auto industry in 2003, where the union agreed to cut pay for new hires in parts plants to just over half what current workers make.

Girard's USWA presided over deals that eliminated health care and pensions for 200,000 retirees at several bankrupt steel companies. And recently, the steelworkers union, which once had nearly 1 million members, was forced by declining membership to merge with the paper and chemical workers' union PACE.

Labor's full-scale retreat in industries that were once its strongholds isn't going to inspire non-union workers to risk being fired for daring to organize.

This is why the talk about a renewed commitment to organizing--whether it comes from the NUP or any other union leader--rings hollow. New organizing is desperately needed, but it has to go hand in hand with a renewed commitment to saving labor's base in U.S. industry--or neither approach can expect much success.

The response from union leaders is that it's "unrealistic" to take job actions, for example, in the airlines. But the choice is between a coordinated resistance that has the potential to shut down the airlines and demand a real government bailout--or continued acceptance of the logic of labor-management "partnership" in which union leaders help executives restore profits at workers' expense.

The NUP's decision to disband shows the limits that were always inherent in its approach. NUP leaders like Stern and Raynor accept the logic of "partnership" with management. Their vision of reform is top-down.

The hope for turning around the labor movement lies in the opposite direction--rebuilding labor's strength at the rank-and-file level.

With Corporate America on the offensive, this isn't an easy task. But it's far more realistic to rely on the potential of rank-and-file workers--union and nonunion--to organize and fight back than it is to pin our hopes on union leaders' blueprints for restructuring unions.

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