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Rival union camps share the same strategy
What now after the split in the AFL-CIO?

August 5, 2005 | Page 7

LEE SUSTAR reports from Chicago on the split in the AFL-CIO and its significance for organized labor.

CALL IT the wishbone strategy: Grab hold of a big part of the labor movement, give a hard pull and hope to end up with the biggest piece. That's the method of the seven-union Change to Win coalition, whose three biggest members pulled out of the AFL-CIO during and after the labor federation's convention held July 25-28 in Chicago.

By running away with nearly a third of the AFL-CIO's membership and budget, the disaffiliated unions--the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the Teamsters, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)--aim to create a rival group that would effectively cripple the 50-year-old federation.

Another coalition member, the Carpenters, already pulled out of the AFL-CIO several years ago. UNITE HERE, the hotel and textile workers' union, the Laborers International Union and the United Farm Workers of America remained inside the federation as of the end of July.

SEIU President Andrew Stern justifies the split as necessary to organize the 87 percent of U.S. workers not in unions. Stern orchestrated his press conferences in Chicago to feature plain talk about the challenges facing workers--in the hopes of creating a contrast with the ponderous AFL-CIO convention.

Indeed, the scripted federation meeting lumbered along with the usual parade of Democratic Party politicians.

The welcome exception was the passage--by an overwhelming majority of delegates--of an unprecedented resolution that called for the rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the product of more than a year of organizing by members of U.S. Labor Against the War.

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THE DIFFERENCES between labor's rival camps turned out to be narrower than either side cared to admit. As Jerry Tucker, a former dissident official in the United Auto Workers, observed, both camps aim to "save business unionism"--the type of labor-management partnership that employers rejected three decades ago.

The next battlefield will be state AFL-CIO federations and labor councils--where the disaffiliated unions plan to keep paying dues in a bid to buy support at the local level that they couldn't muster at the top of labor officialdom. AFL-CIO leaders responded by pushing through a series of bureaucratic war measures that aim to expel disaffiliated unions from state and local bodies and remove their members who serve as officers.

Some have likened the Change to Win breakaway to the militant Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in the 1930s, which organized in the mass production industries. But this comparison has more to do with the SEIU's slick public relations than reality.

The CIO, after all, was launched by dissident AFL leaders in 1935 as a means to put themselves at the head of a rank-and-file rebellion that resulted in general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco the previous year.

The current split, by contrast, comes amid the lowest ebb in strike activity since the late 1940s. And union leaders on both sides of the divide are doing their best to keep the situation that way--by pressuring members to accept tens of billions in wage and benefit concessions and job cuts.

For example, Stern's latest ally, UFCW President Joe Hansen, has presided over a series of terrible grocery contracts--following the debacle of last year's Southern California strike against the industry's three biggest companies.

Hansen is the man who removed the elected leadership of UFCW Local P-9 during its dramatic strike against concessions at the Hormel Co. in the 1980s--and then negotiated givebacks with management. The UFCW leader remains "proud" of his role in the P-9 strike, he said in an interview. "It's because of me that there's still a union in that plant," he said.

Hansen's methods--accept a steady stream of concessions rather than call a strike that would risk union resources--are shared by union leaders across the divide. Pushing concessions to help management "partners" remain profitable necessarily means lowering union members' expectations and demobilizing them, rather than relying on them to help organize new members.

If unions can't stop concessions--exemplified currently by the wipeout of pension funds at United Airlines, the halving of wages in auto parts plants, and the end of affordable health insurance for grocery store workers--then why should nonunion workers risk getting fired to sign up?

And if Teamsters President James Hoffa was willing to sabotage the Southern California grocery strike by allowing his members to maintain deliveries to scab stores, why should relatively well-paid Wal-Mart truck drivers join his union?

For all the talk about organizing, Hoffa--who recently suppressed an internal report on Mafia involvement in the Teamsters--gave away his motivation for the split by repeatedly mentioning the $10 million in annual dues that the Teamsters will no longer have to pay to the AFL-CIO.

This is why the dispute between AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the Stern-Hoffa camp turned on the relatively narrow question of dues rebates from the national federation to fund organizing drives by the unions.

While Stern and Hoffa rightly criticized the AFL-CIO for pouring too much money into the Democratic Party, Stern also pointed out at a press conference that his union gave more money to the Democrats than the AFL-CIO--hardly a signal of independent labor politics.

Certainly more money for organizing is crucial to organized labor's future. But even if more resources are put into organizing, this won't overcome the fatally flawed methods used by the competing groups.

In one union, an organizer might be a well-paid business agent in a Lincoln Navigator; in another, an idealistic young organizer fresh from college willing to work 18-hour days for little money. But the basic approach is the same--a cadre of full-time staff organizers kept on a short leash by union officials, even as rank-and-file members become bitter towards their unions for failing to stand up to employer attacks.

What's different about Stern's SEIU is the use of corporate campaign strategies to support organizing--using public relations and community support to pressure employers into signing "card-check" agreements in which management recognizes the union if a simple majority sign membership cards.

While this approach has occasionally worked at the local level, Stern and the UFCW's Hansen now apparently intend to use this method against Wal-Mart--having somehow concluded that a breakaway faction of the labor movement already at its weakest point in 80 years is prepared to mount a frontal assault on the biggest and most viciously anti-union employer in the country.

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TO COUNTER Stern and the Change to Win coalition, the rest of the labor bureaucracy closed ranks around Sweeney. But if Stern's appeal for "change" sounded hollow as he stood with the likes of Hansen and Hoffa, the same was true of Sweeney's appeal for unity in the "house of labor."

That's because the AFL-CIO convention was dominated by people who rose through the ranks of their unions' one-party states by being yes-men and women who ruthlessly crush dissent. Thus, convention delegates listened sullenly as a self-perpetuating group of leaders responded to the breakup of their apparatus by reflexively tightening their grip on what remains.

The federation did respond to pressure with a pre-convention conference on diversity, later backed up by constitutional changes to make future convention delegations reflect the racial and gender composition of union memberships.

But the middle-aged and elderly white faces that dominated convention proceedings--Sweeney, American Federation of Teachers President Edward McElroy and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Gerald McEntee--were redolent of the status quo. A somewhat younger newcomer was Steelworkers President Leo Gerard, a Canadian who emerged as an enforcer for Sweeney to keep the manufacturing unions in line.

In the weeks and months ahead, union members and labor activists will be pressured to line up behind one or another camp. They will have to fight to keep the disaffiliation at the top of the AFL-CIO from tearing apart the labor movement at the grassroots.

At the same time, they will have to put forward a different perspective for building a fighting labor movement--one that draws the line against concessions, mobilizes support for organizing drives within and between unions, and takes independent political action.

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