Magazine article Tikkun

Why the AFL-CIO Split Is Not Labor's Biggest Problem

Magazine article Tikkun

Why the AFL-CIO Split Is Not Labor's Biggest Problem

Article excerpt

The exit of the SEIU from the AFL-CIO in July of this year marked the biggest split in organized labor since the expulsion of the original CIO from the AFL in 1935. This event is bound to accelerate a centrifugal movement already present in labor during the past decade: the break-off of individual units from assorted parent unions and the "raiding" of one union by another for members of assorted locals. Calamity and doom are widely predicted by AFL-CIO loyalists and Democratic party officials. And, especially if you don't look at the broader picture, the doomsayers have a couple of powerful points.

For example, much commentary within and around the labor movement (before and since the split) has been highly negative about the rebels on the solid grounds that the SEIU will not be less bureaucratic than its rivals. Rebutting claims made by the SEIU that larger and more efficient units will necessarily have more success in mobilizing workers, these critics point out that the numerical expansion of union bodies does less than nothing to bring about a much-needed demonetization. Indeed, SEIU leader Andy Stern has espoused an explicitly top-down model of organizing that old-time union activists see as a tragic rebuttal of the egalitarianism the union movement once represented. [See Steve Early's piece in Tikkun, Volume 20, number 3, p. 45.]

And then we have the Democrats. If the labor movement has been staggering downward, its descent has been less rapid than that of the Opposition Party, especially in an era of continued low turnout. Many believe the Democrats will be hurt by this division and the hard feelings engendered. And they may well be right. But whether all this is likely to be as important as, say, the attitude of Democrats in 2006 or 2008 toward an increasingly unpopular war/occupation, remains very much to be seen. What's likely is that hawks and trade-policy neoliberals who used to get AFL support just because they were Democrats will now have a harder time.

These concerns about bureaucracy and politics obscure, however, the raison d'etre of labor. In the past, the workers at the center of the labor movement were blue-collar U.S. factory workers. Today, that view of labor seems unrealistic, since so few Americans work in factories. And that's just the point.

No one in the United States is untouched by capital's notorious "race for the bottom." Looking for ever cheaper labor, global capital outsources the actual task of creating value to immigrant wokers (legal and illegal) and to workers overseas. These workers will perform their labor for pennies on the dollar. On top of their work a new American economy has been constructed, a largely white-collar services-and-finances specialty market. It is illusory, however, to believe that this economy could exist without the low-wage, immigrant, and global labor market. All Americans who get a paycheck have a vital economic relation to this immigrant and global labor force. And that's why tomorrow's labor movement must be legitimately and sincerely internationalist, or its collapse is dead certain.


The history of U.S. labor shows that the union movement is invigorated when it is international, and fails when it looks solely to home. Indeed, the labor history of the past century indicates that internationalism married to disunity may be far better for the union movement than an exclusionary "unity."

The AFL provides a useful measuring stick for the power of internationalism precisely because that federation stood, until the middle 1990s, consistently against immigrant labor and real internationalism. Indeed, in the name of "labor unity" the AFL has had a sad history of excluding non-whites and others who did not "qualify."

Ninety-three years ago, the "Bread and Roses" textile strike shook up both the barons of industry and the staid and conservative AFL. The radically egalitarian Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) sought to unite unskilled and mostly immigrant workers in the United States with their European, Asian, and Latin American counterparts, promising (although never achieving) an international labor movement that would radically change the U. …

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