Labor Debates How to Rebuild Its House

By Early, Steve | Tikkun, May/June 2005 | Go to article overview

Labor Debates How to Rebuild Its House

Early, Steve, Tikkun

Only 12.9 percent of all U.S. workers are united in unions. Reformists agree on the causes, but disagree on the cure. Leaders at the SEIU advocate a top-down solution, merging unions to create a unified, global strategy. Other reformers advocate a bottom-up strategy, opposing global capital with local grassroots activism. The debate will come to a head at the AFL-CIO's convention in July.

After an ideological rift that existed through labor's greatest growth spurt, the conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the once-radical Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) finally merged in 1955. This marriage between two previously hostile labor federations curtailed further conflict between the craft and industrial unions, but it produced an unhealthy kind of "labor peace." To keep that peace, the union movement avoided introspection, internal debate, and any public airing of union differences. Meanwhile, employer resistance to collective bargaining continued to grow while the percent of workers joining unions began a long and slow decline. From a high point in the early 1950s, when unions represented 35 percent of all workers, today only 12 percent of all workers (and just 8 percent in the private sector) are union members.

In 1995, labor's facade of unity began to fade. John Sweeney, now president of the AFL-CIO, had the audacity to challenge his predecessor, Tom Donahue, an heir to the cold war labor leadership of Lane Kirkland and George Meany. Sweeney's subsequent election was the first such upset victory in one hundred years. During the battle between him and Donahue, there was an equally rare outbreak of programmatic discussion and disagreement about union tactics and strategy. Even though their competing campaigns were rooted in rival AFL-CIO executive council factions, the very existence of an election contest helped legitimate dissent and debate at lower levels of the labor movement. For the first time in living memory, the federation's national convention-the one that chose Sweeney, the reformer, over Donahue, the incumbent-was actually worth attending.

In recent months, Sweeney's failure to arrest labor's decline has triggered another round of "criticism/self-criticism"-even more participatory than the last. As TlKKUN went to press, this contentious process had yet to generate opposition candidates for top positions up for election at the AFL-CIO's "golden anniversary" convention in July-although they could still emerge. So far, the challenge to Sweeney has come from a non-electoral bloc of dissident unions-the New Unity Partnership (NUP)-which first unveiled its criticisms of the status quo in a September 15, 2003, Business Week article, entitled "Breaking Ranks With The AFL-CIO." After last fall's demoralizing defeat of labor-backed Democrat John Kerry, NUP's biggest affiliate-the 1.6 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU)-upped the ante by issuing a more urgent ultimatum to the AFL-CIO: either change (our way) quickly or we're leaving! This headline-grabbing move by SEIU president Andy Stern soon backfired as fellow labor leaders and allies of the SEIU like Bruce Raynor and John Wilhelm, leaders of the recently merged garment worker and hotel and restaurant employees unions (UNITE-HERE), quickly pulled out of their controversial partnership. That doesn't mean, however, that the debate about labor's strategy and structure is over.

The gist of SEIU's complaint with the current union movement is that there are too many small unions-Stern argues that they lack the size, political clout and bargaining strength to go after the megacorps (like Walmart) and corporate oligopolies (like Big Pharma) that dominate U.S. society. According to Andy Stern, even bigger labor organizations lack sufficient "industry focus," with several different ones often representing workers at the same corporation. He contends that union members won't be able to go on the offensive again-as they did in the 1930s-until the AFL-CIO's fifty-eight affiliates consolidate themselves into fifteen or twenty much larger entities, each focused on a particular industry, with more resources and less overlapping jurisdiction. …

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