Battle Over Tactics May Split Labor Federation

By E.J. Kessler

Published July 22, 2005, issue of July 22, 2005.
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A looming fight may lead to the breakup of the country’s major labor federation — and to changes in the way unions organize and wield their political clout.

At the heart of the struggle is the future of the AFL-CIO, the 57-union federation headed by president John Sweeney. His leadership is being challenged by a group of five dissident unions, representing some 5 million of the 13 million workers in the AFL-CIO.

In mid June, the dissidents — the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Laborers’ International Union and the combined needle worker-hotel worker union Unite Here — formed an alliance named the Change to Win Coalition. The coalition — led by Andrew Stern, the swashbuckling, 54-year-old head of the service employees union, a powerhouse of organizing — demanded a number of major changes at the federation, including that the AFL-CIO devote half of its budget to organizing workers and that it force mergers of unions by industry.

The fight is expected to come to a head at the AFL-CIO’s 50th-anniversary convention, which will take place July 25-28 in Chicago.

Whether the unions stay in the AFL-CIO or pull out, most members of the labor movement agree that the stakes in the fight are enormous. The labor movement has shrunk to about 8% of the private-sector work force — the same percentage as in 1901 — from about a third 50 years ago. (The percentage in the public sector is somewhat higher.) Deindustrialization, globalization and aggressive anti-union moves by the business community have contributed to a feeling among unions that, in the words of Teamsters President James Hoffa, “Working people are

facing the worst crisis in generations and radical changes are required in the way we as a labor movement operate.”

Even as labor’s share of the work force has diminished, its share of the electorate has grown to about a quarter of voters in 2004, thanks largely to the efforts of Sweeney, who has headed the AFL-CIO for 10 years. But Stern and other critics are not satisfied with Sweeney’s strategy — which has failed to put a Democrat in the White House or to produce pro-labor gains in the Republican-controlled, pro-business Congress.

“This is a pivotal moment in American labor history,” said Esta Bigler, director of the New York metropolitan office of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Bigler pointed to legislation pending in Congress, known as the Secret Ballot Protection Act, which seeks to outlaw the use of “card check” as an organizing tool, as an example of the anti-labor mood prevalent in Washington.

Sweeney, Bigler said, “has built an amazing political operation.” Stern, however, “takes the position that politics has not brought changes in the labor law that prevent employer coercion and allow workers to freely organize.”

Stern’s view, Bigler said, is that “the labor movement needs to concentrate on organizing. Once you have union density, then the politics will follow.”

The Change to Win Coalition disagrees with Sweeney’s strategy of allying the labor movement closely with the Democratic Party. Hoffa and the general president of Unite Here, Bruce Raynor, have been vocal advocates of a bipartisan strategy. “We think the Democrats have not been loyal allies as a party,” Raynor told the Forward in an interview last year.

There are also some nakedly political forces at play in the Sweeney-Stern rivalry, according to labor activists. If Sweeney remains as president, the Change to Win Coalition would like to control the AFL-CIO’s powerful number-two slot, the secretary- treasurer, now occupied by Richard Trumka. If it can’t, the likelihood of the coalition’s unions leaving increases. If that happens, however, and the coalition sets up a rival federation, a free-for-all could ensue, with AFL-CIO unions raiding service-employees locals in retaliation.

In particular, Unite Here — an ailing entity whose needle-trades half was a merger of the old Jewish-led Internal Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union — risks much by leaving. Unite Here has one premier financial asset: the Amalgamated Bank. The bank houses the funds of many AFL-CIO unions, which may pull their money if Unite Here exits the federation. Business Week reported July 15 that “Sweeney and other AFL-CIO officers have urged allies to cut off the Amalgamated Bank” if Unite Here leaves. As an opening shot, the Sweeney-allied Communications Workers of America recently pulled $50 million from the Amalgamated Bank after Unite Here filed a complaint with the AFL-CIO, and a lawsuit charging the communications workers union with poaching.

Former Sweeney aide Bill Fletcher Jr., president of TransAfrica Forum, agreed that a split appears likely.

“It’s not clear that the reform proposals submitted by Change to Win are substantive enough to address the crisis the union movement is facing,” he said, urging that the federation adopt a resolution to give further study to the matter.

What’s more, Fletcher said, “Workers of color are particularly angry about this debate because it really feels like a group of white guys throwing spitballs at one another. There’s a whole lot of testosterone in this debate.”

The Sweeney forces appear confident that they will prevail. “The differences between the proposals for change are not too wide, and progress has been made on a couple of major issues,” Sweeney told The Associated Press last week. “A split would be bad for workers.”

Sweeney’s chief of staff, Bob Welsh, predicted this week in a memo to AFL-CIO staff that Sweeney and Trumka would be re-elected and that the federation would stay together. “Issues where there are disagreements now will be negotiated and compromise solutions will be found,” Welsh wrote in the memo, which was posted on the blog Working Life.

Stern’s union, however, remains defiant.

“If the gaps don’t close,” said the spokesman of the Service Employees International union, Ben Boyd, “we have made clear… we will leave the [AFL-CIO] to pursue a strategy we think will more directly affect the problems of workers on a daily basis.”

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