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AFL-CIO Leaders Move Forward
A re you worried about the future of the labor movement? Are you working longer hours for less money than workers like you have for decades? Have you noticed the rapid decline of union power in your workplace and our society?
If you’re a union member in the U.S., the answer to these questions is likely “yes, yes, and yes.” What you should also know is that, in the past year or so, some union presidents have come to the conclusion that labor’s crisis is now so severe that drastic, immediate action is necessary.
To some officials, the leaders of SEIU and UNITE HERE in particular, this crisis is largely a function of the labor movement’s size and structure. These unions argue that the labor movement’s decline in power is a result of its declining membership and that unions are not able to organize effectively because the AFL-CIO’s structure doesn’t make sense.
Certainly, it would be hard to argue that the AFL-CIO’s structure is good for workers. In 1988, Labor Notes co-founder Kim Moody wrote about the “decline of industrial unionism” in his book An Injury to All . Moody noted that unions such as the Teamsters, SEIU, CWA, UFCW, and the UAW had largely abandoned the model of one union representing one industry and were picking up new members wherever they could. This was not, Moody made clear, strengthening workers’ bargaining power.
But size and structure don’t equal power, though they are important factors. The Teamsters and UAW were both massive unions that had the auto and trucking industries densely organized as recently as the 1970s, yet both suffered severe declines in their core industries over the past three decades. This decline was partly due to actions taken by employers and the government and partly due to the unions’ own failures.
The Teamsters and UAW were, and are, business unions. Starting with Chrysler in 1979, the UAW has led the way in accepting concessions on wages and benefits for its members and also took the lead in working with employers to implement lean production and labor-management cooperation programs (which ultimately had a devastating effect on union power) in the workplace.
The Teamsters did little to fight trucking deregulation in the early 1980s and supported the employers’ demands for a two-tier wage scale and other concessions in the second National Master Freight Agreement in 1983.
Neither union has displayed a willingness to use creative, militant tactics to fight the employers. Neither union has tried to organize the non-union workers in its own traditional industry through a widespread, member-based, strategic campaign.
Both unions are antidemocratic, with leaders preferring to keep their members uninformed, disengaged, and far removed from decision making.
Other forces, political and economic, were at play in these unions’ declines, but complacent, incompetent leadership combined with disempowered, disengaged membership were certainly critical factors. We can argue about different models, but if we can’t effectively use the power we have now, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to do much better after we’ve shuffled a bunch of members into different unions with the same policies.
Moreover, the very idea of shuffling members from union to union illustrates that union leaders are oblivious to one key point, which is that unions’ internal culture and functioning differ greatly from each other.
Shifting members from SEIU into AFSCME, for example, doesn’t just mean that an activist who wore purple now wears green—it means shifting workers who had participated in SEIU’s internal political life and learned how to navigate through its constitution, bylaws, and political landscape into a new environment where they don’t know the ropes and, at least initially, will find it harder to exert member control.
Though they have a lot to say about structure, the unions pushing restructuring have not yet come to agreement on how to achieve their model. SEIU’s plan, as laid out in their Unite to Win proposal, is to give the AFL-CIO Executive Council the authority to force union mergers, revoke union charters, and shuffle members around however they see fit. UNITE HERE and the Teamsters have a softer approach—the Teamsters have proposed encouraging unions to merge by providing financial incentives.
Yet Teamsters President James Hoffa clearly agrees with SEIU that the AFL-CIO executive council needs to have more authority over its affiliates. Hoffa even takes it a step further, proposing that the size of the executive council be reduced to representatives of the 10 or 15 largest U.S. unions.
SEIU President Andy Stern immediately stepped forward to praise Hoffa, signaling the appearance of an unlikely alliance between a union with a reputation for innovative and progressive practices (SEIU) and a union notorious for internal corruption (the Teamsters).
Teamster corruption under the Hoffa administration is more than just rumor. Former federal prosecutor Ed Stier—who had directed the Teamsters’ internal anti-corruption program, Project RISE—resigned from his post in April 2004, saying that “organized crime” threatened the Teamsters and that “Jim Hoffa is no longer committed to an aggressive effort to clean up the union.”
More recently, in January 2005 Hoffa’s chief of staff Carlow Scalf was caught embezzling $69,500 in union funds—and given no more punishment than a two month suspension, with the possibility of returning to his job, which remained open. These types of embezzling scandals have been a recurring theme under Hoffa’s regime.
Corrupt leaders like Hoffa have long been one the labor movement’s biggest problems. Any serious proposal for reforming the AFL-CIO should include strengthening rank-and-file reform networks so that union members could take power and give leaders like Hoffa the boot.
These union leaders’ brainstorms have prompted responses from other union leaders, but, as Bill Lucy—head of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists—has noted, these leaders have done little to encourage participation from the folks who have the most at stake: rank-and-file members.
Lucy also notes that while black workers make up 30 percent of organized labor’s ranks, the unions pushing restructuring have not made any concerted effort to have people of color’s interests represented in these debates.
SEIU recently launched a website (www.unitetowin.org) “as a tool for open debate” about the future of the labor movement, but emails and weblog postings are no substitute for real conversation.
Local union meetings, conventions, and other mechanisms for face-to-face discussion about labor’s future are already in place. Members should use these mechanisms to debate these proposals, which may have a great deal of impact on how much power they will have in their unions and workplaces in the years to come.
This article was written before the March 2005 meeting of the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Coming out of this meeting, an alliance has formed that appears poised to challenge AFL-CIO President John Sweeney at this summer’s AFL-CIO Convention. The alliance—led by SEIU, the Teamsters, UNITE HERE, and UFCW —was most aggressive at the meeting in pushing for a massive dues cut from the AFL-CIO, rather than forced restructuring of the federation. As Herman Benson of the Association of Union Democracy wrote in January 2005, SEIU and the other unions who began these debates by calling “for a crusade to reorganize the world of labor” look like they’d be ready to settle for a tax cut.
William Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn.
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