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The AFL-CIO Split
What next for organized labor?
T wo events of particular import occurred the last week of July: the AFL-CIO split and CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Agreement) was passed by Congress. The consequences of the former are yet to be determined. The impact of the latter are much less uncertain.
The coalition of unions departing from the AFL-CIO, known as the Change To Win (CTW) group, consists of 7 major unions representing 7 million union workers, 40 percent of the AFL-CIO’s membership base, and more than a fifth of the federation’s budget. They include the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), United Farm- workers of America, UNITE HERE (the union of hotel, hospitality and clothing workers), and two construction unions—the Laborers International Union and Carpenters Union.
At one level the split and the crisis of the AFL-CIO is about the precipitous decline of union membership, which has fallen steadily since its peak in the mid-1950s at around 35 percent of the workforce. The decline began to occur more rapidly in the early 1980s during the Reagan period as the corporate assault on workers and unions intensified. It has been accelerating even more since George W. Bush took office in 2001. Today only 12.5 percent of the total U.S. workforce, including all public employees, is unionized. Only 7.8 percent of the private sector has unions, the lowest since 1931.
The decline in union membership is due to various causes. But at the center lies the “free trade” policies implemented over the past 25 years and the failure of the AFL-CIO to develop any effective strategy to check the corporate trade offensive.
Twelve million quality jobs have been lost in the U.S. between 1980-2005. Eight million of those jobs have been lost due to corporate free trade policies alone and the massive exportation of the U.S. manufacturing base and jobs offshore, which has been the direct result of those policies. Over a million jobs were lost due to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) originated under George Bush senior in 1988 and passed under Clinton in 1993. Another two million jobs were lost to China trade—originated under Clinton and implemented under George W. Bush—in just the last decade and this is rising rapidly. Meanwhile, the recently passed CAFTA, the successor to NAFTA, is poised to set off yet a third wave of high paid, mostly union job losses. Of the 12 million quality jobs lost since 1980, more than 7 million have been union jobs.
Into the vacuum created by such massive job and union membership loss have flowed corporate plant closures and relocations, runaway shops, the breakup of industry-wide bargaining, the decline of union bargaining density, and the institutionalization of concession bargaining. As a direct consequence, in the wake of concession bargaining have come the narrowing of union-nonunion wage differentials, stagnation and decline of real wages for 80 million workers, 45 million workers without health insurance, employers en masse shifting health care costs to their employees, the unprecedented dismantling of 97,000 private pension plans, a plummeting real minimum wage, new restrictions cutting overtime pay, and dramatic reductions in paid vacation and sick leave for both union and non-union workers alike.
the radar of all this has been the corresponding radical restructuring
of jobs and job markets by corporations. Today there are no less
than 60 million workers in the U.S. who are either unemployed or
who lack full time, regular, permanent employment. That’s about
40 percent of the total employed workforce.
In wage terms, de-unionization since 1980 has meant a massive transfer of income from the 100 million or so working class Americans and their families to corporations and the wealthy who live primarily off the proceeds of those corporations (i.e., stock sales, dividends, interest and rent, forms of executive compensation, etc.). For example, assuming the unionization rate today in 2005 were the 22 percent in 1980, an historical union-nonunion wage differential of about 27 percent, and an average hourly wage of $15.89 at the end of 2004 (in 2003 adjusted dollars), such conservative assumptions yield a total savings to corporations due to de-unionization alone of $99.3 billion. That’s just for 2004.
In addition, the $99.3 billion doesn’t account for additional corporate savings due to reductions in health benefits, pensions, paid leave, and other costs also due to de-unionization that easily add another 25- 40 percent to the total. Nor does it account for similar corporate savings over the preceding 24 years since 1980. The cumulative net result for the corporate U.S. since 1980 runs easily in the trillions of dollars.
The Density Debate
U nion density is a measure of the percent of total workers organized. At one level the debate between the CTW and AFL-CIO unions is about how to increase the union density rate from its current historic lows of 12.5 percent and 7.8 percent. But numbers of union members are only part of the story. The equally important issue is how those numbers of union members are distributed across industries and how much bargaining power they can wield. Bargaining density is thus about the concentration of membership in an industry. It is about whether workers are scattered across countless unions and contracts, or concentrated in fewer unions and within larger regional or national contracts. The related concept of political density is similarly important.
The split in the AFL-CIO is thus not just about organizing new members and how much money and resources to commit to that task, as it has at times been reported in the press. It is about how to concentrate unions and union bargaining power once again. The split is also about what is the best path for restoring political density. Does it makes sense to continue to throw hundreds of millions of union members’ dollars at politicians in elections as union membership freefalls? Or is it better to rebuild the union membership base before doing so.
The density debate is largely a surrogate for the even more fundamental set of differences over the way the AFL-CIO is currently structured. The CTW camp maintains the current structure is a major obstacle to implementing changes that are necessary to restore union and bargaining density, which in turn are the prerequisite for later restoring political density. The remaining AFL-CIO unions reject that position, argue the AFL-CIO is basically sound, requiring only minor reforms, and that the way to grow union membership is to reform labor laws that prevent union organizing. Thus, politics is the way to grow membership, which in essence means electing Democratic candidates to office. The question is, What comes first: the commitment of resources and action at the point of production (e.g., organizing, bargaining, strikes, etc.) or political action (electing Democrats to reform labor law)?
At no time in the past nine months of debate between the two camps, however, has it been clear what structural or organizational changes are necessary. There have been some proposals from some of the unions in the CTW camp, most notably from SEIU, about merging smaller unions into larger ones; some discussion about reducing the size of the executive council of the AFL-CIO, where a host of small, weak unions have virtual collective veto power. But the CTW camp has yet to fully clarify a comprehensive set of organizational reforms. Meanwhile, the unions remaining in the AFL-CIO fall back on their perennial proposal to commit more resources to politics to elect Democrats who will save labor by enacting labor law reform—a proposal that has been unable to get to the floor of Congress for a vote in more than 25 years and shows less likelihood of doing so with each year.
The unions most heavily devastated by the corporate offensive—both in terms of membership and concession bargaining—have been the manufacturing unions: the steelworkers, autoworkers, paper, rubber, oil, and other such unions. Yet these unions have not led the exodus from the AFL-CIO. They have remained loyal to the status quo and to the leadership team of John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, elected in 1995 and re-elected at the recent AFL-CIO convention this past July. It is appropriate to ask: why?
One might conclude that the unions suffering the greatest loss in membership would have been the most disgruntled and led the way out of the AFL-CIO—in a repeat of what occurred during the mid-1930s when the industrial unions were those that broke from the old AFL, complaining about an AFL organizational structure that inhibited organizing the unorganized in the new mass production industries. But not this time.
Instead, it has been largely those unions in the services and related industries who have driven the CTW coalition. Many of the CTW unions are the same unions that a decade ago started a mini-revolution in the AFL-CIO and began to orient toward immigrant, even undocumented workers, and forge a new kind of approach to organizing.
M any unions suffering large membership losses in their historical jurisdictions (i.e., autoworkers in auto, steelworkers in steel, etc.) have tried to recoup membership (and dues) losses by organizing outside their traditional jurisdiction. Articles 20 and 21 of the AFL-CIO constitution theoretically prevent one union from raiding the members of another under contract with a company. But the AFL-CIO constitution provides no obstacle to another union launching organizing drives where workers are not under a collective bargaining agreement, regardless of the issue of jurisdiction. Thus the Steelworkers organized bus drivers and hospital workers; the Autoworkers have organized freelance writers; Communications Workers have organized city employees. Even AFT, the teachers union, has gone after hospital workers. This has often resulted in a patchwork of balkanized bargaining agreements in a particular industry. Adding to the balkanization have been corporate strategies since 1980 resulting in the break up of once industry-wide and region-wide union bargaining agreements.
Unions like SEIU, UNITE-HERE, and others in the CTW coalition complain of the inability of the AFL-CIO to regulate this growing fragmentation of bargaining. SEIU has by far the largest proportion of hospital workers organized. When other unions come along and organize a patchwork of small bargaining units in healthcare and then negotiate from a position of weakness, standards are lowered. Often unions with a weak position in the industry settle for far less just to hold on to the membership.
This situation has been the source of why Andy Stern, president of the SEIU, has called for “forced mergers” of smaller unions in an industry with larger, dominant unions. This idea has evoked a visceral response by other unions trying to organize in new industries out of their jurisdictions. They point to the fact that SEIU at one point had no hospital workers either. They were a janitors union. So why can’t they also organize hospital workers? Sweeney and the AFL-CIO, with Articles 20 and 21, theoretically are supposed to mediate these disputes. But the constitution and the AFL-CIO as structured today has failed to do so, leaving the larger unions in the only growing sector of the economy, the services sector, increasingly frustrated.
This organizational failure goes one step further, however. SEIU and AFSCME have been raiding each other for years. But raiding has become more aggressive, in particular during the past year. The practice has also threatened to spread among other unions as well. Once again, the AFL-CIO has not been able to check this deteriorating internal trend.
Another fundamental difference between the two camps is the related question of coordinating bargaining between unions. Across many industries today, corporate management has gotten the upper hand in terms of concession bargaining and has increasingly succeeded in playing off one union against the other in situations where multiple unions negotiate with the same employer. A typical case in point is the newspaper industry where aggressive management typically picks off the weakest (or most terrorized) union in a coordinated bargaining situation, then moves on demanding even more concessions from the remaining unions. The message is clear: agree early and abandon coordinated bargaining and your union might get a little more than the others this time (or we’ll lay them off and not your members). A mini-race to the bottom occurs.
The CTW coalition unions demand that weaker unions be prevented from undermining other contracts in such situations. The CTW camp would argue the answer is to merge smaller, weaker unions—those that are willing to accept concessions more quickly and easily—into one or just a couple unions to face the same employer. However, other unions agreeing to less point to the right of union members to accept whatever contract they want. That’s basic union democracy, they argue. The AFL-CIO lacks the structure or authority to enforce such CTW demands or even the right to mediate such internal disputes.
The CTW unions have publicly expressed frustration with the current political process and the hundreds of millions of dollars in union dues money given to politicians, largely Democrats, with little or nothing to show for it the past two decades. In contrast, the remaining AFL-CIO unions point with pride to the increasingly efficient get-out-the-vote apparatus of the AFL-CIO, especially since 1995. They note, accurately so, that organized labor has increased the turnout of union voters in the last several campaigns and point out, without that effort, the vote for Democratic candidates would have been much less and the party would have suffered even greater losses. The CTW unions counter that it means little to turn out a greater percentage of union members to vote when the total membership available to vote is falling so rapidly. Turning out 80 percent today is less than turning out 40 percent 20 years ago. That money could be better spent elsewhere.
Critics of this will argue that SEIU and other CTW unions have been spending extraordinarily large sums on Democrats in recent elections so they are not increasingly disenchanted with the political process as is. But one might counter in turn they could not have been expected to do otherwise while still within the AFL-CIO structure. The true test of their attitude on this question is yet to be seen, and must await the outcome of the upcoming CTW convention on September 27 and how it formulates its own new political action strategy.
Yet another factor underlying the split has been the differences in cultural outlook and even personality conflicts between the leadership of the CTW and AFL-CIO camps. It is not a question of Andy Stern vs. John Sweeney and who will be the powerbroker appointing the new head of the AFL-CIO. Behind John Sweeney lie the AFL-CIO “hardliners” who have contributed their part to the split. They are Gerald McEntee of AFSCME, the AFT, and the CWA —and perhaps USWA’s Gerard. Nor can it be ignored that differences in culture and personality have exacerbated the internal conflicts. With nearly every critique of Stern or John Wilhelm (president of HERE) by the remaining AFL-CIO hardliners, there is an accompanying sneering reference to their college backgrounds and education. Their origins in the student and civil rights movements of the 1960s are viewed derisively in some quarters of the AFL-CIO. In terms of cultural orientation, a number of the leaders of the remaining AFL-CIO also still feel quite uneasy about the corporate campaign/community alliance approaches of unions like SEIU and HERE, and in particular the unequivocal support of the latter for organizing undocumented workers. For the CTW’s part, it is also no secret that Teamster President James Hoffa has no love lost for AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka.
The Run-Up to the Split
I n the weeks and days leading up to the split, Sweeney and the AFL-CIO attempted to bridge the gap between the two camps with concessions. Significant cuts in AFL-CIO personnel were implemented during the spring, a proposal for rebating 30 percent of unions’ per capita dues for organizing, modest changes were proposed in Articles 20 and 21 to strengthen jurisdictions and in coordinated bargaining to prevent the undermining of contracts by smaller and weaker unions, an executive committee would be added to the unwieldy AFL-CIO executive council, and so on. The CTW response, however, was “too little too late.”
Several tactical moves by Sweeney and others earlier in 2005, at the executive council’s meeting last winter and during the spring, exacerbated the internal conflicts and contributed to the inevitability of the split. Sweeney and others effectively cut off debate on the CTW unions at the council meeting, aggravating the opposition. Sweeney then unceremoniously declared himself the future winner of a new term as head of the AFL-CIO well before any voting at the convention, several weeks before it even convened. Under pressure from his hardliners, he then sent out letters to all the central labor councils and state federation bodies indicating that any union that might leave the AFL-CIO would no longer be allowed to participate in any local central labor council or state body of the AFL-CIO. For its part, the CTW unions began withholding their per capita payments to the AFL-CIO in anticipation of a split months prior as well. Both camps thus began digging in their heels well before the convention. Intensive negotiations by the few unions trying to mediate a solution at the last moment, during the weekend prior to the start of the AFL-CIO convention on July 25, produced little movement of positions by either side. On Sunday, July 24, the process began with SEIU, then Teamsters, and then other unions leaving the convention and disaffiliating from the AFL-CIO. (Although part of the CTW coalition, the Laborers International Union, remains within the AFL-CIO.)
In the Wake of the Split
F ollowing the close of the AFL-CIO convention several important developments have emerged. Within days hardliners appear to have stepped up pressure on UNITE-HERE, one of the major unions in the CTW coalition that left the convention, but had not as yet disaffiliated from the AFL-CIO. The CWA, for example, withdrew $50 million in deposits from UNITE-HERE’s labor amalgamated bank in a warning sign that other remaining AFL-CIO unions would soon follow with similar action as well.
The CTW declared a date of September 27 for its founding convention in Cincinnati. Rumors abound of possible mergers between the CTW unions, as it puts into practice its declaration of the need to consolidate unions to enhance bargaining density and power. Most likely candidates for such will be the Teamsters with one or more of the other unions.
The AFL-CIO, for its part, has begun to consider further cuts in its operations in addition to those announced this past spring, as more than 20 percent of its budget has disappeared. Meanwhile, Democratic Party leaders are scurrying around meeting with both camps, seeking assurances of future financial support.
One of the more significant developments, however, is the apparent growing resistance at the grass- roots level of the AFL-CIO central labor councils to Sweeney’s directive to prohibit CTW unions from participating in the local central labor councils and AFL-CIO state federation of labor bodies. The pressure from below has been significant enough to force Sweeney to undertake a “review” of the prior hardliners’ decision to kick out the CTW unions. That decision has momentous implications for the AFL-CIO in places like California and, in particular, the Southern California/LA area where by far the dominant, most active unions are those of the CTW. A split at this juncture would have serious consequences for many workers there, given the upcoming special elections initiated by Governor Schwarzenegger targeting them. Perhaps in places like Detroit or Pittsburgh, expelling the CTW unions might find some support. But not so in many other places.
On the other hand, the AFL-CIO’s Building & Construction Trades Department (BCTD) has gone in the opposite direction, recently ordering all non- AFL-CIO unions to leave the Department and the local building trades councils under it. This hardline move will no doubt force the Laborers International Union, part of the CTW coalition, out of the AFL-CIO and it might cause it to abandon its approach of trying to maintain a presence in both groups. There is some talk of local construction unions forming separate parallel building trades councils on the local level outside the BCTD, in order to continue to cooperate with Teamsters, Laborers, and Carpenters in the CTW.
It remains to be seen whether more stable heads in the local central labor councils and state bodies can check the hardliner union heads among AFSCME, AFT, and CWA at the national level who appear intent on widening the chasm between the CTW and the AFL-CIO. A better position by the remaining AFL- CIO unions would have been to assume a higher ground during the events leading up to and immediately following the CTW unions’ departure from the convention and their disaffiliation. Instead of driving unions further apart, strategically leaving the “door open” in various ways for one or more of the CTW unions’ eventual return would have been a far smarter approach. But that has not occurred.
The departure of the CTW unions has already produced some modest reforms by the AFL-CIO that the latter had discussed over the preceding ten years and never came close to acting on. The split has also caused a fluid situation which, at a minimum, opens the possibility for further significant reforms.
Will the CTW unions create a new form of organization and clearly chart a new course and strategy for labor at their convention—a course that will excite, energize, and mobilize the union membership base? How differently will the CTW be structured? Will they advocate fundamental organizational change while still employing old strategies and tactics? Will the process “begun at the top” expand to the membership “below” to add further impetus to the historic process now set in motion? Or will they attempt to keep the reins in hand? If the latter, the process of change and reform will slow, causing further tensions. The corporate offensive that fundamentally underlies this historic split in U.S. labor is not going away. On the contrary, it shows indications of intensifying further, producing an even greater negative impact on workers’ incomes and welfare and on union membership and effectiveness in the years ahead.
For more fundamental change to occur new levels of union membership will have to be brought into the process, new organizational forms will have to be developed to mobilize from below, and new kinds of union membership should be created that more closely integrate community allies. Initiatives recently begun to establish international bargaining with multinational companies will have to expand and deepen. A massive organizing campaign to bring in a million members each year will need to be launched—not just Wal- Mart, but a “Wal-Mart-like” campaign will be needed every year for the next ten years. Industry-wide bargaining agreements must be restored. A restructured and revitalized grass- roots approach to point of production activities will need to be launched. A new approach to political action undertaken—one that runs independent candidates against targeted politicians outside the Democratic Party, while supporting progressive candidates within it—and simultaneously targeting those in the Democratic Party that “cross the line,” such as those 15 who recently voted for CAFTA. This would not be a party at first, but an independent “united political coalition” of labor and its natural community allies—a coalition that no longer writes blank checks for any party or any candidate.
Jack Rasmus is a playwright, author, labor educator, and former union organizer for SEIU, United Steelworkers, and CWA. This article is adapted from his just released book, The War At Home: The Corporate Offensive From Reagan To Bush ( www.kyklos productions.com).
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.